The third collection from Leslie Contreras Schwartz, Who Speaks for Us Here, is both a question and answer for silenced women. These poems are both a warning and a guide about how to hush the haunting of trauma, how to master the art of carrying multiple selves inside of us. The women in these lyrical fragments are both speaker and object, choir and audience, and they direct us through the psychological pieces of the female mind. Together they make up a mirror, shattered but persistently reflective, showing the absolute truth through the cracks.
The beginning and end of this work contain notes on dissociation versus possession, sex work versus sex trafficking, and briefly explain the nuances of personality development and internalized beliefs. Some of the poems reference migrant children, missing and never found, and touch upon the experience of entering a situation in a certain way and not being able to ever come back the same. Contreras Schwartz tiptoes through taboo escapades of abuse, kidnapping, and payment, and cautions that “the world is the monstrous thing.” Sometimes we are unaware if we are helping or hurting people with our actions; we can delude ourselves into protective patterns of thinking, convincing ourselves that we are the martyrs, the saviors, in total control. We are otherwise ordinary people outside of our twisted methods of survival, secret and buried.
Some semblance of distance is maintained with images of horses and hummingbirds, shackled and small, wet-eyed and wild. It is still somehow easy to imagine ourselves as both animal and caretaker, both starving and providing. Who takes care of all of our broken pieces, buries or sweeps away the dust of what has been used? And by take care, do we mean dispose of or put back together? Our speakers in these pages often allude to hopelessness on the long road of healing, “waiting for rest so long it no longer waits.” We do not hold our breath for someone to save us, but instead find ways to try to save ourselves, in spirit if not in body.
“Isn’t this how we talk here?
Show them the wounds
we don’t remember making”
Contreras Schwartz also dedicates breath to the burden of baggage from the generations before us. Derogatory phrases such as “demon child” and “ugly thing” are passed down through lines of women, as if we inherit unholiness and shame. We spill grief over the trials and dangers that our parents and children face, their unbelievably resilient coping, healthy or poisonous. Our predecessors may have spent sad days sewing to make clothes from nothing, cooking never according to expectation. Our offspring are the unwilling stars of active shooter drills, proud of their silence. Sometimes quiet saves our lives, even if it is because our mouths seem stitched shut.
One particular poem deposits us among patients in a mental hospital, and focuses on the individualism versus connection of trauma victims. Everyone has different experiences, yet compares and ranks stories, creating a realm of competition in which only the slights deemed the worst are viewed as deserving of aid. “Isn’t this how we talk here? / Show them the wounds / we don’t remember making,” our speaker states, allowing their body to tell their story and weigh their worth. Perhaps what happens to one person is not objectively as bad as what happened to another, but Contreras Schwartz assigns us all value, does not undermine one troubled life to highlight another. She holds hands and words out in a balanced healing.
We all share a universal hollow wish for better lives for the ones we love. We do not want to have to fake anything, utilize our terrible yet amazing ability to compartmentalize as a means of escape. We do not want to come to terms with not being wanted, with being “the shadowed part of the earth that holds / up the lit part.” This is a collective fear that we each struggle with alone, as it is difficult to navigate the dark landscapes of our minds.
Yet, as Leslie Contreras Shwartz reminds us, comfort can exist in loneliness and suffering. Humans are versatile creatures able to do many things despite our limitations, self-imposed or otherwise. We do not have to share our stories, to bear witness, to hold ourselves to an arbitrary timeline for getting better. We have permission to move forward and to regress; it is all progress. We can live with our eyes either open or shut. “I choose nobody but myself to see this,” the one who speaks for us writes, at once morbid and freeing. “I knew it would hurt and I stayed.”
Keep up with this stunning poet’s journey at https://www.lesliecschwartz.com.
(Skull + Wind Press, Poetry, 2020)
BETHANY MARY has studied both health science and creative writing, and currently works as a medical scribe in Alabama. She was once the poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and read submissions for Spark: A Creative Anthology and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. She rants and shares photos of her ragdoll cats on Twitter @bethanylmary.