(Broken Sleep Books, 2021)
Reviewed by Kitty Donnelly
The first thing that strikes me about Day Mattar’s first pamphlet is that there are no indications in the work itself that it’s actually a ‘first pamphlet’. By this I mean there is nothing hesitant or tentative about Springing from the Pews. It is a self-contained, self-assured piece of work, bold in theme and form. While it examines fear and uncertainty, neither of these are evident in the accomplished writing.
Springing from the Pews is a tapestry of interwoven narratives, literary mediums (including the acts of a play, the use of a journal, and the recurring title poem that appears four times throughout, although altered by its protagonist ‘LAMB’s experiences.) There is nothing disjointed about this blending of forms and the poet keeps tight reigns on the subject matter and the manner of its delivery.
To say Springing from the Pews is a pamphlet about childhood sexual abuse would be too simplistic. Certainly this is a subject dealt with in a complex, psychological and sensitive manner, but there are other important themes too. For example, how society views victims; the expectation we put on children and our lack of understanding of children’s often contradictory desires, needs and how these increase their vulnerability to exploitation. Mattar deals with these issues both blatantly (‘…WHAT WAS MISSING FROM YOUR LIFE THAT YOU’D MISTAKE RAPE/FOR LOVE’) and subtlety, for example the painful image of a child colouring in a picture of a clown and presenting it as a gift to the perpetrator who has just raped him.
For a short pamphlet, the amount of questions Mattar’s writing generates is phenomenal. These are questions directly asked within the text and also on its peripheries. ‘LAMB’, the central character, is quizzed, accused, doubted and scrutinised. This is sometimes by authority figures, a chorus of unknown voices, by parents, the perpetrator of the abuse, but mostly it is ‘LAMB’ interrogating ‘LAMB’.
The concept of an ‘audience’ works well on a visual basis, for example the stage set where ‘a murmuration of origami birds oscillates’. At one point, ‘LAMB’ symbolically drops a pebble into the audience (‘the audience ripples the ripples grow/ and grow’). This reminds me of the awful statistic that every paedophile will have a life-changing impact on around ninety other people, both directly and indirectly. I wondered if the stage set could also represent the stripping of privacy a victim can feel, and the processes in society that lead to the physical and mental interrogations of victims.
The complex nature of desire is explored in this pamphlet. The gulf between love and desire is sometimes wide: how desire can be used as a tool for abuse, how it can be punitive. It also reveals how desire combined with love, or even just consent, can be tender, exciting and ambiguous (‘…a boy with turquoise hair/brings me turquoise roses’). There are references to the reality of sex, with all its gritty risks (eg. ‘gimp sling’, ‘PrEP’, following ‘cock into the beach toilets’). These sometimes brutal images exist as part of a poetic narrative that includes stunning insights and beauty (eg ‘let me touch/ the butterfly trapped under the silk/ pulled over your hipbone’).
In order to fully connect with your own response to trauma, a creative distance from it is required. Mattar achieves this skilfully through the use of metaphor, allegory and the use of characterisation. Springing from the Pews transcends ‘the confessional’. Mattar switches between the sublime lyric and quotidian language in order to play with the nature of the ‘poetic’, leaving many questions for the reader.
In the final chapter of [Journal], Mattar states
….poetry won’t make rape beautiful,
rape isn’t a poem, it’s a mountain
Springing from the Pews is a pathway up this mountain. While poetry can’t erase rape, it is, in Mattar’s pamphlet, the opposite of rape: insightful, inclusive, generous, self-questioning. To write about trauma is not only to reflect your own experience, but to give a voice to others who relate to that experience. It is our ability to live beyond our negative experiences that defines us: to transform them and own then and shape them into literature, and Springing from the Pews is a perfect example of this resilience and skill.
Reviewer – Kitty Donnelly
You can pick up a copy of ‘Springing from the Pews’ by Day Mattar from Broken Sleep Books here