Frances Driscoll’s new collection of poems, Seaglass Picnic, feels more private to her, more personal, than her 1997 book The Rape Poems.
Yes, you read that right.
“The new poems are so open, so immediate,” Driscoll says, “but they’re not poetic at all.”
When I ask her what she means, she says, as she so often does, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe a literary critic could tell you. I’m just a poet.”
“The first day after the rape, I knew I would never write again, and a few weeks later I started writing The Rape Poems.”
It happened two days after Driscoll released her first chapbook of poems, Talk to Me. “I do this all the time, he said. / I ruin everything.” He said his name was Ray, asked her if she liked to bowl.
The poems are unbearably hard to read, but impossible to put down. They’re sharp, bright, also deceptively occasional, conversational, full of the things Ray said, the unintentionally upsetting statements of friends and strangers.
“Sodomy, Kate says, sodomy. That’s such a difficult word.” A dentist says, “If you can lie still through this, / you can lie still through anything.” The name “Ray” appears on page 134 of an unnamed book.
Though the poems speak clearly, they deal constantly with the inability to speak. That paradox runs throughout the book.
The poet still finds “no language to describe” what she describes. “Please. I could not say that word again for a long / time without immediate need of those good pills.” In the poem “Entertaining Ray,” Driscoll writes, “Inventing Ray, I fail over and over. / Nothing sounds right. Or true. Except / hunger. Terrible hunger. Even in / the womb I see him, mute mouth moving.”
Yet the book’s epigraph quotes poet Therese Plantier, “No one writes me. I am waiting,” and the responses from rape victims have poured in for 20 years. One woman wrote to Driscoll, “Thank you for finding the words to say what I could not,” since she’d never told anyone, even her husband, about being raped at 16. After a reading in Redlands, California, a girl told Driscoll she’d read the book hundreds of times, that it had kept her alive. At a Cleveland reading, a 13-year-old girl, who’d been raped when she was eight, told her mother, “She knows how I felt. She knows how I feel.”
The word “ocean” occurs 49 times in Seaglass Picnic, six times in the titles alone. Driscoll still calls Jacksonville’s beaches home.
She lives near her dear friend Bill Slaughter, the retired University of North Florida English professor and poet who first championed The Rape Poems when journals that had previously published Driscoll’s work were afraid to publish them. Before anyone else, Slaughter published a Rape Poems chapbook in his online journal, Mudlark. More recently, UNF English professor and writer Mark Ari recorded Driscoll reading from the book for his online journal, EAT Poems.
And whatever strange experience a “seaglass picnic” is, the book called Seaglass Picnic is it. There’s something playful here, a je ne sais quoi, the charm maybe only a French phrase could capture of the “I don’t know what” quality. While Driscoll’s rape poems are sharp, seaglass is smooth and rounded by time, tide and survival.
But the rape endures. Don’t ask Frances Driscoll what she thinks of words like “catharsis” or “closure.” Trauma is permanent.
“Maya Angelou said of her own childhood sexual abuse, ‘Not a day goes by that I don’t think of it.’ But she still became Maya Angelou.”
In the new poem “Addiction,” Driscoll writes, “Nobody ever gets / to fly home.” It reminds me of the Thomas Wolfe novel You Can’t Go Home Again. When I ask her about that resonance, she says “home” means “a safe return, a safe refuge.”
When I ask Driscoll about the 49 occurrences of the word “ocean,” she says, “Just make up an answer. I don’t know. I’m just the poet.” OK. So I do:
Though “ocean” sounds like the opposite of “home,” the ocean is the primordial and original home.
I still like that last sentence, but not nearly as much as what Driscoll says next: “The ocean’s a character in the book. There are other characters. One’s named Andy. Ocean is another.”
It took Frances Driscoll about seven months to write the poems in Seaglass Picnic. That’s part of what she means when she calls them “immediate.” By contrast, she worked on The Rape Poems for 10 years.
She calls The Rape Poems more poetic and Seaglass Picnic too private. She sees the irony in that statement. But in the earlier poems, she says, she focused less on being raped than on the poetic line, the right rhythm and word, the comma that could save a poem.
About Seaglass Picnic, she says, “This book isn’t my work at all. This book is my heart and my life.”