I’ve been thinking about sexual violence a lot these past few days, mostly because of a piece of creative nonfiction one of the women in my summer writing class brought in for workshopping. In it, she talks about the fact that she hasn’t had sex with her boyfriend for more than a week and how angry she is because he keeps refusing her. She reminisces about the great sex she had with her ex-boyfriend, even though they were otherwise a very poor match, and ends up deciding that the real problem in her life, at least sexually, is monogamy—or, more specifically, the position that she as a woman is expected to occupy in traditionally monogamous heterosexual relationships: “I can’t help but feel like being born with a vagina, which in its structure is somehow used to determine that I should be submissive, is also conveniently used to make me the prisoner of an ‘owner.’” (English is not my student’s first language, and so I have cleaned her grammar up a bit.)
When we sat down to discuss her essay in conference, we talked about that sentence and its many, many implications for a long time. I asked my student if she’d ever read Andrea Dworkin’s book Intercourse, from which that sentence sounds like it might have been quoted, but she told me no, that she’d come to that understanding of the social and political meaning of her body when she left her ex-boyfriend—this was a detail she had not yet written into the essay—for beating her up. When we were finished talking and my student had closed my office door behind her, I sat alone and marveled, not for the first time, at how many of the women I have known beyond the level of superficial acquaintance have shared with me the fact that they were survivors of some form of sexual(ized) violence. I know the statistics which make this fact less surprising than one might expect, but I am over and over again humbled by the trust they show me when they choose to reveal this part of who they are. More than that, though, I am very aware that my relationships with these women–relatives, friends, lovers, students–have helped make me who I am today, and it is sobering to think that, to the degree that they have been shaped by male violence, that violence has shaped me as well.
When I first started to write “Coitus Interruptus,” I intended the poem to be a Petrarchan sonnet, the ghost of which you can see in the first eight lines. I wanted the sestet to be about how the violence my wife and I had just witnessed shaped the lovemaking we went back to. The leap that took me from the racial violence outside my window to Tommy, a boyfriend of my mother’s who moved in with us a couple of years after my step-father packed up our station wagon and drove to wherever it was he left us for, is something that isn’t actually in the poem: the way the lead cop dragging the guy they’d just beaten into the patrol car tilted his head at one of this fellow officers. It was the same tilt of the head that the cop leading Tommy out of our apartment gave to me when he winked at me.
“Coitus Interruptus” is one of the most strictly autobiographical poems in The Silence of Men. Each instance of violence in the poem happened or was described to me more or less as I wrote it, and I think they pretty much speak for themselves. I did give a lot of thought, however—and this I think is worth commenting on—to how the poem should attend to the racial identities of the people within it, including the speaker. I remember finishing an early draft and realizing that only the non-white people were identified by their race, nationality, or ethnicity. This troubled me for a number reasons, not least of which was that I didn’t want my poem unintentionally to traffick in the kinds of racialized stereotypes of misogynist male violence involving particularly Arab and African-American men. At the same time, though, I did not want the poem to become the kind of self-conscious text in which the speaker/author announces every point of intersectionality (race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc.) that he or she embodies. I decided I wanted the speaker’s awareness of whiteness in the poem—or, rather, of his failure to attend to whiteness—to come to him in the process of telling his story, the way mine came to me in the process of writing the poem. This is why I added the words He fear white American like you to the Korean woman’s words. She really did say that, but I had not included it in the poem’s initial draft. More, it’s only after she says those words that the speaker acknowledges Tommy’s whiteness and notes that the man cleaning out the downstairs neighbor’s apartment was white as well.
The other aspect of “Coitus Interruptus” that I think is worth talking about is the beginning, which I thought for a while I might have to cut, since everything else in the poem is so focused on male violence against women. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that male on male violence is also male violence, and so I think it would be an unfortunate misreading to see the violence of that initial scene as anything other than continuous with the violence in the rest of the poem, including the speaker’s relationships with the other men in the narrative.
“Coitus Interruptus” remains, on a personal level, one of the most important poems I have written. I hope others find it significant as well.
Naked at the window,
my wife calls me
as if someone is dying, and someone
almost is, pinned to the concrete face down
beneath the fists and feet and knees of three
policemen. I’m still hard from before she
jumped out of bed to answer the question
I was willing not to ask when the siren
stopped on our block, but now I’m here, and I see
the man is Black, and how can I not
bear witness? They’ve cuffed him,
but the uniforms continue to crowd our street,
and the blue-and-whites keep coming,
as if called to war, as if the lives
in all these darkened homes
were truly at stake, and that’s the thing—
who can tell from up here?—maybe
we’re watching our salvation
without knowing it. Above our heads,
a voice calls out Fucking pigs!
but the ones who didn’t drag the man
into a waiting car and drive off
refuse the bait. They talk quietly,
gathered beneath the streetlamp
in the pale circle of light
the man was beaten in, and then
a word we cannot hear is given
and the cops wave each other back
to their vehicles, the flash and sparkle
of their driving off
throwing onto the wall of our room
a shadow of the embrace
my wife and I have been clinging to.
When I was sixteen, Tommy
brought to my room before he left
the Simon and Garfunkel tape
I’d put the previous night
back among his things. He placed it
on the bookshelf near the door
he’d slammed shut two days earlier
when he was holding a butcher’s cleaver
to my mother’s life. I wanted
to run after him and smash it at his feet;
I wanted to grab him by the scruff of the neck
and crush it in his face, to dangle him
over the side of our building with one
ankle in my left hand and the Greatest Hits
in my right and ask him
which I should let drop.
But I didn’t, couldn’t really:
he was much too big,
and I was not a fighter,
and one of my best friends right now
lives with her son in the house
where her husband has already hit her
with a cast iron frying pan,
and so there is no reason to believe
she is not at this moment cringing
bruised and bleeding in a corner
of their bedroom, or that she is not,
with her boy and nothing else in her arms,
running the way my mother
didn’t have a chance to run,
and there’s nothing I can
do but look at the clock—Sunday,
11:11 PM—and remind myself
it’s too late to call, that my calls
have caused trouble for her already.
When they pushed Tommy in handcuffs
out the front door, past where my mother sat,
quiet, unmoving, and I did not know
from where inside my own rage and terror
to pull the comfort I should have offered her,
the officer making sure Tommy
didn’t trip or run winked at me, smiling
as if what had happened were suddenly
a secret between us, and this our signal
that everything was okay. I wondered
if his had been the voice, calm
and deep with male authority—Son,
are you sure your mother’s in there
against her will?—that when I called
forced me to find the more-than-yes
I can’t remember the words to
that convinced the cops they had to come.
Sophomore year, walking the road
girdling the campus. Up ahead, a woman’s voice
pleading with a man’s shouting to stop.
A car door slamming, engine revving,
and then wheels digging hard into driveway dirt
that when I got there was a dust cloud
obscuring the blue vehicle’s rear plate.
The woman sprawled on the asphalt,
her black dress spread around her
like an open portal her upper body
emerged from. She pulled
the cloth away from her feet,
which were bleeding, and I drove
to where her spaghetti strap sandals
lay torn and twisted beyond repair.
She left them there. Then to her home,
two rooms in a neighborhood house,
and I helped her onto the bed
that was her only furniture, and filled
a warm-water basin to soak her feet,
and he had not hit her, so there was nothing
to report, but she said she was afraid
and would I sit with her a while.
We talked about her home in Seoul,
the man her parents picked for her
that she ran to America to avoid marrying,
and here she laughed—first trickle
of spring water down a winter mountain—
So instead I take from Egypt! I so stupid!
Then: What you think? Can man and woman
sleep same bed without sex? I said yes.
So, please, tonight, you stay here? Maybe he coming
He fear white American like you. I was not a fighter,
but I stayed, and in the morning when I left,
she said kamsahamnida—thank you—
and she bowed low, and she did not
ask my name, nor I hers, and though
I sometimes looked for her on campus,
I never saw her again. Just like Tommy,
whom I forgot to say before was white.
Just like the Black woman who lived downstairs
before I got married, whose cries—Help!
Please! He’s killing me!—and the dead thud
of him, also Black, throwing her
against the wall, and his screaming—
Shut up, bitch! Fucking whore!—filled the space
till I was drowning. The desk sergeant
didn’t ask if I knew beyond a doubt
that she was being beaten,
but when she opened her front door
to the two men he sent, she shrieked
the way women shriek
in bad horror movies
when they know they’re going to die,
and I almost felt sorry for calling. A few weeks
a voice on the phone: You know
what’s going on below you, right?
Please, tape a message to the door: “Mr. Peters
has been trying to reach you.” Nothing else.
And whatever you do, don’t sign it.
For a month all was quiet. Then,
coming home early from work
I walked upstairs past people moving furniture
out of her apartment. No one ever
wants to get involved, right? a thin white man
in shorts and a t-shirt whispered bitter
behind me. I kept walking
the way Tommy did when he saw me
trying to catch his eye: head down,
gaze nailed to the floor, and then he was gone,
and the questions I wanted to ask him
never became words.
That tape was all I had, till one day,
cleaning house, my mother
held it up:
Do you still want this?
I never play it.
Throw it out then.
So I did.