Tammy Robacker’s Villain Songs (ELJ Editions, 2017) is a book of reclamation and redemption. This collection doesn’t just acknowledge the forces that shape us; it drags these forces into the light. Acknowledging, accepting, and then surmounting a traumatic childhood is a litmus test of the resiliency of the human psyche. Villain Songs accomplishes this feat with a deftness of craft, an honesty of intent, and a generosity of spirit. Robacker’s language, steeped in religion and myth, creates an avenue for her own salvation while invoking a timelessness that gives voice to all whose song has been suppressed.
In “Brünnhilde’s Solo,” Robacker establishes the power and resiliency of that voice when she writes:
Uncrushed on the velvet
fainting sofa, I rise in flash
and glint. The evening is gowned
for gold lament.
In Villain Songs, Robacker asks us to bear witness to both the beauty and the strength that comes from the recreation of self, as well as to celebrate the song that emerges from that new self. Robacker concedes that this rebuilding of the self can be arduous, but it is a task that is necessary for survival. She renders this process poignantly in “Proud Flesh”:
But I will only carry the living wound
to here. This burned out star. Now I take it,
like heirloom plates, and break it apart.
Crush the taboo. Examine the fragments
dead pan. Then smash it again.
To be a new thing. To be kintsukuroi.
How the Japanese celebrate the broken
by weaving it back together in mosaic,
with love’s molten thread.
Essential to the power of this poem is the idea that, while forces beyond one’s control may have damaged an individual, it is the act of accepting that reality, and remaking it into a new truth, that is redemptive, and maybe even beautiful.
One taboo addressed in this collection is the sexual abuse of an innocent, a child, at the hands of her grandfather. In “Unwash Me in Front of My Grandfather,” the abuse is powerfully and unflinchingly rendered as an incantation to turn back the clock:
Pull the washcloth out
of this small dirty place.
unclean my pits.
Unrub my thighs, Mother,
drag this all back
through milky time
Stop the water now,
from running over me.
Use both handles.
Turn them off.
Turn him off.
Turn this back.
The simplicity, and yet utter impossibility, of the speaker’s request is particularly heart-rending given the implications of the mother’s unwitting complicity in this event. There is no greater tragedy than when adults, especially parents, who are tasked with the protection of children, fail in their duty.
Although the narrative of Robacker’s poems can be agonizing, she adroitly avoids the pitfalls of self-pity and blame with a muscular lyricism that is beautifully crafted and brutally honest. From “The Deer in December,” a father’s absence is addressed in a slant that is as subtle as it is striking:
Dear brown-eyed, remorseful
creature still coming around
for a daughter’s vestiges.
My forgiveness parcels itself out
in pinchfuls of seeds.
I let you feed
on my pale winter
kale and weeds.
Through Robacker’s eyes, the dichotomous desires to mend bonds and to punish transgressions are equally avowed and given their due.
Beyond being a document of abuse and recovery, Villain Songs is a testament to the complicated bonds of love and family. It recognizes our sometimes irrational desire to maintain a relationship with an individual who has harmed us gravely, and thus, whose only claim to us is one of blood. Robacker’s “An Experiment,” delves into this warped sense of need through the inspired juxtaposition of the profane experiments in a Nazi concentration camp and a personal confrontation with an abusive family member. The poem poignantly concludes:
I called my Opa once in 1994
some years after my mother died
to confront him for what he did.
I never could. In broken German
I deciphered my Oma was dead.
Bad heart, he offered in static
overseas. I love you. Come home
to me. And I believed him all over
again. I will try, I wept.
Complex are the ties that bind, capable of clouding rational thought and reason in a thick miasma of regret and guilt—the ultimate Stockholm Syndrome.
Robacker’s Villain Songs also transcends the purely personal to explore a universality of the female reality—the experience of being prey. Every time we warn our daughters, and remind ourselves, the rules that we have come to live by—don’t leave your beverage unattended at a party; don’t walk the same route at the same time; don’t park in an unlit lot; don’t ride an elevator alone—we are acknowledging that status quo. Robacker’s poem, “Jane Doe,” captures the essence of the being prey in a predatory world:
To be a female
among such creatures
was like the slow doe
in open meadow
who blundered off:
A perfect shot.
In using hunting as a metaphor, Robacker draws a shrewd parallel to the stalking, or grooming, of a female target. The innocence of the deer stands in stark contrast to the cruel indifference of the hunter.
Ultimately, Robacker understands that the experience of her poetry can allow readers a measure of comfort in solidarity. Providing affirmation to those who have experienced the harsher aspects of being female is an important element of Villain Songs. An education in what we can expect as women in our culture begins during childhood, as an almost essential part of being female; an unfortunate but necessary inheritance passed down from mother to daughter. In, “I Did Not Like the Men,” one consequence of being female is addressed:
When they whistled at my mother
I was four years old the first time
we walked holding hands
on the sidewalk they called down
from the top of a tall building
I never heard such caterwauling
Ignore them Ignore them she said
In Villian Songs, Robacker refuses to ignore them; she exposes them. A society that has learned to tolerate the objectification of half of its citizens is a society that needs a wake-up call. Robacker’s Villain Songs provides the voice, and the emotional fortitude, to make that call. It is through that voice that redemption is found, for the writer and reader alike.
Robacker leaves us, ultimately, with a measure of hope. From “Fraktur: A House Blessing” she concludes:
The afterward, a kind
dinner. Grief pulling
out his empty chair
from table’s head.
The soiled linen
of what is said and done
lifted from us.
In this poem, Robacker enacts an essential truth of this collection: that the acknowledgment of our past can free us from its encumbrances. She then shows us how, with that freedom, we can begin to sing our own songs.