A Worn Violence: On Gabrielle Bates’ Judas Goat
I take as fact that the boundaries between art and the emotional-spiritual interior are entirely permeable. That is, I believe the same motifs that engine the most fundamental human queries—of love and death, moral orientation, the individual’s place and role in the world—also manifest themselves in the human creative endeavor. Gabrielle Bates’ debut collection, Judas Goat, through its title, situates itself firmly within this tradition, and does so in reference to the specific allegory of Judas Goat, the eponymous animal used to lead sheep to slaughter, but whose own life, in the process, is spared. The one animal that survives:
To the goat, / the shackling pen is no more than another human / room.
There is a brand of guilt particular to this paradigm, and without reading a single poem the reader is confronted with, and carries with them through the collection, an underlying feeling of survivor’s guilt.
I am too dying of what / I do not know.
No doubt, the stakes along the speaker’s road through and away from the American South—to one of those liberal cities on the coast—are of life and death. Bates’ work acknowledges the survivor’s guilt inherent in this departure, this leaving-behind of the born home and its definitional danger—that is, the distinctly Southern prejudices based, for example, on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality—in favor of a community, a haven, in which to live and practice her art:
What the self forms around / cannot be undone.
And one way this collection makes felt the danger of its speaker’s journey is through the poems’ unflinching depictions of violence against humans as well as raw portrayals of animals being wounded and killed by humans. Sheep, of course, but also dogs, pigs, rabbits, cats, and cows are involved in scenes and images that neither comfort nor turn away, most often destabilizing or unsettling the speaker’s movement through a given poem:
My plan was to come back
and pet its pinky nose
but the dogs got to it that afternoon
and there was no stopping.
You know, you know,
but what, you say,
is knowing to a mind
like mine, formed
around the sight
of a blood-drain in the floor?
These sequences, metrically attuned and understated, come off less as moral commentary (“hurting or killing animals is bad”) than as a vehicle for exploration into the speaker’s own violent experiences, particularly with men:
I think of the sentence
the boy (man?) said to me
while I lowered myself
to a frameless, twin size mattress:
“your neck looks so breakable.”
And what of the God that allows such violence against women, against animals? Rooted as this collection is in scripture, one cannot experience these poems without eventually wondering about that same God who is stitched, however subtly or indirectly, into the seams of every piece in the collection:
God bless her, / look at her go, / God bless her
God bless the IUD, that little white anchor
Irish theologian and philosopher John Scotus Erigena said of the via negativa (the negative way) mode of reasoning, “We do not know what God is. God does not know what God is because God is not any created thing. Literally God is not, because God transcends being.” Imagine a painted portrait in which everything but the figure is painted, a figure defined by everything it is not. If we apply this framework to Bates’ collection, if the work is indeed a book-length via negativa (and I offer this as one of many possibilities)—who or what, can we say, is God? How do we define her?
Without violence, how do I understand my life as meaningful?
I knew God listened. And I knew where to aim.
All the time, every second. I lacked
but with aim.
These lines are poised somewhere between longing and futility, hope and disheartenment; the effort to locate God is, perhaps, the effort to locate a future in which our speaker, in which all women, can live without the worn and specific fear of violence by men. A future carved from whatever remains of compassion, of love.
When I stopped begging to be believed / and started telling the truth, no man was there.
This collection is haunted by that future, by its possibility, by the chance it may never come.
Bates, with this debut, continues an aesthetic conversation populated by the work of such luminaries as Sylvia Plath (Ariel), Louise Glück (Wild Iris), and Mary Szybist (Incarnadine): American women poets writing towards an autonomy, a personal and artistic and sexual freedom long constrained by, among other patriarchal forces, the taboo of sentimentalism unevenly and unfairly scrutinized in the poetry of women.
One might, for example, hear in Bates’ speaker’s fraught but steady relationship with God the subversive and relentless interrogation of faith in Szybist’s Incarnadine (The holy will overshadow you / therefore be nothing) and in Glück’s Wild Iris (Once I believed in you; I planted a fig tree . . . It was a test: if the tree lived, / it would mean you existed). In Bates’s refusal to turn from the daily violences that characterize heteronormative relationality one might recognize Plath, or perhaps an evolution from Plath, who tended toward allusion as opposed to direct reportage (Viciousness in the kitchen! / The potatoes hiss. / It is all Hollywood, windowless, / the fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine). Love and intimacy are handled in this collection neither by shirking sentimentalism nor by embracing it, but rather, it seems, by ignoring the historicized conversation around sentimentalism altogether. Romantic love is spoken of right next to platonic love, and these are written as inextricably connected to pain and suffering and violence—a tapestry, ultimately, of the human condition.
The voice in Bates’ poems, ever measured and inquisitive, steadfast and somber, lends ballast to her aforementioned poetic lineage, a sense that beneath the longing and the hurt and the search for answers, there is a speaker who will simply persevere, who will, like “the heart trying to leave the chest,” keep going, and by keeping going, will tend always, though it’s sometimes hard, toward human connection. Toward love.
Gabrielle Bates is a poet we’ll be reading for a very long time. Eyes forward, one hand always behind, bringing history in from the shadows, Bates offers in her poems lessons on how to move forward toward health and safety, and a thriving creative and emotional-spiritual interior, without letting go of who we are and where we came from, painful though it can be to bring ourselves, fully, into the light.