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In 'Intimacies, Received,' moments of intimacy come tangled with moments of violence

Copper Canyon

The way in which we present ourselves to the world is not always the way in which we see ourselves. That gap widens when it meets the constant memory of violence.

In her second poetry collection Intimacies, Received Taneum Bambrick comes to terms with that gap in her life — understanding how she has protected herself from the burden of a traumatic past by simply daring to remember it.

As a storyteller, Bambrick is vivid and meticulous. The poems in this collection are set mainly in southern Spain — the poet's memory of an assault in high school colliding with immediate details of the countryside, intimate gatherings, and sex as she travels through Spain years later. As she writes of new lovers, stories from her past emerge simultaneously as a way of framing her new reality for readers. This dance — back and forth — is a subtle but clear way of showing how difficult it is to unfurl from the past and build a new future.

An early poem in the collection, titled "Saying I am a survivor in another language," considers the moment before two people have sex with each other for the first time:

We fill our mouths with salami and wine.
I am careful, peeling wax paper off glazed sponge cake

baked by nuns who live down the street.

Such acts of mindfulness show up throughout the book, situating the reader inside the poet's own unease. Bambrick writes: "One nun, this morning, took my hand in hers // while she told me that the most important ingredient / is the silence of prayer." The reader is so grounded in this moment of silence that we tense — and pray — alongside the poet.

She then brings us to the reason for that prayer: After her assault, she notes, "I was terrified. I didn't touch a man for seven years" — the memory of assault threatening to break through that present moment before the poet is about to have sex. But the poem ends: "You are the first person to not know this." So along with Bambrick, we move on.

Still, this moving on comes with its baggage, and Bambrick points to it assertively, even when those around her try to shame her for it. For instance, a poem titled "Willow Street" begins:

When after four years, C left,
she said I seemed unresolved about men.
That a single tragedy kept me
from fully discovering sex

But then the poem shifts, and Bambrick does what she does best — pointing directly to the complex nature of passing time.

We used to pull our hair off a brush
and drop it out the window above our bed.
On a tree in the neighbor's yard, a bird
stomped that hair into its nest.

Just like a tragedy — each strand of hair is a memory, and each memory has an impact. Even if the poet is no longer attached to that memory, it leaves a mark wherever it lands.

Other poems shift in this same way: Bambrick presents the reader with a moment, and then a detail takes us back to her past tragedy — it's memory infiltrating the present. In "Date," the poet is looking at two swans paddling in a fountain at a restaurant, and then: "From the bar, you return with a friend / who owns a gelato chain in the city." This friend laughs when the poet says she loves ice cream, and he says to her date in Spanish: "I could eat her face, I could eat her face. / Could she get an American girl for me?" Suddenly, the swans have reached the end of the fountain and "there isn't space / for the birds to turn their long bodies." The innocence of ice cream is lost as the poet is once again reminded of when she wasn't free.

This non-linear experience of trauma is best expressed in the poet's lyric essay "Alligators" in which she recounts the time when she was assaulted, and all the subtle moments of violence that led up to it. "Because of the way bodies negotiate around trauma, most of what I remember about the man who assaulted me are the things he did beforehand. I registered them as romantic," she writes. The poet was 17, and learned to cope with ensuing panic attacks in therapy.

The most powerful part of the essay, though, is when she writes about the Spanish word for monster. She learned it early in life, when teaching her students about alligators, but later in Spain, when she hears her partner use it cheerfully, she wants to disappear. She doesn't speak to him for days, turning him into the man who assaulted her. Eventually the partner realizes what may have happened and tells her, "in Spain the word monster can also mean friend."

In this way, Bambrick masterfully portrays how moments of intimacy can represent moments of violence — and how difficult it can be to untangle the two from each other. As the poet moves through Spain — looking at art, meeting her partner's family, coming to terms with her queerness — the memory of assault sits deep within her understanding of herself.

Still, Bambrick refuses to let it define her life entirely. At every moment where the past infiltrates, the poet strikes back with the determination to own her present. In some poems she references an illness — an infection — after having sex with her partner. "Some bodies are not compatible. / It can take years for a women's to adapt," she writes in her poem "Partners." As she adapts, throughout the relationship, she learns just how long she has been adapting against herself.

And so, the poet is not afraid of pointing to all the ways in which she has tried to harm herself by refusing intimacy. Her lyric essay ends, "Nobody helped me through my fear or taught me to stop acting in ways that were occasionally irrational, even violent." But knowing also that she did so to protect herself, she continues: "I survived. Because nothing worse could happen than my not wanting my life."

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Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.