Movement backward in our persistence forward: healing in Conyer Clayton’s But the sun, and the ships, and the fish, and the waves

by Emma Rhodes

Emma Rhodes (she/her) is an emerging queer poet currently living on unceded Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory. Her first chapbook, Razor Burn, is forthcoming with Anstruther Press. You can find her at emmarhodes.net.

But the sun, and the ships, and the fish, and the waves
Conyer Clayton
Anvil Press
2022, 96 pp., $18.00

 

Conyer Clayton’s second full-length, But the sun, and the ships, and the fish, and the waves, is a collection of surrealist, dream-like prose poems. The poems highlight the painful and nightmarish aspects of surviving serious trauma—questioned memories, the intense fear of not being believed, self-gaslighting—but ultimately assert that no matter how unbelievable or haunted readers, particularly survivors, may feel, they are not alone. They are believed: Clayton dedicates the work to anyone “with dark dreams and questioned memories.” Moreover, the collection honours resilience. Though trauma may seep its way into every moment, thought, dream—we continue. The title of the collection centres this ongoing resilience. The repeated ands signal constant continuation. There is always another “and.” As a survivor with PTSD and night terrors myself, I am thankful to have read this book, and to have the privilege to write about it here. Clayton’s words offer a sense of community in what is a terrifyingly isolating experience for so many people.

  … no matter how unbelievable or haunted readers, particularly survivors, may feel, they are not alone.

The order of the collection mimics the imperfect process of healing. The collection’s opening line, in the poem “Bumpers,” is “it ends.” This first poem is also cyclical: “an island is round. There are no bridges. You can’t turn around on a road like this.” Trauma irreversibly changes how a survivor perceives the world, and Clayton immediately drops readers deep into this experience of inescapable doom, of feeling stuck in a painful cycle with no opening to get out. It may be true that there is no going back, but it is not the end—in fact, it is only the beginning: the first page. There is a whole collection full of ands to go, and ands beyond the end of the book, too. 

The collection’s final poem, “Brand,” signals this movement beyond itself. It is one of the only poems in the collection where the speaker directly interacts with someone else. There are many men, sisters, and parents throughout the book, but the speaker is often disconnected from them. In “Brand,” the narrator has a conversation with Dionne Brand where Brand intentionally listens to the speaker, and then teaches her: “See the TV? It is the poem. The living room is the poem. Now you must put the words inside, but you cannot go inside yourself. You must stay out here.” The speaker cannot go inside the poems herself; she must remain, she must continue, outside and beyond the poems—beyond the collection we read. In many poems throughout the collection, the speaker is faced with others who cannot hear her, do not understand her, or do not believe her. It is significant then that the speaker’s interaction with Dionne Brand in the closing poem is a positive one, as it signifies a movement from isolation to connection and mentorship. Brand’s lesson enacts the “and” of the title; its last lines extend past the book. 

The speaker cannot go inside the poems herself; she must remain, she must continue, outside and beyond the poems—beyond the collection we read.

The movement of the book, of having no solid end but rather lines that move beyond themselves, illustrates the fluid nature of healing. Healing, like waves (a prominent image in the collection), continuously moves back on itself as it moves forward. Untitled, partly crossed-out sections spatter throughout the book. These untitled interjections question and invalidate themselves, often through the use of strike-throughs. The first of these sections reads, “My body accordion folded into an old oak barrel and laid in a row with the others. My skin splits like the wood splits, the wood splits, the wood splits.” What is ultimately said focuses on the wood, not the splitting body, removing the individual person from the narrative. This discounts, and in so doing inflicts more violence on, the violated and traumatized person. The last untitled interjection, though, arrives at a concluding focus on growth and continuation: “The wood splits, the splitting wood, / the hornets and / / the purple vining flowers.” The splitting wood is now crossed out in favour of growing vines. 

These untitled pieces are, like healing, nonlinear and disjointed—they turn back on themselves. They question their own memories. For instance: “Their teeth slip out between their lips. This is a mouth I do not want. Red light, green light, blinking. Is this what swallows me in the end?” The question “is this what swallows me in the end?” is unclear when the existence of a mouth in the first place is crossed out. This untitled piece enacts the self-gaslighting and sense of intense loneliness that many survivors experience: the mouth is there, but it is removed from the main narrative, rendering the experience of being swallowed entirely individual—not even the party who swallows is there. The speaker is entirely alone. 

A major theme in all of the poems is one of not being believed—not even by yourself. The collection’s surrealist nightmare style is so effective because it is easy to not believe yourself when what you see are men walking into “the ocean. Their skin … deep blue, and their hands [falling] apart like clay.” In “Visible Proof,” strangers’ fists come out of the speaker’s mouth. She is attacked by unavoidable punches. She is “covered with fingers,” but her “skin is pristine. Nothing makes a mark.” In “Switch,” the speaker runs through the house trying to turn on lights, ending with “[the] lights are off. The lights are off, but they were on before.” These dreams where nothing works, where proof disappears, are the manifestations of the fear of not being believed, of being deemed crazy. For many survivors, the only “proof” they have is the assertion that what happened happened. But too often they are asked for “visible proof.”

Family is a heavy presence in this collection, but the speaker also remains disconnected from family throughout. The mother in “Memories of Waxen Men” sneaks out of the bedroom to turn up the heat, but the speaker does not realize it is her mother doing this until the end of the poem. She asks, “How had I never noticed her? I am ashamed of my past. … my mother is present but invisible to me, all the more.” Poems such as these fill the collection with a longing to connect, but the speaker remains stuck in a disconnected dreamscape. This disconnect from family is most explicitly evident in the poem “Predictably.” The speaker tries to tell her family “the truth,” but she is silenced by “their eyes,” then a brother she does not have. Everybody moves around the speaker and disregards her; there is a baby she feels guilty for not knowing. The scene continues to fall apart, spiralling into constant interruption, neglect, dismissal, until home itself is lost: “Where is that? Where is that? Oh god, no one believes me.” 

Amidst these isolating and longing poems, there is still a string of fierce resilience. In “Transmission,” the speaker repeats that she is not afraid even while being bitten by a creature in the water. In “The Missing Parts of Me,” the speaker is bitten by an animal and is left with a stump of an arm and she maintains that it did not hurt that much: “It’s only the bone that hurt …  My skin stopped sending signals years ago … I don’t miss the missing parts of me.” These bittersweet poems are centred around physical violence—being bitten and eaten, consumed—and yet their conclusions are both ones of resilience. The speaker is not undone by these experiences, and she doesn’t miss what is lost. She survives beyond and not in spite of harm done; she continues to exist separately from what has consumed her. 

Amidst these isolating and longing poems, there is still a string of fierce resilience.

Finally, themes of loss of innocence, being stuck in childhood, and of healing the inner child persist throughout the collection. The child speaker in  “Growth” has a mole that becomes a cape, then a blanket. She concludes, “I will always be this silent girl wrapped in her own skin.” Later, in “The Missing Parts of Me,” the speaker is disconnected from her skin, in a way healing the child who was once trapped. In “Automatic,” the speaker tries, but ultimately cannot, save her sister who is locked and dying in a car: “I’m calling the police … getting younger every moment. The bedroom curtains close, but no one comes outside.” The child has less agency, less knowledge, and is more susceptible than an adult. In the closing poem, “Brand,” many children follow the speaker into Dionne Brand’s home. As Brand teaches the speaker that she must continue past the poem, past what exists in this book, all of the children are taught the same thing by virtue of their presence as witnesses. Clayton’s collection grapples with feeling stuck in the past—replaying and re-imaging traumatic moments and the feelings that arise from them—but it also carries the children along in its process of healing, ultimately caring for the inner child as well. 

The surrealist dreamscape of Conyer Clayton’s latest collection provides one of the most honest and visceral depictions of living and slowly healing from CPTSD that I have ever read. While the collection can be deeply triggering and terrifying at times, it is ultimately a testament to intentional and persistent survival. Clayton’s collection is an affirmation that even when you think you are making no sense—that you’re paranoid or crazy or annoying—you are believed, and you are not alone. The book does not end with a final “I am healed” point; instead, it both begins and ends with continuation and fierce resilience. Before entering too deeply into the text—its depictions of trauma, the feeling that the world will end right there—the anaphoric title lets readers know that life will always continue. There is always another “and.” 


 


Emma Rhodes (she/her) is an emerging queer poet currently living on unceded Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory. Her first chapbook, Razor Burn, is forthcoming with Anstruther Press. You can find her at emmarhodes.net.

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