February 4, 2019KR BlogNewsletter

Why We Chose It

You Are Here,” by Lia Greenwell, appears in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of KROnline.

“Once, I didn’t know what it was like to feel safe. That is, I had generally felt that way, so it was invisible.” Lia Greenwell’s “You Are Here” is an understated and poetic elegy for that invisibility. From its opening lines, a description of a childhood hide and seek game on a farm that ends with the narrator fleeing a galloping horse by jumping between electrified fence wires to safety, we are there, carried along in the child’s exuberant panic of running and hiding.

It is a joy to be hidden, but disaster not to be found, in the words of D.W. Winnicott. The narrator makes her narrow escape through the fence, finding herself “in a hard tangle on the ground, breathless.” The horse looks at her from the other side of the fence. She is safe, and the momentary fear has no lingering echo.

Again and again in the first part of the essay Greenwell begins a paragraph about ordinary experiences with the word “Once.” Once as a child. . . . Once I could slip out of my body. . . . Once I was daydreaming. . . . Once I read. . . . Once I stopped. . . . Once I found. . . . Once, I didn’t know. . . .

But when the narrator is held up at gunpoint at a gas station by a man who steals her car, the easy flow of quotidian moments is annihilated and everything after that is a potential danger. The robber had been “a man walking past me until he wasn’t.”

He tore into my morning. . . . I entered a new life. Enter is the wrong word. I should say, a door closed behind me, and there I was. . . . After, I felt every second tick on my skin. What happened was a fencing-off, an inescapable you-are-hereness.

Greenwell’s essay evokes the raw fears and stuckness of trauma with a powerful and precise grace that is rarely found in personal essays about traumatic experiences. There is nothing here at all like those anodyne recipes for healing and closure. This is a poet’s meditation about her own fear; the narrator recognizes how dependent on her own fear she has become.

My fear took me seriously. It was keeping me alive. That I felt that I would die without it made my relationship with fear a kind of romance. In a poem I wrote: “Does everyone think their fear / is the most real, has the whitest teeth, the broadest shoulders?”

As the essay concludes, Greenwell begins paragraphs with the word “After” four times, as she describes her post-robbery vigilance and obsessive calculations of risk and danger.  “The scenes were horrific and violent and also improbable, though I knew probability was a fence with large gaps.” She has a new sense of the very ordinary mind-body struggles of her past. “. . . Now I think it was beautiful, like a tide going out and returning. I would always come back, and there my body would be, waiting for me like a docked boat.”

It is, after all, possible to return, if only temporarily, to the unselfconscious body that carried her through the electric fence when she was an adventurous child.  And so we come full circle: “There is my heart and lungs, which fill to my ribs, which is beneath a bit of muscle and fat, and then my skin. I feel all of it. I am not just the buzzing fence, but what is inside: the whole field.”