Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews all this can be yours by Isobel O’Hare. (University of Hell Press)
Erasure poetry (sometimes also called redaction poetry) is the process of taking pre-existing words, often in the form of a statement or original literary text, and blocking out the majority of what’s written to create a new meaning and, thus, a new art. While not necessarily political in nature, the form has gained popularity as a response to both our current administration and social justice movements, such as #MeToo. One especially effective collection in this style is Isobel O’Hare’s all this can be yours. They’ve taken the meant-to-be apologetic statements of high-status, celebrity men accused of sexual misconduct, assault, and rape, and narrowed in on a buried truth within each of them. When O’Hare first began their work, they posted many initial examples via social media channels, causing immediate notice. Within just a few days, such posts rapidly garnered national and international attention in various literary and non-literary circles, as well as with victims caught in the fray of celebrity bad behavior, like Rose McGowan. The opportunity for new erasures just kept coming.
O’Hare lays out the larger mission they’re attempting with all this can be yours in the opening section of the collection entitled “Catalyst.” They explain that when a public figure releases an apology it is the wrong move because it’s not an actionable step, whereas making amends is. The difference between the two is making “amends involves laying out in detail the wrong one has committed and the work that will be done to make it right.” Apology, on the other hand, begs forgiveness for misdeeds committed, simply by asking. Apologies move the focal point back to the perpetrator—and in a way attempts to preserve the power their status provides them by transitioning the labor back to the accuser. In other words, “amends is to restorative justice what apology is to damage control.” These men sought forgiveness as a way for them to stay in power; the erasure form of poetry condenses the focus on a core message to illuminate how hollow their words of apology were from the beginning. These new poems erase the men who erased women on so many levels.
The collection’s progression creates an overlying, compelling narrative. “Catalyst” puts the content into context. Had I read the whole book without first reading “Catalyst,” I would have still liked it. But with the inclusion of this section, I finished the book, thought more about it within the larger framework of our societal shortcomings, and then read it again. And again. I’ve read it three times with plans for more. Each read becomes more impactful.
After “Catalyst,” we get to the bulk of the book in “Apology.” O’Hare blacks out swaths of powerful men’s apologies, uncovering the root of the larger issue in our society. “Apology” is further broken into four subsections—”A Question I Run From,” “Culture of Demons,” “I Recall Differently,” and “She Never Said No.” These sections showcase weak apologies; how the men deflect blame, trying to implicate society at large rather than their individual actions. Next, we find the section “Apologia,” where defenders of the accused try to speak to the character of the men as if the decent part of someone’s life should cancel out their horrible, hurtful transgressions. This also speaks to those of us who are disappointed when our heroes turn out to be shitty, terrible people. One poem puts it simply: “I feel very bad for the movies,” like our entertainment should outweigh the horrors women have to endure. To round out the collection, a small section, “In Conclusion” offers deeper insight. It might have been discouraging to know the original apologists are still respected (in some circles) and working. That their milquetoast, flimsy words served as soothing balms, and they were given the forgiveness they sought (from whom, I have no idea). This final section actually uplifts, serving as a call to action from those willing to stand up against the systemic problem that has been a burden for so many who have labored alone.
One of the apologies O’Hare has edited is Louis C.K.’s—actually edited and erased many times over. Last year, multiple women came forward and told their stories about how C.K. had masturbated in front of them without consent. In his apology, he uses the words “my dick” numerous times. This is coming from a comedian who had a whole bit about how using the phrase “the N-word” simply puts the actual word into the listener’s head. He obviously understands the power of words, so it’s as fascinating as a car wreck to see he used his genitals as the focal point for his abuse, and then again for his apology. The use of “my dick” lodges the (unfortunate) image in our minds and, as O’Hare explains in the “Catalyst” section, this isn’t a moment to bring the attention back to him (or his genitalia)—it should have been a moment of making amends. (Why can’t these guys just get that the apology is for the victim, about the abuse about the wrongs committed and not anything else about he who committed them?) Adept at seeing the truth behind the words, O’Hare condenses each apology down to a visceral experience, pushing their message deeper into our consciousness. It’s these newly devised messages that remain; all that remains of the original is the pathetic intent behind empty words.
I referenced Louis C.K. above, but actually there is no mention of his or any other celebrity’s name in all this can be yours. O’Hare made a point of removing the names because the “individual perpetrators are symptoms of the underlying issue. These problems—of rape, abuse, and harassment—are not limited to one man.” If they showcased the names on each apology, it might have dated this work not only to a specific time, but also to a specific situation and circumstance rather than opening up the wider conversation. As I flip through each selection, again and again, the impact of such a scope is clearly felt.
all this can be yours is powerful and burrowing, cutting through all the nonsense and showing the reader the buried truth in each statement. By holding these men accountable, O’Hare takes the flimsy non-apologies and strips away the damage control and image management to expose what the men are actually concerned about protecting. These “apologies” are another way for the men to push the responsibilities back to the women they’ve abused. In a way, O’Hare accepts the premise of these statements that demands action from the victims, but rather than absolving the abusers O’Hare hands the work right back to them.
Buy from University of Hell Press [all proceeds from the sales of this book go to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) & Futures Without Violence]