“For Your Own Good”: Leah Horlick’s Tarot-Inspired Poetry of Survival

I discovered Canadian poet Leah Horlick via an interview at Little Red Tarot, an excellent blog with an interest in queer and feminist interpretations of the cards. Horlick’s breathtaking second full-length collection, For Your Own Good (Caitlin Press, 2015), breaks the silence around intimate partner violence in same-sex relationships. Jewish tradition, nature spirituality, and archetypes from Tarot cards build a framework for healing. This book is valuable for its specificity about the dynamics of abusive lesbian partnerships, which may not fit our popular culture’s image of domestic violence. Horlick shows how the closet and the invisibility of non-physical abuse make it difficult for these victims to name what is happening to them. The book’s narrative arc is hopeful and empowering.

I recognize pieces of my family’s story in many books about abuse, but I usually have to do some mental editing and transposition. Not to discount the importance of second-wave feminism in broaching this taboo subject, but the classic texts universalize a male-against-female model of abuse that erases the distinct dynamics of female perpetration. Engulfment and gaslighting play a larger role; it’s more like being smothered by a fog, than invaded by a clearly separate attacker.  For Your Own Good made me feel seen and heard. I wonder if the title is a nod to the book of the same name by Alice Miller, one of the few feminist writers of her generation who didn’t impose a moralistic gender binary on trauma.

Compulsory heterosexuality (to use Adrienne Rich’s term) is a force multiplier for dysfunction in lesbian relationships, such as my parents’. It’s hard to recognize that your relationship is abusive when no one will confirm that it even exists. Horlick identifies this double silencing, so familiar from my childhood, in “The Disappearing Woman”:

…She doesn’t give you black eyes, and
the doctors do not see her, not in your

long hair, your good earrings, in your quiet
descriptions of pain. They would say

boyfriend. They would see husband. She
does not give you black eyes,

she is not your husband, and you do not
say anything.

In the Collective Tarot, an LGBT-themed deck that Horlick used for inspiration, the suit of Swords is called “Suit of Feathers”. Swords correspond to intellect, the element of air, and the cards in this suit have more scenes of pain and conflict than the other three. When Sword cards come up for me in a reading, it often symbolizes working with trauma memories or intellectual defenses. The multi-part poem “Suit of Feathers” in For Your Own Good depicts moments of piercing insight that motivate the narrator to leave her abuser. I pictured “suit” also as a garment made of feathers, a disguise that a fairy-tale heroine would wear to escape from a wicked stepmother or incestuous father (as in Perrault’s “Donkey-skin”). Anne Sexton’s Freudian fairy-tale poems in Transformations are part of this book’s ancestry.

Andrea Routley at Caitlin Press has kindly given me permission to reprint the book’s closing poem, “Anniversary”, below. It could be describing me today, word-for-word. (Leah and Andrea, I apologize that this blog template strips out the indents in the second line of each couplet.)

Follow the author on Twitter at @LeahHorlick, and read more excerpts from For Your Own Good in these online publications:

“The Tower”, “Little Voice”, and “Liberation”: Canadian Poetries
“Starfish” (with audio): The Bakery Poetry
“Amygdala” (with audio): The Bakery Poetry
“Bruises”: The Collagist
Video of her reading on YouTube

Anniversary

It has taken five years and fifteen hundred
kilometres to get away, and closer

to the mountains. I can see them–
every day, like I always wanted. Near,

and distant. Every day I can ask people
not to touch me–

on the bus, on the beach, or in my new kitchen.
Or I could ask them to–

which, lately, is harder. How can it still
feel so soon? She has never been

near this new body of mine–
short-haired, tattooed, very strong

and very, very fast, now. I carry a chunk of rose
quartz the size of my thumb for safety.

I have sworn to myself a life of people
who know when to stop. I promised–

and spent my first night in the new apartment drawing
circles in salt and rain, whispering

to my old self, come here. I built this
for you. I promised.

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