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The Poem as a Therapeutic Tool

It is no wonder that poems from “She Wasn’t Damaged” are used by mental health practitioners and in centers in Israel dedicated to survivors of sexual violence.
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February 22, 2024

While Hagit Vardi has published five books of poetry in Israel, “She Wasn’t Damaged” is her first book of poems translated into English. Reading the more than 50 poems —  in both Hebrew and English — in this slender volume, one cannot help but recall Audre Lorde’s iconic definition of poetry in “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”: “I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience …” and later: “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.”  While Lorde goes on to speak of the “quality of the light” that enables women to recreate their lives by way of finding language, it’s for the purpose of “survival and change” and “action.” Lorde continues: “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” 

In Vardi’s powerful book, it’s not so much about the so-called “nameless,” but about that we wish did not have a name —sexual trauma, incest and rape by a father. This is poetry that traces a journey from victimhood to empowerment — poetry that is both declarative and therapeutic, poetry that avails itself to the reader as an offering; by naming, by declaring, by confrontation via the written word, Vardi both charts and creates a path toward self-healing. The poems are performative, as is the progression itself. On YouTube, Vardi has posted a video of a somewhat truncated version of the book that offers English subtitles.  And a theatrical staging of the book premiered at the 2015 Tel Aviv Citizen Here Festival, which showcases work about human and civil rights.

Many of the poems employ the use of Speaker and Chorus, and within the poems, we move from third person to second and first person as if to find different entrances to speak of the unspeakable.

Many of the poems employ the use of Speaker and Chorus, and within the poems, we move from third person to second and first person as if to find different entrances to speak of the unspeakable. These voices would seem to mirror interior spaces that exist within the victim of abuse. In the first poem, “The Abyss,” we read the words of Speaker: “The void of the mouth/Darkness of dried-out hollow eyes/ A muted scream of a baby girl/ Falling from innocence …” and ends with “A viper’s venom trickles/ Into the gaping wound/ The abyss.” It is clear, stark, powerful. As readers, we confront the crime, feeling as helpless as the victim. Although it begins from a drowning place, as abstract as an abyss might seem, the poem is concrete. With precision and horror, it speaks of the absolute defenselessness of a girlchild. No promises of silver linings here. 

The book’s title poem describes a mummy-like body, named “The Mummy” — as not “maimed … Save for a wounded heart/ As the strips dry out/ Her hollow expression remains/ Pinned to the ground.” We can infer that body recovers, but we are told the heart is “wounded.”  Perhaps like a mummy, she is bereft of life, deprived of actual being. 

The following poem, to be spoken by “Chorus” and “Single Chorus Member” asks for “Just the Facts” — one imagines the world outside the victim asking for “evidence,” were she able to point out the perpetrator. Rape kits probably did not exist when Vardi was a child. 

In “Three Baby Girls,” the Speaker uses the first person to name the parts, to acknowledge a fragmentation of the self: The three parts being the “Muted”, the “Mummy,” and the one “cast away in shame.” 

In a later poem, the Speaker — using both first and third person — suggests that this was a secret kept for “sixty years.”

It’s directly followed by “And Earth Was Not Without Form and Void,” which appears to be a reworking of Genesis that also makes it clear that the perpetrator, the father in this case, is dead: “His spirit no longer hovers/Today.” This powerful linguistic and cultural resonance returns three poems later, when Vardi invokes one of the holy prayers for Yom Kippur, the Avinu Malkeinu, but with the substitution of one letter (the “k” sound, for which there are two distinct letters), “our father, our king,” becomes “our father, our aggressor.” 

I studied Biblical Hebrew (and Aramaic) in graduate school. I attended an Ulpan when I lived in Israel; watching the video, I felt the incredible power and musicality of the writer’s mother tongue. Vardi has spoken about the differences between the languages — how many more words were required for the English. In the poem quoted above, she notes that the Hebrew words for “our king” and “our aggressor” are homonyms — and in fact it’s just one letter that requires substitution to turn “our king” into, as Vardi said, “the one who beats you up.”

In the prayer, we are asking to be redeemed. In the last line of Vardi’s poem: “We will redeem and save ourselves.”

Between those two poems is the poem that provides a turning point, titled “I Met Myself in a Dream,” where, in the first stanza, Vardi writes in the voice of the Speaker “I met myself in my dream — /A sixteen-year-old.” The second stanza begins with “What do you need? I asked/ Revenge, she answered …”  The third stanza begins: “How can we get revenge? I asked/ We’ll write, she said/ Write!/ And don’t you erase or embellish.”  And the very last stanza, simply: “Let me write.” Notice the pronouns — how many voices there are. How they must now work together. Let the silenced one speak, let the wounded one heal you; let her express herself, let that voice be heard without misrepresentation, without contamination.

In later poems Vardi will mourn the loss of the innocence, the abject betrayal, she will angrily decry the failure of both parents to behave as protectors. Another transition occurs in a later poem with the revelation that moments of “relief” are “likely to be/ Temporary” and yet, in the poem “The Lotus Are Here Again,” she realizes that regardless of the trauma, there is yet beauty to partake of in this life. 

A second, shorter part of the book, titled “Epilogue,” offers poems selected and translated into English from Vardi’s fourth book, “The Sea is Your Witness.”   “I Learned to Improvise” is a striking poem that’s completely in the first person — without Speaker or Chorus — a series of couplets: 

“I learned to improvise/ When the day turned sour,” “Saved from complacency/By a thorny flower” and “From the depth of my wound/I drew will and power.”

The following poem — also in the first person and without Speaker and Chorus —seems to talk back to an early poem in the first part, where she who was “cast away in shame” removes it from her body and casts it back, returns the “shame” to the perpetrator.  

Thus, she is restored. By way of a reckoning with the language, she has restored herself. 

It is no wonder that poems from “She Wasn’t Damaged” are used by mental health practitioners and in centers in Israel dedicated to survivors of sexual violence. An organization in the U.S. is also promoting the book for use by their staff. 

Speaking of dedication: Vardi, a flutist and Feldenkrais Practitioner, has dedicated this book “to those who have experienced the expressed emotion.”


Twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, Geri Lipschultz has published in the New York Times, College English, Ms, and others, and her one-woman show, “Once Upon the Present Time,” was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr.

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