Villain songs, whether in Broadway musical numbers or Disney films, are robust affairs; the villain belts their intentions to murder, oppress, manipulate, and destroy while the henchman leads the chorus. In Tammy Robacker’s collection of poetry, Villain Songs (ELJ, 2017), the refrain rings like a bell: the rise and fall of an old song that rockets throughout generations of families who are affected by abuse and molestation.
The collection in many ways is an unflinching catalogue of injustice, more a song about villains than anything else. It takes us to familiar places and in sing-song melody, points to the bathtub or kitchen or bus stop to note the perversion that warps it from a safe place (an armchair, perhaps) to a place where a girl, like too many little girls, was touched or coaxed or manipulated in a way she should not have been. And, as uncomfortable as the subject matter might be, Robacker handles it deftly, balancing the vulnerability of the narrator’s position with the strength of her riddling, muscular poetry.
At the heart of Villain Songs is the overwhelming question: why shouldn’t we sing? In a system where we know abusers win when the abused stay silent, this collection catalogues the day-to-day injustices of those people who try to take control of the female body. Robacker confronts this in poems like “Holes” where she explores an experience with perverts on buses, “Succubus,” which addresses young girls raised alongside centerfolds, and “I Did Not like the Men” naming an early memory of her mother being cat-called and the lasting effect of that memory: “and even now, she names it at bus stops.” It is a villain song that we have never heard, not the stamping, triumphant scheming of the villain, but the staring down of a heroine who repeats back in rhythmic, unflinching form the injustices she has faced.
But Robacker’s collection is a song in two harmonies: one, a lyric picture of manipulation and possession and the other, the heroine’s defiant declaration of strength. Even as Villain Songs presents a German household where the childhood chatter of Ich liebe dich (I love you) becomes Ick Liebe dick and family members and parakeets bear witness to abuse, the cataloguing itself feels like the operatic soaring of Brunnhilde, shield-maiden, Valkyrie: “whole notes/immolate [her] golden throat.” Like the sarcophagus speaking in “Preparation of the Mummy: An Introduction,” Robacker narrates from beyond the grave, telling us that “there is no bandage tight/ enough to tamp out this legacy. Now it is written.” These poems are an etching of events that do not mark death, but instead motion toward a reincarnation through the regenerative magic of speaking the truth.
Tammy Robacker is the author or The Vicissitudes, the chapbook R, a 2015 Keystone Chapbook Prize winner, and Villain Songs. Autographed copies of Villain Songs are available directly from the poet at tammyrobacker.com.
Image: "Mother"140cm x 100cmWatercolor2016Dima Rebus