Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita
Io non so ben ridir com’ io v’ entrai,
tanto era pien di sonno in su quel punto
che la verace via abbandonai ...
—Dante Alighieri, Inferno
That words are “filthy” and yet poetry is redemptive is the provocative contradiction that starts off Indictus, Natalie Eilbert’s second book:
Words are filthy.
With the past.
Poetry allows me to enter into the afterlife.
The stated aim of the book is to be heard (“INDICTUS points to the unsaid. / In this way, to indict is to write the unsaid”). Being heard is important here because the book begins in the aftermath of a traumatic, presumably sexual, offense. In response to feeling silenced by our culture’s history of listening to men and women unequally, rather than shouting, Eilbert’s lines use the force of exactitude, aiming to deliberately shirk unnecessary detail and poetic flourishes to allow the essentials of the experience of marginalization to come through: “If I jump around in details, it is because I have willfully refused details in writing … Let me say of language that it is my currency and performs best when it is stripped of decorum.”
Language conveys truth, lies, and every nuanced claim in between. And so Eilbert takes aim at language, probing it as her currency the only way possible: through language. This self-conscious recourse, where the very act of articulation is questioned and dismantled, is the most interesting element of Indictus. It is a book concerned with how to access truth when we are creatures laden with such “filthy,”—that is, inexact and contingent—language. “Even in the highest form of truth, to access memory is to blunder its event.”
And yet sometimes the exactitude of self-conscious claims, about particular states of affairs, seems to reel a little out of control. “Man Hole,” the 43-page sequence that starts off the book and comprises its majority, tries to invert traditional metaphors of woman as emptied and man as positing, occasionally collapsing under its own frantic weight. Some moments are powerful for their inventive construction and inquiry (“I don’t write because there’s a problem to be solved. I write because I can’t even tell you the problem. It is like the mathematical axiom of nothing—that to solve anything on the basis of nothing, we must first solve nothing. And there is nothing to be solved.”); others, for their frenzy and self-implication (“Intelligence—/what I mean when I see the pulse/ of a poem and it feels like a man I have to win over./I do. When I win him over, I do not win./He tests me,” and elsewhere, “The old feminist anthology splayed out with my 22-year-old self notes./I thought and I thought and I thought, but could never properly/express my shelves … When I love a man, what I really love is myself when I can’t fuck a man” ). As a whole the poem is more interesting as a demonstration of the speaker’s psyche who feels marginalized and powerless trying to constantly reshape such a presumed state of affairs through narrative, so it bears the marks of such a struggle in sometimes fascinating ways. This is part of the struggle Eilbert wants us to feel.
I want to be the name men call to scatter their ashes
I want to be the name
they can’t close their eyes against.
How are they taking it? The flesh I made them into, the flesh
I tear from them to tear myself into myself.
A grammar of skins: I love them/it hurts me.
But this world is not conclusion. I pull my history through a valve
and give it edges, give it holes.
I love men when they let me see myself.
A dog learning discipline laps up such pretty pearls.
My hole is a gentle hole—
everyone here in my hole is a home in which I toss aesthetics.
The influence of later Plath here is clear, and even though I occasionally felt that “Man Hole” goes on a bit too long or gets too hyperbolic, given the framework Eilbert makes explicit from the beginning, I can read this lengthiness as part of the point: to show by exhausting the iterations of this frame of mind just how exhausting it is to be unheard or misheard. Her hyperbolic moments feel earned because they are balanced by the exactitude of her questions and axiomatic claims on language as it relates to the self and to itself.
A kind of counterpart to the obsession of filth and purity in regard to language is filth and purity in regard to the body, which, like language (“Language only explains itself inside. That’s what I’ve come here/to tell you. There is an incision”), is tacitly seen as filthy because it’s somehow bodily:
…I imagine my breasts
serrated off my body. The secret gunk below—that is who I must be. Please
swarm my chatty vulva. Its cranial notes move up my throat
like the clarinet I dreamed of once that became a complex.
This is puzzling since the source of this disgust seems deeply important but is never quite clear. If the source of disgust with the body comes from the language-using, reflective intellect that conceives of itself as somehow above the natural, this would be just an elaboration on the traditional (not uninteresting) mind-body dualism that has haunted much art and thought on filthiness and purity, on the bodily and the ideal. But Eilbert seems to paint such disgust as necessarily sourced from men and sexual experiences with them. Of course, this can be and often is the effect of sexual trauma, but to attribute bodily revulsion solely to such trauma seems to perhaps narrow and simplify its cause. The experience of the body as filthy or pure doesn’t necessarily depend on such a traumatic experience—but here it is taken as almost a given fact, which has attached to it a masculine guilty party.
This is perhaps not surprising since maleness is, generally, all over this book. The word “man” or “men” is repeated 80 times throughout its 106 pages (not to mention “he,” “him,” “his,” “Lord,” “male,” etc.). This starts to feel a bit redundant unless one considers the poetry around such instances, which is often exact, incisive, and deliberate. “Man” or “men” is rendered a common refrain that isn't necessarily literal and accusatory, rather sonic (as repetition is) and symbolic (as any given Other).¹
But if “men” is necessarily “men” in content, then one might question whether Eilbert is preemptively closing off the audience for Indictus based sheerly on her own personal absolute presupposition that men are aggressors by nature, that women tend to be the aims of that aggression, and no community can ever serve to fully extricate individuals on both sides of the line from this assumed natural fact. Even the second section, “The Men Fall Away,” while holding some of the strongest poems in the book, is littered with this guilty male figure.
It is obvious that defining something by negation sets up a structure of dependence on what something is not. If poetry is supposed to have the force of deliverance from such structures (as Eilbert appears to believe), then the book seems overly weighed down at times by the very patriarchal inheritance from which it seeks alternative. Even in trying to invert traditional feminine and masculine metaphors, in a sense Eilbert keeps them at the forefront of a reader’s mind as much as she tries to dismantle them.
It seems obvious that the easiest way to stay dependent on the oppressor is to keep paying attention to him. So we have the choice to either recognize some degree of essential dependence we have on each other as social animals (“For the men to return I must construct a sympathetic brain”) or, if we believe reason can pull us out of sheer naturalism into a different kind of realm, we can liberate ourselves from the oppressor by refusing to recognize him. Indictus occupies the space where this decision has not yet been made. Even in the final poem—one of the most beautiful, I think—, the speaker refuses to come to a conclusion:
… I hear a voice crackle
through my phone and I look for a moon,
a dusted rim. Depression glass on which
I learn the word SALVAGE in an earlier decade. I have left
so much of the world behind, one star whispers.
I await the inevitable figure. He steps over
limbs with a gift. Darkness like trapped
rainwater, I thus behold a threshold.
It is clear what I must do to receive him.
And the gift in his hand I must open
my mouth to take.
This last moment seems to recognize essential dependence on the Other (“the inevitable figure”), but still suggests this dependence sets up a structure of essential subjugation (“what I must do,” “I must open”). She continues to see this essential natural dependence in light of some unrealized alternative, but we’re never clear exactly what that alternative is. As she writes elsewhere, “Even if men have been removed, there is still/ the foundation of men.”
Perhaps if poetry is our path toward a kind of elevation or perfection, an “afterlife” as Eilbert calls it at the start of the book, it has the same role as religious dogmatism in our discourse—that is, it is a belief in the redemption of individual self-expression that cannot be justified except through itself. Yet, I see no grounds in narrowing this belief to one gender or another. And yet Eilbert, outside the work, seems to continue to insist on such a narrowness, as do some of her reviewers. Indictus is already being hailed by some as a certain kind of survival narrative, morally relevant to our time in its content. At least one reviewer has suggested that if one hasn’t experienced the violence of being a part of a subjugated group, they should read this book so that they might become capable of empathizing.² I am worried that this discourse is not about the book’s artistry but its author’s identity and stance. It is not because Indictus is written by a woman, from a woman’s perspective, that it is worth reading. To reduce it to such a use is to perpetuate rather than transcend a structure of inequality, and more importantly to our purposes here, it is to threaten the very practice of art making itself.
Even before I began reading Natalie Eilbert’s Indictus for a possible review I questioned my own motives. I already knew that the brand of ardent feminism Eilbert adopts on her social platforms³ is one with which I, as a skeptic with basic humanist beliefs,⁴ disagree.
As opposed to Eilbert (or at least what I infer from almost all of her statements on current affairs), I still believe that social practices can be guided by basic universal principles. For instance, I still believe that to treat any group poorly because of historical disparities is more often the source of racism and sexism rather than its antidote. For this reason, I see history as prone to repetition because of such attempted “corrections,” and so I am skeptical of revolutions, especially revolutions that self-consciously conceive of themselves as breaking new ground.⁵ I realize this may be rapidly becoming an unpopular opinion.
I also firmly believe that the only way to actually effect social change is to be able to have uncomfortable conversations with people who disagree with the way to achieve social change. As I have argued elsewhere, if we are not able to have substantive critical conversations about the form and content of our contemporary narratives, it becomes more of a therapeutic exercise than art submitted for public view, and this tells us something about the effects of identity politics on what gets published in this market-driven system and why.⁶
If I am dogmatic in my own thinking, it is a dogmatism that, like Eilbert, holds poetry to be capable of being somehow better than ourselves. But I do not take truly good poetry to be possible if it is merely elaborating a predetermined socio-political stance; that poetry can live in and through doubt, questioning, and nuance is one of the things that makes it art. I am left wondering if and how Eilbert realizes this: While the speaker of Indictus for the most part earns her hyperbolic risks, there is another hyperbole operating just slightly outside the work, which I believe is not only unearned but actually does damage to the work itself.
The trappings of Eilbert’s book threaten to undermine the book’s shrewd elegance. Even Eilbert’s own end material (a lengthy “Notes & Acknowledgments” section as well as a lengthy “Thank You” section) tends to literalize her poetry, pigeonholing it as belonging to the genre of marketable women's poetry on sexual assault, narrowing its universalizing moments into a subgenre, moving from the literary to the literal, offering itself up as catharsis for a particular group of women sexually assaulted by men. There is a sense that there’s a previously agreed-upon narrative where men are bad in virtue of being men and women are good (or even pure) in virtue of being women, which casts my admiration of the book in a doubtful light. My skepticism about hashtag activism in general pulls me out of the poetry of this deeply interesting speaker and back in the region of confronting Eilbert’s own moralizing stances. These moments make me wonder whether Eilbert is perhaps less interested in the nuances and implications of her own poetic work than in using it to further a sociopolitical stance (or brand?). Such a stance, as I understand it, requires that retribution for historical wrongs necessarily involves subjugating the previously advantageous group. This essentially reduces individuals to types and pits these types against one another.⁷
Take Morgan Parker’s blurb on Indictus, which sets up a particularly risky mutual exclusion: “I will not laud Eilbert for her trauma, her deft vulnerability. Instead, I have removed all of the Homer from my bookshelves, and Dante, and Milton and Holden Caulfield, too. I trashed them all. In their place, Natalie Eilbert’s epic INDICTUS, the only journey of tribulation and discovery that I regard as true heroism.”⁸
But the worth of Indictus is not mutually exclusive in regard to Homer, Dante, Milton, and Salinger, among others (and Eilbert’s epigraph comes from Anne Carson and bears the positive marks of Carson’s influence—Carson would have no career as a classicist without the canon). I can only understand such a comment by imagining that such thinking holds that men are misogynists by nature, and that the tradition is ridden with their narratives, which are somehow by nature misogynistic narratives that we cannot extricate from misogyny and enjoy or learn from as art. This is disappointing, as it seems to be committing a version of the logical fallacy that conflates terrorism as a property of being Muslim.
Further, if words are “filthy” and poetry is redemptive, throwing certain poetry away because it is written by people different from us is to limit the possibility of redemption to a select few. This sentiment brings to mind a common historical refrain. Over 100 years before the National Socialist book burnings in the spring of 1933, roughly 500 students gathered to set books on fire on the grounds of Wartburg Castle, associated with revolutionary thinking ever since Luther, 300 years before that, had sought refuge there after his excommunication. They were burning texts that cast doubt on unifying the region’s then-separate states.⁹ Presumably, these students saw themselves as carrying out a rebellion similar to Luther’s against an ideology they saw as harmful for their livelihoods or backward-stepping for what they perceived as the correct course of history. Then, in 1933, another generation of students held rallies in 34 university towns across Germany and gathered books they saw as contrary to the aims of National Socialism just to set them aflame. These students wanted to purify German language and literature by purging it of certain kinds of intellectualism. Some choices for the bonfires were obvious (Marx). Others were books featuring any kind of nuanced descriptions of the realities of war. Others were consumed by flame merely for encouraging human understanding through empathy. These were works by Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, and Helen Keller, among many others.
Despite my misgivings—actually, because of them—I decided to go ahead and write this review because I wanted to see if it was possible to discuss—even laud—the form of a work while philosophically disagreeing with the substantive content behind a poetry’s tacit claims. Because I am committed to the idea that philosophy and poetry can be closer than traditionally conceived, because I believe that every work of poetry operates from certain implicit philosophical premises, expressed (however subconsciously) in poetic decisions, I believe a poetic work is capable of being answerable to such criticisms. My claim is that if the work cannot offer sufficient answers to critiques of its own premises, then we must question what the substantive difference is between the artwork and works of advertising, branding, even propaganda. This is, for many reasons, an extremely pressing issue for our time.
After reading Indictus, I realized that it was absolutely possible to admire such an achievement. It is a book of clarity while also being a book of wild invention—this is deeply hard to balance and Eilbert should be praised for her deftness. And even where the book appears to get tangled up in itself, I don’t feel as though I want to put it down but rather that I want to return to it, to understand the tangles by reentering them.
Still, my admiration of Eilbert’s poetic work threatens to be polluted if I don’t carefully keep in mind the distinction between speaker and author, something that Eilbert herself makes difficult, and if I don’t ignore those who overstate the worth of Eilbert’s book in respect to the canon, which only unravels the book’s own dedication to language and questions regarding language. If we truly trash the tradition, then the force of Eilbert’s intellect and poetic formulations, which operate by making explicit certain experiences unaddressed by the tradition, would become impotent. To trash them all in favor of Indictus actually doesn't do justice to the worth of Indictus at all.
People will argue that saying on Twitter that books should be trashed and replaced is not the same thing as striking a match and setting pages on fire. But, given our digitized culture, one that has proven itself to be an ideal condition for outrage to go viral, I wonder what the counterpart to such a sentiment looks like in the 21st Century. The literal form may be different but the intention feels similar: to delete any version of history that might conflict in some way with the new worldview, a worldview presumed to have the privileged moral high ground to objectively survey our past, a worldview presumed to be revolutionary and wholly different. It is to indict and assign guilt swiftly and without trial. Another poet suggested on Twitter that Parker’s blurb was worth blowing up wall-size.¹⁰
 As I read these repetitions, it was an interesting exercise to read each instance of “men” as “women.” Likewise, to read each as “human.”
 One example that particularly struck me as dangerously reductive was a post after the mass shooting in Las Vegas: https://www.facebook.com/natalie.eilbert/posts/10100670743417074
 Influenced by, I think, equal parts Spinoza’s political theory and Hegel’s recognition theory.
 Others see Eilbert as promoting a “burning to the ground” of the entire system: https://chireviewofbooks.com/2018/01/18/indictus-natalie-eilbert-review-poetry/ But I have not yet heard any suggestions of what kind of a different system will be constructed in its place.
 The problem with this kind of thinking is one of authority and legitimacy; that is, who should have the power to decide who deserves what treatment to correct for historical wrongs? (Hence the brilliant potency of the principle of equality: it dismantles an otherwise vengeful back-and-forth). Even if Eilbert does believe she is putting the art first, this is a tension she doesn’t appear to be concerned about. Conflating art with the author’s stance on an issue maps interestingly onto the tension between poetic speaker with author. Where only years ago this was still a carefully navigated distinction, recently the author and the lyric “I” have become increasingly conflated as one in the current discourse.
 This blurb has garnered praise of its own as piece of art. https://twitter.com/morganapple/status/954734105845030913
SARAH V. SCHWEIG is the author of Take Nothing with You (University of Iowa Press, 2016). Her reviews have appeared in Fanzine, Gulf Coast, and Publishers Weekly. She studies philosophy at The New School for Social Research.