"Intimacies, Received" by Taneum Bambrick
Reviewed by Hannah Bonner
A LIFE INSIDE A LIFE: A REVIEW OF TANEUM BAMBRICK’S INTIMACIES, RECEIVED
Taneum Bambrick’s second collection of poetry Intimacies, Received (2022) parses the language and acts of love and sex, trauma and violence, with the stark, plainspoken language of a desert, seared and sustained by light. Like her first collection of poems, Vantage (2019), Intimacies, Received traces the contours of a traumatic memory alongside gendered narratives and expectations that encapsulate partnership, myth, art, and translation within the sun soaked landscape of southern Spain. While in her first book, Bambrick’s narrator worked with an all-male garbage crew in dams, here her narrator navigates the sexual politics of heterosexual partnership in a culture stereotyped
for its “beautiful, aggressive, seductive, alluring” men.
Yet, this narrator already knows everywhere “Men are terrifying” after her college boyfriend rapes her when she’s in high school. Subsequently, she doesn’t let another man touch her for seven years. A girlfriend, upon breaking up with the narrator, remarks that she “seemed unresolved about men” and in these poems, Bambrick explores the tension between “Not being hungry, but wanting / to halve something.” As in, what might a life look like partnered with a man who feeds her paella from his restaurant, even if it does not satisfy another kind of hunger? As in, what does one do to soothe the parts of themselves that have been severed due to trauma? Bambrick does not answer these questions but approaches them with studied, quiet solicitude like one might approach a painting in a museum. Her language is not florid, but direct; her sentences often clear and unflinching in their precision and emotional control.
In partnership or in sex, there is a certain kind of recurrent halving of the self in the daily choice of giving oneself over to another. Sometimes we freely make these choices when we are in love; other times the choice feels inevitable, the idea of agency amorphous and unformed. In the opening untitled poem, Bambrick writes, “I have learned a man I love / harmed three women before me. // No one can say more than this. / If I search for an answer // I prioritize self-protection / over solidarity. Over belief.” The starkness of Bambrick’s opening underscores her unfettered, unadorned prosaic approach to violence. “No one can say more than this” because there is nothing to elucidate or theorize in the face of gendered, sexualized violence.
Yet, this is not to say that we should not talk about these events or our own experiences. Rather, Bambrick homes in on embodied knowledge: the tactile, the sensory, and the topographical details particular to certain scenes and locations that root her in the world. What lives both in the body, and around it, allows her narrator to situate herself in the present time and place. The objects that emerge are prickly pears, twelve green grapes chewed on New Year’s Eve, a plucked chicken sopping in a plastic bag, a glazed sponge cake wrapped in wax paper. And yet, these litanies of details, these present moments, are “A life / inside a life of breaking cod / to slide the bone out.” While the narrator may sip “blood stew,” the tangible doesn’t erase the past or present emotional and physical triggers. “I tried sex with men / for the first time,” she writes. “I cried. / You kept me with your restaurant / every night. I forgot / the book I wrote. I couldn’t write.” The unnamed You, the lover our narrator meets in Spain, has sex with the narrator after a doctor warns him she could die due to a UTI complication; he drives her to his brother’s house after a trip through the Andalusian desert, instead of returning her home as promised. “I am sorry I tried to help with your poems” he says in a poem where he attempts to persuade her to attend a bullfight. “I’d like to be worth your time.”
The risk with him, and the other men who have caused her hurt, is the risk of losing not just the will to live, but the accompanying drive to write. In her essay “Alligators,” that appears midway through the book, Bambrick reflects that she did not want to marry in Spain or to be an English tutor for the rest of her life. “I was trying,” she states, “to force myself to write.” It is not just through therapy, but through the practice of writing, where she is able to articulate that “I later endured a long process of learning that these actions I associated with love were often small forms of attack.” She is writing, at this point in the essay, about the man who raped her; yet the same sentiment could hold true of her lover who offers a flower from the ground as consolation for potentially giving the narrator an infection, who says, “On what I thought was our first date / you thought you’d been kidnapped – / that would be a good story to tell at a wedding.” Fear flutters right at the surface of every gendered interaction and utterance like a bird in the throat.
What makes Intimacies, Received so stunning and so resonate to the complexities of the human heart, is the line in the titular poem when Bambrick writes, “If falling in love is a decision, / I listened for the click in your breath.” We do not always choose who we love, even when that love harms us. We are not always able to intellectualize our forgiveness towards someone who shows us over and over who they truly are. Yes, there is another life inside each of our lives, that emerges out of tectonic shifts of trauma, but the ripple effects never leave us, though their frequencies may soften, thaw, or temporarily abate. And what we do in the aftermath may not make logical sense, even to ourselves. It is in the writing where the meaning is for Bambrick and where the purpose is in being a part of the world. The intimacy of Intimacies, Received is getting close to the earth, the searing sun of rural Spain, or the skin – and not looking away. But we must not confuse closeness with catharsis or certainty. Rather, Bambrick returns to the liminal spaces of indeterminacy or contradiction, where violence can be named or identified at the individual or structural level, but where emotional burrs still snag us in an intricate web of contradictory registers, like when she writes, “I love you / if I don’t think about / who you were before me.”
It is this intimacy, of which the Latin root intimare means “to impress,” that Bambrick etches and engages with again and again in her poems, like the charred towers in Écija that tourists touch and “imagine God / when they smell their hands.” Reading Intimacies, Received similarly leaves a certain residue within me that I don’t want to wash off. To paraphrase the end of her book, she, too, has impressed something lasting upon me.
TANEUM BAMBRICK is the author of Intimacies, Received (Copper Canyon Press, Sept 2022) and Vantage, which was selected by Sharon Olds for the 2019 American Poetry Review/Honickman first book award (APR 2019). Her chapbook, Reservoir, was selected by Ocean Vuong for the 2017 Yemassee Chapbook Prize. A graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA program, she is the winner of an Academy of American Poets University Prize, an Environmental Writing Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Arts Center, and the 2018 BOOTH Nonfiction Contest. Her essay, “Sturgeon,” was named a notable essay of 2019. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in The Nation, The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, PEN, and elsewhere. She has received a fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ and Environmental Writers’ Conferences. A 2020 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, she is a Dornsife Fellow in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California, and Co-Book Reviews Editor for Pleiades Magazine.
Published September 2022 || Purchase a copy