In their newest book, all this can be yours, from University of Hell Press, Isobel O’Hare tackles sexual assailants by using their own words against them.
While sexual assault is nothing new, the movements that thrusted into the spotlight in 2017 felt fresh, invigorated … liberated, even. #MeToo (co-opted from its creator Tarana Burke) came storming out the gate as many strong people came forward to say, “Time’s up!” to the men who had assaulted them and effectively tried to ruin their careers.
A survivor of sexual assault, queen and gender non-binary femme poet and essayist Isobel O’Hare (pronouns they/them/their) felt a rage-fire burning inside their stomach, and took to the page to begin their catharsis to quell the feelings that the movement churned inside of them. O’Hare (who was a generally known name in the literary community even before their erasure poetry took on the likes of Weinstein, Spacey, Takei, Piven and many other sexual assailants) couldn’t have anticipated what would happen the day they took some print-outs of the statements released by these men after allegations arose against them and began to Sharpie them into what they really were.
Erasure poetry, for those unfamiliar, is a form of found poetry in which a writer blacks or whites out words from an original text in order to create a new text. In this case, O’Hare was erasing just enough to show what these “apologies” actually were—bullshit excuses. And before long, people in the lit community began to notice, sharing them across social media until the actual media got their hands on O’Hare’s work—publicizing it high and low. In the published collection of these erasure poems, all this can be yours, O’Hare admits that they weren’t sure what to make of the attention, and that they didn’t always love it. Still, what O’Hare had done was speaking to people. So much so, in fact, that they were extended an offer to collect the poems into a book by University of Hell Press, set to be released next month.
Much like O’Hare themself, the book holds nothing back. Opening with a foreword entitled catalyst, Isobel delves directly into what brought them to take on the task of creating this art. They say,
“I was exhausted by the constant revelations of abuse by men in positions of power, and I found myself avoiding social media for weeks at a time because it was too painful to read …”
From there, they tell the story of how the statements they read were riddled with parts to be criticized, and how they simply “grabbed a Sharpie and went to work.” But for better or for worse, that’s exactly what the book doesn’t feel like it ever was—work. That’s not to diminish what was surely an exhausting amount of time an energy that O’Hare surely put into this collection. There’s no doubt that they were exhausted not only physically and mentally, but emotionally, as well. It is to say, however, that O’Hare’s poise and poignant power to embolden the words that matter in these pieces feel somehow natural—as if they knew exactly what they were doing even before they began.
The book is separated into three major sections (apology, apologia, and in conclusion) with apology being broken down into subsections (a question I run from, a culture of demons, I recall differently, and She never said no), each subtitle taken from a separate “apology” letter with poems that are categorically connected to one another. And while each erasure goes without the name of the assailant in question, reading through allows the readers just enough sight of the original text beneath the Sharpie to figure out who the statements came from. O’Hare explained their decision to leave the names out by stating that the men in question are not the overarching problem, but that rape, abuse, and harassment extend far beyond just this handful of assholes by name. In doing so, O’Hare eviscerates the limits of who their poetry can reach—who can relate to it—who can understand. By eliminating the Hollywood elitist titles, O’Hare has created a tome that can be empathized with by all victims of assault—women, men, non-binary, cis, trans, black, white, and everything in between.
In a question I run from, Isobel organizes their poems as if the assailant in question (this entire section composed of varying poems crafted from the same statement by the same man) is not making an argument for himself that better maps out the transgressions that have come to pass. Rather, they landscape the truth of what this man has said—how his obsession with his own phallus has hypnotized him so that he cannot even form a proper method of amends without bringing it up. Each poem, beginning with just the words my dick runs the original narrator in circles with him never making a point. Instead, the poems create a pastiche of illustrations of just how phallocentric and power-obsessed this man is and has always been. More so, in the poem your dick, O’Hare brings about a chilling reminder that this man is a manifestation of all sexual predators simply by saying, “my dick is your dick.”
In a culture of demons, O’Hare spins these “apologies” into something more accurately articulated—flippancy for bad behavior and a lack of accountability on the part of the assailants. O’Hare even shows how laden some statements even are with the desire to be forgiven, simply because the accused doesn’t wish to suffer damage to their career and reputation rather than from actual remorse. I recall differently is similar, but takes the words of these men—usually notes about how they are innocent rather than an attempt at taking responsibility for their actions—and reduces them to the honest male fragility under attack that they really are. It’s the point in the book where anger and rage beget feminism, as readers will see that nothing in the statements are really more than what O’Hare has laid out: femme-shaming. Each poem questions the integrity of the stories told by the women who have come forward simply for no other reason than that the victims are, in fact, women. In a series of consecutive poems, reusing the phrase “these women,” O’Hare lets misogyny take center stage, at last, to prove that what these assailants are is nothing less than male chauvinists using an eons-old culture of shaming women into submission to try to plead their cases.
Things get particularly interesting in She never said no, which I found to be the most chilling part of the entire collection. For it’s here that O’Hare concisely lets the true statements shine: a lack of women declining to have sex, whether from fear, or shock, or drugs, or any other reason. Here, in this very short portion of the book, O’Hare deals with why not saying no does not equal consent.
“We tend to think so much in binaries that we point at victims and ask why they didn’t fight or flee, because we believe those are the only instinctual responses to a threat. There is, in fact, another response that might be more prevalent in cases of sexual assault than in the presence of any other threat: the freeze response.”
The last part of the book, apologia, takes the responses of other notable names to the accusations—one of which was even that of a very influential woman who stated that maybe women should accept some of the blame. And by erasing these statements, O’Hare has highlighted the ignorance and the ability that exist in many to be persuaded to say what may help one keep their social standing, or what one truly and quite stupidly believes to be true.
Alas, the poetry alone is beautiful, but it’s O’Hare imploring that we recognize that their book is just one part of a much larger mosaic that really polishes it. O’Hare knows that they are not the face of this revolution, and they acknowledge that more than once in catalyst. O’Hare—a white, queer, non-binary femme—writes in extraordinary verbiage that they are aware that their experience with sexual assault is different from that of so many other, especially those in the trans community and that of women of color. And in doing so, O’Hare finds a correlation to their own life against this collage of poetry: that they are not entirely represented, either. O’Hare states that being non-binary, they felt a certain distance from the issue. But as the saying goes, “Nevertheless they persisted.” In acknowledging that they are not the voice of the movement, O’Hare has broadened the availability of to so many who haven’t had an outlet for their grief, anger, and disgust before. They write, “I do not claim to be the voice of a movement, and I wouldn’t want to be.” But that’s just the thing: Isobel isn’t the voice—they are, in fact, one of the standing microphones at the edge of the stage that are allowing other survivors to come forth and say, “We aren’t taking this bullshit anymore.” They’re valiantly fighting the good fight, but knowing that they aren’t doing so alone—knowing that there are others, alike and unlike, that have experienced similar tragedy and emotions. And, in doing so, O’Hare has pieced together what may just be one of the most powerful pieces of art our generation will see. Certainly it is one of the most beautiful that will come from this movement; and it is so because Isobel isn’t trying to save the world—they’re creating more seats at the table for a much larger revolution to come.
all this can be yours is nothing short of a masterpiece, and the reading list that accompanies it with pieces by many black, queer, and feminist writers is well worth further investigating. O’Hare is a lone fire on a very cold island where, unfortunately, too many people who have suffered the same tragedy have been forced to exist. However, with their warmth and perseverance, Isobel—like the fire they are—is bringing comfort to those who have gone so long without it.