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Girl Hurt

E.J. Miller Laino
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Plot Summary

Girl Hurt

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2021

Plot Summary

Girl Hurt is a 1995 poetry collection by American poet E.J. Miller Laino. Its confessional lyrics deal with family dysfunction in a working-class Catholic community, focusing particularly on women’s suffering as it is passed down from mother to daughter. The death of the poet’s mother, long imagined and suddenly experienced, rings through the collection. Laino’s debut collection, Girl Hurt won the 1996 American Book Award.

Laino opens Girl Hurt with an epigraph from Muriel Rukeyser: “Pay attention to what they tell you to forget.”

The collection begins with—and centers on—the story of a painful childhood, characterized by silences and exclusion, by waiting “outside doorways”:

“I didn't go into the Emergency Room
where my mother lay dead.
As a child, I never entered the room
where she cried like Frankenstein in the movie,
those deep, guttural half-words, the true vocabulary
of monsters created with human hearts.”

Along with the pain is yearning for escape, even if that escape is forbidden and menacing, as it is in “One of the Professors”:

“I only knew everything
about the railroad tracks behind my house,
a shortcut to downtown. I followed them closely,
rolled my palm over the long steel line,
felt for vibrations, stayed ahead of the train.
Anything that took me away from that family,
dying in silence, from silence, was a good thing.”

In the end, the poet reflects, the only true escape from “silence” (and from the “guttural half-words…of monsters”) is language. Indeed, the “Hard Words” of poetry are something like the predestined fate of a child born to parents in whom “words lay buried”:

“If God was the word
made flesh, she must once have been
a word inside an egg,
her father's sperm surging towards that egg
where all her mother's words lay buried,
her parents’ unspoken words replicating
like chromosomes before the cell divides.
A dangerous mutation, she is
genetically predisposed to carry words
like hand grenades, the pins already pulled.”

The fate imposed by family trauma is a recurring theme of the collection. Its title poem recounts a family story, about the suicide of the poet’s grandfather:

“I read about Lyvia, daughter
of Michael Kataevi; she was there
at the window, screaming
in a language unintelligible to citizens of New York,
Minsk, or any other city where
a daughter grabs onto a father
who is leaping from a fourth story window.”

This old family story seems to haunt one of the collection’s recurring themes: the death of the poet’s mother. As a child, her mother’s repeated exclamation that her children will be the death of her forces the young Laino to imagine the loss of her mother:

“And then, the real death.
It’s 4 a.m.
The kitchen light is on.
I enter her home, touch everything
I know she’s touched, these flowers,
this card, before I call the relatives
to say she is dead.”

(“May 17th”)

However, in the world of Laino’s childhood, family is far from the only source of trauma. The silence and repressions of Catholicism also leave their mark:

“In fourth grade Sister Mary Daniel
said it was useless to pray
for unbaptized babies.
They could never see
the face of God. She assured us
they were happy in Limbo…

Even after the church abolished Limbo,
I couldn't.
It gave me strange comfort
when I let a machine
suck a nine-week fetus
out of my body.”

Laino writes fiercely and clearly about the traumas of motherhood as well as of daughterhood. In “Telling the Truth,” she recounts her decision to relinquish her baby Rachel, diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome, for adoption:

“The expert said she'd reach a mental age
of maybe five. The social worker said
no need to write a letter. I signed relinquishment
papers and left. The nurses seemed relieved.
I smoked too much and I didn't want my baby…

All my life I wanted to obey the rules
but they kept breaking. Like Huck Finn
on the raft, I knew I was going to hell.
So I committed one more sin.”

Authentic female experience is not only a site of trauma. Laino also explores the healing power of sex, presenting sexuality as a source of “authentic sound” that fills the old silences:

“Let authentic sound, the selfishness
of the voice coming, fill the spaces
between bodies like thread”

From the heights of this authentic sound, a new kind of silence becomes possible, the silence of inexpressible love:

“I want to tell him
how I'd like to disappear and reappear
inside his body, safe without words,
just the sound of his breathing. I want
to tell him how I cried when I walked

along the beach road, how I gazed
through a high-powered telescope
at the faces of young sailors,
their beautiful bodies holding like angels
to the masts, about the faces watching
those faces, about this love
I carry around like a secret baby.”

Finally, the collection is steps away from the traumas of mother- and daughterhood to enter into a new relationship with femininity through the poet’s own daughter. Laino and school-age Jaime chart the course of the moon for a school project:

“‘Do you think we did it right?’ I nod.
Both of us worry about making mistakes.
We stand at the window for a long time,

trying perhaps, to understand
why some things disappear
and stay lost forever, while others

come back to us, this moon,
crowning like the head of a baby
through a dark slit of a sky.”
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