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An Examination Of The Rape Theme in Patricia Lockwood’s Poem Rape Joke

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The concepts of ‘rape’ and ‘joke’ appear to belong on opposite sides of the spectrum. Whereas rape is a sickening issue in society today, jokes are mentioned to humor people and keep them amused; the former is rarely spoken about and the latter is told daily to result in laughter. In the poem “Rape Joke” by Patricia Lockwood, the two contrasting ideas are intertwined into one. Throughout the composition, Lockwood gradually describes the circumstances she was under, starting with her boyfriend’s physical traits and habits. She describes him with a “goatee”– the one characteristic readers will have stuck in their minds during the entire poem — and recalls his job as a “bouncer,” the “knife” he always carried around, and his obsession with “The Rock” (Lockwood lines 17, 19, 32). These qualities remind the audience that he is a normal person, someone who works a regular job and enjoys mundane pastimes in his downtime; the readers are shown the personal side of the rapist, sending the message that although he has committed a crime, he is still human. As the prose progresses, Lockwood delves deeper into the rape, recalling the exact moment with chilling details; she tells readers “that [she was] facedown/… wearing a pretty green necklace that [her] sister had made for [her]” (lines 60-61). When the aftermath kicks in, the audience is brought along on a trip of emotional emptiness. She describes her next few years in a black-and-white fashion, where “whole days went down into/the sinkhole of thinking about why it happened” (lines 82-83). Lockwood’s poetry deals with a grim topic, an idea that most would consider taboo. However, she pairs this bleak concept with ‘humorous’ anecdotes that give the poem an odd twist; the jokes laid out throughout the piece are all dry and sarcastic, most of them blooming with irony. The two completely different concepts of ‘rape’ and ‘joke’ begin to meld into one subject, where one woman’s perspective on her rape becomes a witty poem. With Lockwood’s usage of pathos, symbolism, and irony, “Rape Joke” is a poem that induces a sense of helplessness and desperation to all of its readers.

The language within “Rape Joke” stands to further emphasize the paradox in the title, allowing the audience to empathize with Lockwood’s grief. The poem begins most of its stanzas with the line “The rape joke is…”. In this way, Patricia Lockwood emphasizes the irony between the two words — a somber wide-spread problem that is made to seem more light-hearted with the word ‘joke’ lying in front of it. The phrase pokes fun at those who couldn’t comprehend the severity or the consequences of the incident. Even she falls victim into her own trap, looking to humor as a means to escape reality, as she “went home like nothing happened, and laughed/about it the next day and the day after that” (lines 73-74). Lockwood finds the darkly humorous details of her past and incorporates them into those of her rape. She links the two parts together so that her readers seamlessly transition from witnessing the tragedy to laughing at her wit. In addition to the format of the poem, the point of view of the piece also stands out. Lockwood uses second person, which makes readers feel as if they are walking in her shoes, from the day she went over to Peewee’s house to the day she sat drinking wine coolers “without question and trustingly in the heart of Cincinnati,/Ohio” (lines 104-105). By using ‘you’ instead of ‘I’ or ‘he/she’, the poem becomes more personal. Although one may be able to empathize with Lockwood if first person was used, the usage of second person allows for a direct emotional link between the author and her readers.

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Lockwood uses pathos to make her readers feel lost within her own world, bringing about feelings of powerlessness. For example, she states:

The rape joke is that he was seven years older. The rape joke is that you/had known him for years, since you were too young to be interesting to/him. You liked that use of the word “interesting,” as if you were a piece/of knowledge that someone could be desperate to acquire, to assimilate,/and to spit back out in different form through his goateed mouth. (lines 8-12)

This moment shows Lockwood comparing herself to a simple idea — a physical object that becomes deformed in her boyfriend’s possession. In a way, this is a symbol portraying how she was damaged after the rape. Lockwood’s word choice is important here; the word ‘assimilate’ is defined by Merriam-Webster as “to take in and utilize as nourishment, absorb into the system” (“Assimilate”). Instead of using a more common word that displays the same meaning, she uses an unfamiliar word that contains more roughness. This displays the rigidness and hostility shown by Lockwood while describing her own personification. Following this definition, she essentially served as a piece of gum for him — something to sustain his need and dispelled soon after the flavors had gone away. This moment impacts readers in the way that her words provoke depressing feelings. When she describes this situation, the audience feels emptiness for her. The way that Lockwood uses her words signifies that she was hurt by this event which ignites empathy in her readers. Within Lockwood’s audience, there are sure to be a handful who have felt the same devoid emotion, although perhaps not under the same circumstances. Lockwood finds this emptiness and brings it out in her poem to induce the same reaction in others.

Pathos is also used in order for Lockwood’s audience to empathize with her revulsion of the rape. This takes place when she describes moving houses with the help of her boyfriend. She says:

The rape joke is that he knew you when you were twelve years old./He once helped your family move two states over, and you drove from/Cincinnati to St. Louis with him, all by yourselves, and he was kind/to you, and you talked the whole way. He had chaw in his mouth the/entire time, and you told him he was disgusting and he laughed. (lines 52-56)

This segment of writing portrays an emotional moment between the two — a memorable experience where they exchange friendly and youthful thoughts. The mention of her age is vital because it provides her readers with a sense of purity. At the age of twelve, one is usually still considered innocent and protected from the world; the situation completely changes, however, when one becomes eighteen and is left to fend for oneself. Lockwood states this to induce a state of incorruptibility, as well as an abundance of happy memories from the drive — ultimately, the calm before the storm. However, there is a return of the symbolism with the chewing and spitting of chaw with Lockwood’s boyfriend. Chewing chaw is otherwise known as chewing tobacco, which may signify an unhealthy addiction, as well as a nasty habit, with her boyfriend. This seemingly miniscule item can serve as an omen, foreshadowing the negative consequences he may bring in the future. What starts out as a bad nicotine craving has the capability of evolving into an appetite for something worse, such as violence; this is shown when “he once almost murdered a dude by throwing him/through a plate-glass window” (lines 23-24). The rape is the prime of his negative influence, which leads to Lockwood’s prior uplifting thoughts immediately getting shut down. With this, the readers are able to see the stark differences between the happy moments and post-rape, and develop disgust on what a difference such a happening has made on Lockwood’s life. Through her analogies, people who read her texts are able to relate with her detestation and receive a sense of pathos.

Irony plays a significant role in Lockwood’s poem, allowing her readers to detect the hint of desperation hidden inside her witty satire. One of the instances where this rhetorical device is used includes the following: “The rape joke is he was a bouncer, and kept people out for a living./Not you!” (lines 17-18). Merriam Webster defines the term ‘bouncer’ as “a person whose job it is to force anyone who causes a problem in a bar, nightclub, etc., to leave that place” (“Bouncer”); this description of her boyfriend’s job sharply contrasts with the reality. By raping her, Lockwood’s boyfriend invaded her personal space and forced her into something she didn’t want. Instead of being the bouncer in this situation, he posed as the threat that the authorities were intent on kicking out. In a way, he stands as both the saint and the sinner — the former when he is a bouncer at work and the latter when he is with Lockwood. Fittingly, Lockwood mentions later on that “the rape joke is that he was your father’s high school student — your/father taught World Religion” (lines 48-49). The audience can see the evident irony this poses, where the boyfriend is shown as both the good and the evil — God versus Satan — in a religious perspective. Whereas one side is intent on keeping the negative energy out, another part insists on walking towards the darkness. In the end, we see that he has fallen victim to the evils of the world, similar to the story of Adam and Eve being tricked by Satan in the Garden of Eden. This specific scene in the piece ignites empathy in Lockwood’s readers; they feel the hidden desperation in her sarcastic lines and religious comparisons. Additionally, it is noteworthy that Lockwood’s father is not just a teacher of Christianity, but of World Religion as a whole; the full irony lies in the fact that one who possesses knowledge of all these different religions is still oblivious to the committed crime. Although Lockwood tries to hide her desolation behind numerous rhetoric devices so that it becomes more ambiguous, her real intentions are clear. Lockwood’s grief is littered throughout the entire piece using her sarcastic tone, persuading her audience to feel emptiness deep within her witty language.

Lockwood emphasizes the usage of irony when she tells her parents about the incident, bringing forth feelings of victimization within the audience. She states, “It was a year before you told your parents, because he was like a son to/them. The rape joke is that when you told your father, he made the sign/of the cross over you and said, ‘I absolve you of your sins, in the name/of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ which even in its/total wrongheadedness, was so completely sweet” (lines 76-80). In this quote, we see the comparison between two uses of the same term — ‘son’ as Lockwood’s boyfriend and the ’Son’ as the figure of Jesus. Once again, we see the religious comparison in the poem. The stark differences between these two is seemingly hilarious, where one has served as a sacred role model in religion and the other has committed a loathsome crime with no remorse. Additionally, the lines that Lockwood’s father read to her after she confessed to the rape are ones used during confession; this statement is known as the prayer of absolution. After the priest offers advice to someone who has confessed to their sins, they “give them a penance — an act of making amends, usually a few prayers offered to God… When that is done they then offer the prayer of absolution which formally forgives their sins ritualistically” (Hayes). Lockwood’s father forgives her for her sins, although she was not the one who committed them. Instead of her father approaching the boyfriend, the victim is targeted with the prayer of absolution. This irony-filled scene resonates with readers, dwelling on a topic much debated in society today. Victims are taught how to avoid sexual harassment or how to fight for themselves, but the harassers are left untouched in this situation; self-defense classes and websites for sharing catcalling incidents are plentiful, but rarely are there prevention methods for the tormentors themselves. The exchange between Lockwood and her father brings forth a desolation, where many are able to relate or empathize with the victimization of the wrong person.

Throughout the poem “Rape Joke” by Patricia Lockwood, the theme of helplessness resonates with the aid of several rhetorical devices. With the usage of pathos, symbolism, and irony, readers of this piece are able to empathize with the dark, disheartening emotions portrayed. However, Lockwood doesn’t simply take a grim topic and write about that idea alone. Instead, she incorporates funny tidbits, making the piece more witty and clever than it should be. Whereas most people would not look at rape in this lighthearted manner, she takes a turn from society and strays from norms. Best said by Lockwood herself, “The real final line of Rape Joke is this. ‘You don’t ever have to write about it. But if you do, you can write about it any way you want’ ” (Groskop).


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