Proof Something Happened
Marsh Hawk Press
Reviewed by Brian Fanelli
Betty and Barney Hill are about as famous as you can get in UFO circles. Whatever happened to them on that fateful September night in 1961 in rural New Hampshire is one of, if not, the most prominent abduction cases in the U.S. When their story was recounted in a Boston newspaper in 1965, it caught so much attention that it led to a bestselling book and a movie starring James Earl Jones. Their story captured the public’s imagination to the point that even today, when we think of alien abductions, we largely envision what the Hills described. Gray beings. A cold examination table. Crude experimentations. A lost sense of time. Tony Trigilio takes this case and uses it as inspiration for his latest collection, Proof Something Happened. While some of the abduction imagery is familiar enough to anyone who’s seen an episode of “The X-files,” the way he addresses their story is unique. He places their abduction within the context of trauma, making some of the book’s opening poems a hair-raising experience. More importantly, however, he makes Betty and Barney real characters, exploring their fears and love for each other. Trigilio relies on several primary sources while connecting their narrative to the personal, specifically the loss of close family in his life. The result is a nuanced and intriguing collection that makes Betty and Barney Hill more than a famed abduction case.
From the outset, Trigilio depicts the abduction experience as totally disorienting. He based several poems off Betty’s letters, journal entries, and transcripts from their hypnosis. In the opening poem, “Missing Time,” the abduction is akin to rape, to missing hours when they were subjected to invasive experimentations. Trigilio describes Betty’s turquoise ring that vanished, only to turn up two weeks later “under leaves inexplicably piled on the kitchen counter.” He also details the “pink mystery stains” discovered on her dress and the realization, at the end of the poem, that the drive shouldn’t have taken four hours. This is written from Betty’s point of view and fragmented memory, and the imagery, specifically the stained dress and missing ring, aren’t too dissimilar from a rape victim’s experience, dazed and unable to fully recount what happened during those blacked-out hours.
Barney’s trauma, too, is present throughout the book. In the prose poem, “’What I’m saying is part of me outside the actual creation of words themselves,’” Trigilio adopts Barney’s voice to address the “pang” in his ribs and his frequent ulcers since the abduction. His trauma manifests in various physical and health problems. Like Betty’s memories, his are also clouded, but he recalls how the beings made him forget what happened, before admitting, “Better to wonder than remember.” Barney’s pain and repressed memories are so profound that even the hypnotist, Dr. Simon, “hadn’t heard this kind of terror in the battlefield cases he treated.” There are also various motifs and reoccurring images that Trigilio uses to utmost effect. One of the aliens wears a red scarf and is compared to Hitler. Another, meanwhile, shows Betty a star map. The creatures and their actions range from bone-chilling to downright odd or even funny, as when it’s mentioned how they stole Barney’s dentures and didn’t understand how his teeth could be removed.
While the first several poems largely recount the abduction and the physical and mental scars, the book shifts about halfway through to examine Betty and Barney’s relationship, including Barney’s death at age forty-six from a stroke. “Then she thought if they’re so smart, let them find Barney’s grave without her help” again shifts the narrative back to Betty. This time, the poem recounts strange lights Betty saw shortly after Barney’s funeral. The poem is a well-crafted exploration of grief and Betty’s justifiable anger. Trigilio writes,
He’s no longer alive. It hovered. She was crying
now and slammed the passenger door shut.
Everything was moving so fast she couldn’t
even see it blur. Everything ordinary, that is.
She felt like she did eight years ago, knew
they could read her thoughts. The ship
titled like a plate balanced atop a juggler’s stick:
how does it stay perched, you think, and it’s not
supposed to look so graceful. She pointed
to the cemetery two miles away and thought
about how they could find him by the flowers
on his plot. It rocked back and forth three times
then crossed the highway toward the graveyard.
Not only does the poem’s conclusion capture Betty’s rage and sorrow, but it also details the strange relationship that the couple had with the beings for years after the abduction. Betty described the lights she saw and noises she heard in her journals. This went on for years. It’s also symbolic of how that fateful night never left their subconscious. It would always haunt them, especially once Betty was widowed. Yet, there’s also a strange sort of fascination and wonder to the spacecraft, to its graceful movements and its connection to Betty and her recently deceased husband. The poem moves so well from emotion to emotion.
In “Sightings Journal,” the author connects his own research and the love Betty and Barney had for each other to his personal life, specifically an experience visiting his dad in a nursing home. Like Betty, he experiences a similar type of pain while clinging to the past and wanting so badly to keep the dead alive. He writes, “Torn right from the bone, the dead disappear into thin air to become luminous objects in the sky we write about” before concluding with the profound line, “My god, how we wreck ourselves to keep the dead alive.”
If anything, Proof Something Happened is really about Betty and Barney’s love, with some personal narrative and a broader discussion of UFO phenomenon contained within the lines. Some of the poems are unsettling in how they describe the abduction, using Betty and Barney’s own words. But beneath the shock is a story about an interracial couple facing a slowly evolving America in the early 1960s. Their lives would be upended by whatever happened to them on that September night in rural New Hampshire. The poet tackles the famous case from so many astounding angles, including the traumatic experience, Barney’s untimely death, and Betty’s long-term struggles to cope with the ramifications of the experience, including her uneasy relationship to the public, especially the cranks. With so much hype surrounding UFOs recently, Trigilio’s collection hits at the right time, as we gaze at the stars, wondering if other beings exist on other planets and whether they’ve visited us yet. The truth is out there, as they say.