Maximum Gaga, Lara Glenum, Action Books 2008
A phrase that popped into my head after reading Lara Glenum’s MAXIMUM GAGA for the first time was ‘post-apocalyptic porno poetry’. Post-apocalyptic because the land of these poems is populated with post-human creatures that are strange mutations of animal and machine. Porno because the land of these poems is riddled with extreme sex acts and meat and teeth and perverse modes of consumption and bodily fluids galore.
Another thought that occurred to me is how it seemed strangely apt that I could abbreviate the title’s collection as MAX. GAG. In a way, this collection seemed like a vomitous outpouring of grotesque hybrids in which misshapen chunks were hacked up into different pieces, also misshapen.
As I read the collection for the second time and began to think more closely about it, I questioned some of my own initial impulses. For example, why did I think that the creatures in these poems were necessarily mutants? Maybe they were more like evolutions, having transcended certain human inhibitions and hang ups and choking hazards. Maybe they were a peculiar fusion of mutant AND transcendent being. They are not simply cross-breeds of animal and machine (they are not simply anything). Their perimeters and parameters seem to mutate and/or evolve and/or shift frequently between various humanoids, animals, and machines—sometimes separately and sometimes simultaneously. They are shape-shifters. They are identity-shifters. They are hard to pin down to any particular specimen board or dissecting tray.
I very much enjoyed Glenum’s first poetry collection, ‘The Hounds of No’, which was also inhabited by a creepy plethora of hybrid creatures including assemblages of arachnid and manikin. Due to the multiple appearances of spider legs and manikin limbs juxtaposed with the blood and eggs and ovaries, that collection had more of an insectile and even fiberglass-like feel for me. The creatures of MAXIMUM GAGA strike me as more like steaming, sexual meat. It is almost impossible to read this collection without thinking about orifices. Orifices as both sexual holes and open body cavities, ready to be penetrated or excavated or to violently expel their own contents in unpredictable ways. ‘The Hounds of No’ was oddly visceral in its own right, but MAXIMUM GAGA is downright sodden with viscera, saturated with viscera, oversaturated with viscera.
The creaturely hybrids within this collection are heaving amalgamations are nymphomaniacal sensations with sinister projections of splitting open postmodern nations of human orifices giving birth to animal heads, of mammalian miscreants, of marvelous deformities, of twisted cross-breeds of porno stars and cows. Even though there are numerous different kinds of creatures conjured up in MAXIMUM GAGA land, cow-like creatures are especially predominant.
Although one of my first thoughts about the book was ‘post-apocalyptic porno poetry’, this thought could easily enough have been followed up by a whole list of possible posts that crossed my mind in the wake of this collection. Post-gender, post-human, post-porno, etc… One of the first poems in the book is entitled, ‘POST ORIFICE’, but what does that MEAN? It’s some kind of food for thought, for sure. However, in some ways, the word ‘post’ as a prefix seems problematic and overused. So many different kinds of poetry or other art pieces have been labeled as ‘postmodern’ or ‘post-postmodern’ or ‘post avante’ or post-feminist’ etc… Thus, it can be pretty confusing to try to pinpoint what all these posts are supposed to mean. Often, such descriptors seem as if they could be defined so very broadly. As such, they seem anti-precise. Sometimes they even seem gimmicky. At times while reading MAXIMUM GAGA, I thought that IT seemed a bit gimmicky. The overall content of the collection is so visceral and queasily sexual and engaging and provocative in its own right that I didn’t think it needed to rely on or lean on or be supported by any gimmicky structures or framing devises or clever tricks.
I wasn’t impressed, for example, with the back cover of the book, which presents one of the collection’s shorter poems in its entirety. This poem is called ‘INTERVIEW WITH THE QUEEN ON NATIONAL TV’ and the brief body of the poem consists merely of the following question and answer—“Q: Is it really necessary to make such abominations? / A: It is absolutely necessary to make such abominations.”
I will admit to a bias against very short poems, which often strike me as insufficient and unworthy of standing alone. Granted, within the context of this poetry collection as a whole, the piece does not exactly stand alone, but why cull it for placement on the back cover? As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a successful teaser piece, because it is far from one of the most interesting pieces of the book. It strikes me as gimmicky and overly obvious. I get that in addition to serving as a poem, it might also serve as an alternative author’s statement of sorts, perhaps a kind of retort to how some readers/critics might respond to Glenum’s poetry, but even if it does serve such a dual purpose, that doesn’t make it interesting or complex enough to draw me in. Perhaps it is meant to make a reader think ‘WHY?’, but that question would have occurred to me anyway, without the service of such an overly obvious little prompt.
Other areas in the collection also struck me as gimmicky or as framing devices or as slightly filler-esque and not nearly as vital or integral or interesting as the pieces surrounding them. Then again, every reader is bound to regard some pieces as more powerful and others as weaker when experiencing a full-length poetry tome, and for the most part, I thought that the innards of MAXIMUM GAGA were strong and provocative.
‘WHY?’ was indeed one of the questions that this collection provoked for me, which is of course a very broad-based question that could be approached form a number of different angles. Due to my own interests and sensibilities as a reader, I will be approaching this question from something of a pussy-centric angle, but my approach is not meant to suggest that this collection can only be read one way. I think it is pretty open to interpretation.
Might it possibly be TOO open to interpretation? I don’t have a concrete answer to that question, but it might be worthy of asking. In a recent interview with a literary magazine (Prick of the Spindle, volume 3.1), I spoke about my recent attraction to poetry that seems to flirt with fine lines and brush up against borders of being ALMOST over the top, but without quite plunging over. Here is an excerpt from that interview:
I tend to be interested in poetry … that borders the grotesque. Poetry that borders the pornographic and is visceral with a voluptuous horror. Poetry that experiments with such borders without dissolving into nonsense or total absurdity. Sometimes it’s a very fine line and I tend to be interested in flirting with fine lines.
Some of my favorite poets and poetry collections in recent years have involved content that seems to be walking that fine line, such as Lara Glenum’s collections (‘The Hounds of No’ and the new ‘Maximum Gaga’, both published by Action Books) and others put out by Action Books—Danielle Pafunda’s collections (‘Pretty Young Things’ by Soft Skull and the more recent ‘My Zorba’ by Bloof Books)—and several female writers who have had books published through Fence Books in recent years, including Catherine Wagner, Chelsey Minnis, and Ariana Reines’s ‘The Cow’.
Although these books all inhabit different stylistic approaches, they seem to share a sense of revolting, bodily-based horror associated with femaleness and a desire to birth this horror or abort it or deconstruct, reconstruct, or vivisect it. Several of these books and writers are also associated with the ‘gurlesque’, which is a burgeoning new poetic movement that has been under discussion at Delirious Hem (http://delirioushem.blogspot.com/search/label/Gurlesque) and elsewhere and I have been following that conversation with interest. I’m interested in the idea of juxtaposing cuteness or other seemingly innocuous girlie traits with horror, danger, disgustingness, grotesque, burlesque, sexual insatiability, etc… I’m also interested in poetic/art content in which the female body is some kind of representational battleground.
As far as MAXIMUM GAGA’s relationship to fine lines, there are places in the text (and this may or may not be intentional) where I think it goes too far and does plunge over the top. However, when I say it goes too far, I don’t mean to suggest that it suddenly enters the realm of impropriety or offensiveness. I actually relish the impropriety and offensiveness of these poetic innards. I love the idea of people who tend to get off on clichéd porno being exposed to the visceral, sexual imagery of MAXIMUM GAGA and becoming grossed out or better yet becoming queasy yet inexplicably aroused at the same time. These innards are repulsive yet compelling and I relish the idea of hapless victims being hooked by the poetically catalyzed power of their own underlying desires, then tied to the bed with steaming intestines and lobbed with bloody cow brains until they are vomiting and ejaculating at the same time.
At times while reading MAXIMUM GAGA, I was reminded of William S. Burroughs’s ‘Naked Lunch’ and its juxtapositions of surgery, sex, and violent death; in particular, a perverse yet dynamically described scene in which non-human hybrid creatures called Mugwumps are being hung en masse and as they swing from their nooses, being choked to their deaths, the description focuses on their powerful erections and ejaculations. Unfortunately, I cannot locate my copy of ‘Naked Lunch’ at the moment, but I think the Mugwumps were willing participants in this taboo sexual climax, as if it was an extreme form of auotoerotic asphyxiation. I think it took place in a public forum and was also linked to public defecation and pedophilia. Also, when I just Wiki’d ‘Naked Lunch’ to remind myself of the names of the creatures involved, the following description of ‘Naked Lunch’ seemed rather befitting of MAXIMUM GAGA, too: “The novel’s mix of taboo fantasies, peculiar creatures…and eccentric personalities all serve to unmask mechanisms and processes of control…”.
It is not the over-the-top disgustingness of the content that occasionally seems to have gone too far. When I suggest that it has gone too far in places, I am speaking of a sense that the poet has lost some control of her own content. This may be intentional and/or linked to the nature of the content itself. However, for me as a reader, MAXIMUM GAGA is most powerful and most effective when its content, no matter how bizarre or grotesquely pornographic, still seems crafted in a way that maximizes multiple connotations, intentional provocations, and unsetting juxtapositions that are splayed out for a reason. Sometimes, the content does seem like this; other times, it seems a little looser, sloppier, and slapdashier. To me, slapdashery seems too easy. It reminds me of different kinds of meat pitched into a high-powered blender and then the button held down until the blend becomes tasteless. Again, I don’t mean tasteless as in inappropriate or offensive; I mean tasteless as in having lost a distinct taste and texture, tasteless as in undifferentiated, tasteless as in imprecise. This may provoke the question, ‘When does boundary transgression dissolve into tasteless nonsense?’
At moments, the content of MAXIMUM GAGA does seem to cross the line into scatological nonsense and/or absurdity and whether or not this is intentional, it renders those parts of the content less powerful/effective for me as a reader, because I am not a fan of careless blending or flinging. I am certainly interested in attempts to dissolve seemingly arbitrary and/or limiting boundaries, but flinging is too easy and imprecise, yielding the occasional accidental connection in the midst of messy random splats. I am not a big fan of artistic improvisation and its resultant occasional happy accidents. I do like wild imaginativeness, but I like it to be contextualized, well-crafted, and catered towards maximum impact. For the most part, MAXIMUM GAGA does seem well-crafted and aimed, but there are stretches here & there where it seems more like perverse pornographic elements and meat and body parts and bodily fluids are rather haphazardly flung together. Fortunately for my taste buds, these sections are the exception rather than the norm.
As well as MAXIMUM GAGA conjuring up Naked Lunch, another and more recent text conjured up for me was ‘The Cow’ by Ariana Reines. Reines is another young female poet who is associated with the gurlesque, deals with visceral content that includes sex and violence that sometimes borders the grotesque, flirts with scatological fine lines, and offers a stance that seems to juxtapose splayed specimen with bodily revolt. As the title of the book suggests, ‘the cow’ in its various guises plays a substantial role in her first poetry collection. The cow as meat heading towards its impending slaughter, the cow as milking machine, the cow as dowry, mad cow disease, the cow as a kind of metaphor or representational battleground for certain female concerns, consumption of the cow as a symbol of both life and death. Somewhat reminiscent of Reines in ‘The Cow’, I think that Glenum in ‘MAXIMUM GAGA’ is attempting to play with various connotations of bovinity and give the cow a new guise. I think that she is trying to recontextualize and recast the cow.
The cow has many connotations, but some of the more typical ones include bovinity associated with domesticity, docility, and a certain kind of slowness, placidity, and even stupidity. Also, although cows obviously mate and reproduce, they are not often thought of or portrayed as particularly sexual animals. It’s more as if they are milk and meat machines that just happen to be alive. In contrast, the cow-like creatures in MAXIMUM GAGA seem anti-bovine. They are anti-docile and anti-clearly defined as serving a certain purpose. They are pro-unbridled sexuality, pro-sexual pleasure, and even seem to take pleasure in their own machination, their own milking, their own consumption. They play an active rather than passive part in their own usage. They cream, they’re creaming, they’re a creamery. They’re not the kind of cows we’re used to. They may not even be real cows at all. There are decoy cows in MAXIMUM GAGA and this is just one of many multifarious and sometimes multi-layered costumes.
MAXIMUM GAGA is fixated with orifices, but a counterpoint to this is an exploration of artifice. Is it orifice versus artifice or can the two co-exist? They often seem to co-exist in a highly twisted and extreme fashion in MAXIMUM GAGA land. Instead of two perfectly-shaped breast implants, we get EIGHTEEN implants on a creature that isn’t even a woman (take that, you consumers of clichéd porn). We get a realm in which even the souls are prosthetic. We get a world in which even the language has been warped, fused with made up words, harsh hybrids, and unnatural syllabic juxtapositions such as pornotopiary, vibratron, voluptorium and creamzilla.
Even the names of the creatures are unusual in MAXIMUM GAGA. Minky Momo, for example, sounds strangely sexual, but also might be cow-like (it makes me think of a slinky muumuu or a sleazy moo moo). One of Minky Momo’s partners is called Mino (which bothered me at first, because it conjures up ‘minotaur’ and a minotaur already has its own pre-existing mythos and I wanted all the creatures in the book to be new fabrications; on the other hand, the minotaur connotations work well in both the bovine and hybrid contexts). Another creature is known as a Normopath, which sounds like a cross-breed of normal and pathogenic with an o (for orifice or orgasm) in the middle.
At moments, it seems that the orifice is posed against the artifice, but at other moments, it ALL seems unreal. We get creatures inside different creatures inside different creature costumes inside different costumes, layer after layer of costuming, a costume stripped away to reveal yet another costume (beneath which even the soul is prosthetic), leading us to question which is the real creature? Is the real creature an amalgamation? Is the real creature a construct? Is the real creature in need of layer after layer of deconstruction? Does the real creature even exist? What is real? What is artifice? What is a construct? Is everything a multi-layered construct? WHY?
It’s not only the creatures themselves that are bursting out of costume after costume or unsuccessfully contained by standard parameters. Even the creatures’ surroundings are subject to shifting perimeters. We get houses made out of teeth and furniture made out of squealing pigs, for example. Sometimes, the description of these shifty parameters/perimeters is handled very effectively; other times, it seems barely poised on the brink of absurdity, which may be intentional. Throughout the collection, the poet seems to be playing with the concept of mimesis, but mimesis has various definitions.
As already suggested, this poetry could be interpreted in a variety of directions and using a variety of approaches. I’ve already touched upon Glenum’s association with the ‘gurlesque’, which can be glimpsed in some of the collection’s description and imagery juxtapositions, such as:
“A sinister cream-puff” (pg. 30)
custard dripping down my thighs : I saw myself wearing a necklace
of cow hearts” (pg. 74)
Such excerpts seem to combine baked goods (and their connotations of sweetness and domesticity) with female accessorizing with a blatant and meaty sexuality that twists conventions of consumption in multiple ways.
One of my personal favorite aspects of MAXIMUM GAGA is how much of its content turns any standard parameters and conventions associated with what it’s supposed to mean to be female upside down and inside out. Obscene or not, I love the voracious consumption in this book, especially the grotesque yet strangely liberated/liberating sexual voraciousness that often seems to transcend gender roles or even gendered bodies.
Here is the beginning of the very first poem in the collection, ‘MINKY MOMO SPEAKS OF NORMOPATHS’, which drew me in from the get go:
“If you manage
to finagle an orifice
out of my lubricious runts
a pink sugar deer
will pop out
my nacreous cumsacks”
As a reader, I definitely get the impression of some kind of strange sex act and genitalia here, but it especially provokes my interest how this is described in a post-gender kind of way or perhaps in a multi-gender kind of way. We get orifices and penile things and indefinable things that insinuate sex, but how? This is my kind of porno and I can hardly wait to see where this goes.
Here’s another sample from a piece called ‘MINKYCORE’:
“I’m flexing my eye-pods
& lube out into a sea of congealed pig organs”
This offers us just enough familiar-sounding sexual language (‘feeling nasty’, ‘milk’, ‘lube’) to set a certain tone, but the context is out of whack, at least according to the standards of any kind of porn we’ve ever been exposed to before, which is saying a lot considering all the bizarre sexual fetish niches that are pretty easily accessible online these days. I suppose that ‘a sea of congealed pig organs’ could be somewhat analogous to crush porn or the slimy porno trend involving eel, octopi, and frogs sometimes being inserted, but sometimes being eaten or otherwise torn into oozing smithereens. But what on earth are ‘eye-pods’? That feature doesn’t even sound human. Should I visualize non-human creatures engaging in human-like sex acts?
Later in this poem, the eye-pods break open and
“A hundred other eyes
The last line of the poem refers to the speaker/creature’s “thousand open legs”.
Clearly, we’re not talking about any kind of normal human parameters here. We’re talking about something excessive, we’re talking about something extreme, we’re talking about something bizarre, we’re talking about something that may be grotesque or obscene or mutant-like or transcendent or maybe even all of the above. It’s all very imaginative and interesting and strangely provocative, but again one might wonder WHY?
One of my favorite poems in MAXIMUM GAGA is ‘FEMININE HYGIENE’. That title comes with certain built-in connotations before one even enters the body of the poem; for me, many of those connotations are associated with consumerist culture’s stringently narrow definitions of female cleanliness and grooming and propriety. Women are supposed to be hairless, women are supposed to smell sweet, women are supposed to be modest to the point of secrecy about their bodily fluids and bodily functions. Keeping up such appearances is not exactly natural (or to put it another way, keeping up such appearances is much more closely aligned to artifice than to orifice), yet it is women who diverge or deviate from keeping up such appearances or who fail to adhere to the commonly accepted standards of feminine hygiene who tend to be viewed as aberrant or ugly or sexually undesirable.
Well, in Glenum’s poem called ‘FEMININE HYGIENE’, we are presented with the extreme opposite or antithesis of a woman who adheres to standard feminine hygiene. The creature in Glenum’s poem has
“ …wiry follicles & spitting fistulas
semen caked under my fingernails
All that grotty jizz crusting to sugar in my ass crevice
No acetylene virgincakes
& Later on my back
my fangs slung over Mino’s shoulder
Everyone standing in the skybox could see
I was thrashing
malignancy out of every oil-lubed pore
rancid & unyielding
No facemask made out of pantyliners or baldifying grout
could cure me of my monstrous frame
or my unsightly cocklust
which from the skybox appeared exactly like
a dancing turd”
The beginning of this poem made reference to this speaker/creature having contracted the “female disease’, so here we have a female-like creature who seemingly couldn’t care less about using so-called ladylike speech or looking pretty. She unabashedly presents herself as hairy, sweaty, smelly, and out of control in the throes of sexual desire. She may be sexually insatiable and at the very least she is sexually voracious, so much so that she can’t be bothered to care who is watching; she is not concerned with converting herself into a neat and prettily packaged spectacle for the audience. Furthermore, the fact that there IS an audience (everyone in the skybox) suggests that there is substantial voyeuristic interest in partaking of her in all her messy, unstructured, uncontained glory. In a way, this poem strikes me as a lashing out of extreme resistance towards societally-sanctioned constraints of traditional beauty standards, feminine hygiene, feminine shame, and what constitutes acceptable/appropriate female sexual behavior.
This poem is far from the only example in MAXIMUM GAGA in which we are treated to extreme sex in public scenarios. There are many such incidences throughout the text, as though the creatures populating MAXIMUM GAGA land are so driven by their bodily desires that they have abandoned most parameters, perimeters, containers, and constraints.
Some might read all this wild, unbridled, and kinky sex as an indecent submission to baser desires that has led to the downfall of humanity. However, it can also be read as quite liberating, especially if one regards this landscape and scenery more metaphorically or representationally. After all, many of the boundaries and constraints that are imposed upon humanity are unnatural, repressing, stifling, or play on humans’ more fearful impulses in order to encourage them to consume.
Back to feminine hygiene, it is pretty common knowledge that the feminine hygiene product market plays on women’s insecurities that they smell bad or will be undesirable sexual specimens if they don’t buy and consume unnecessary and even harmful ‘personal care’ products such as douche and feminine hygiene spray. In years past, women were even encouraged to douche with Lysol, for which the advertisements implied that any woman who neglected to take this measure towards feminine cleanliness would be to blame if her husband lost interest in her or if her marriage failed. Thankfully, women are no longer douching with Lysol, but even to this day, there is no shortage of advertising, marketing, and even real life language that seems catered towards making women feel unduly ashamed about some of their natural bodily functions. Thinking about the matter from this vantage point, I personally find Glenum’s ‘FEMININE HYGIENE’, in all its messy deviance, to be a refreshing departure from the standard definition of feminine hygiene.
It makes me feel more amenable to some of the messiness of the book as a whole, because the shifting structures, the sometimes haphazard and out of control boundary transgression, and the ever-changing costumes make it very difficult to pin any of these creatures down to being a certain kind of desirable or undesirable specimen. A voracious sexuality permeates MAXIMUM GAGA land, but instead of serving as sexual specimens, these creatures are active sexual players. Instead of sexual commodities, they are sexual performers. Even if their sexual performance often seems so aberrant as to be almost incomprehensible or maybe even gag-inducing, I say good. It’s time for standard conventions of gender, consumption, and pornography to be chewed up and spit out in chunks that are nearly unrecognizable and I think that is part of what MAXIMUM GAGA achieves. It tries to muck up standard meanings, to open up holes that new meanings can enter.
MAXIMUM GAGA is a kind of bodily revolt, a kind of liberation awash in slippery meats and slimy fluids, with voracious and lusty hybrid creatures wallowing and reveling in the lack of neat packaging. At times, the wallowing and reveling may seem somewhat self-indulgent, but it also seems liberating for its lack of inhibitions and for its absence of preoccupation with fitting a certain physical mold in order to be perceived as sexually desirable.
Consider another excerpt from a part of the book that is formatted in a style akin to a play script:
“DED: A central component of maintaining & reproducing social order
is the management of women
The primary strategy for the control of women
is their public representation
DED: The Queen’s carnage suit
must be converted
into a docile cow “
Even lurking in the background of MAXIMUM GAGA is some kind of regime that wants to control and contain impulses that may be dangerous to production or consumption or the standard order.
Perhaps the almost absurd layers of artifice that are presented in some parts of MAXIMUM GAGA and perhaps the almost obscene overindulgence in orifices are partly meant to suggest that to escape being a controlled woman, one must escape the boundaries of recognizable womanhood altogether. One must don layer after layer of disguises so that her core cannot be pinpointed and then subjected to control OR one must expose her own holes with such furious and perverse abandon that she entirely deviates from standard parameters of ladylike womanhood. If one does not want to be pinned down as a specimen, if one does not want to be commoditized, then one most PERFORM in some shifty and provocative ways, then one must revolt against what is typically considered to be palatable, desirable flesh.
Juliet Cook’s poetry has appeared in Diode, Diagram, Octopus, Robot
Melon, WOMB, Prick of the Spindle and many other fine online and print
sources. She is the editor of Blood Pudding Press. She is the author of
numerous quirky little chapbooks, most recently including ‘Gingerbread
Girl’ (Trainwreck Press), MONDO CRAMPO (dusie kollektiv 3) and PINK
LEOTARD & SHOCK COLLAR (coming soon from Spooky Girlfriend Press). Her
first full-length poetry collection, ‘Horrific Confection’ was recently
published by BlazeVOX. For more information, please feel free to visit
her website at http://www.JulietCook.weebly.com.