[Editor’s Note: The lineation of the poetry below differs from the original, a link with the quoted verse in its proper format is forthcoming]
Deep into my reading of this poetry collection, one of the images conjured up in my mind’s eye was Ronette Pulaski from Twin Peaks. I visualized the scene in which Ronette is slowly walking, ghost-like, across a deserted bridge in the midst of an abandoned landscape, having emerged from who knows what desolate wilderness or harsh reality. The audience’s clues are that she appears traumatized to the point of numbness; her face is blank, but she is wearing only a torn and stained negligee and bracelets of tattered rope around her wrists. Following this scene, the next time the audience sees Ronette Pulaski, she is hospitalized, in a coma-like state, unable to reveal the details of whatever sordid story debilitated her in such a way.
Ronette’s back story is revealed later, in bloody bits & pieces and dream sequences with tortured screams and strobe-like flashes of brutalization. Her back story is one of illicit sex gone grotesquely awry, culminating in the horrific rape and murder of another girl. Much of Twin Peaks focuses upon the story of that other girl, dead high school beauty queen Laura Palmer and her salacious secret life. Ronette Pulaski is never more than a peripheral character, yet it is through her vision that some of the more grim and grisly details of Laura Palmer’s final moments of existence are filtered.
Part of the reason Ronette Pulaski entered my mind while I was reading Karyna McGlynn’s I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl is related to this poetry collection’s imagery, settings, and hints of an underlying secret danger that seems to grow increasingly ominous as more clues are uncovered. Another part of the reason is related to repeated links drawn between young female sexuality and some sort of unspoken menace or threat. Yet another part of the reason is because the speaker in many of the poems seems akin to Ronette Pulaski in her peripheral character status.
…There is so much
I want to prevent– What sort of entity must I inhabit
to keep bad words from coming into the terrible acumen of
his possession? How to excise with a volt these toxic suggestions
from his tremendous frame of reference?…
This speaker, from a poem called, “I Want to Introduce Myself, Not Quite Human”, seems to be considering what form or approach to take in order to best articulate something that happened in the past, or perhaps even to somehow prevent it from happening, by looking back and trying to make adjustments to the scene. In these and other texts, it is difficult to determine if the speaker is a main character in the scenarios she describes, because there is often a sense that she is outside looking in—or in the future looking back.
It seems like she is watching from the sidelines or from another point in time. Sometimes it seems as if she is an observer, sometimes an investigator, sometimes a voyeur. But what or who is the exhibit? Is she gazing upon another girl’s life or is she a voyeur of her own past? Maybe the sense of being on the periphery or being disconnected from the main scene derives from a kind of repression or even dissociation. Throughout the book, there is a mood of shifty, unstable identity, leading me to think that perhaps this speaker is revisiting scenes from her own past that she was not equipped to come to terms with at the time. Perhaps she is creeping around this seamy periphery in an attempt to untangle some knots and then stitch some gaping holes closed. Perhaps she is seeking such closure (or at least release) so that she may move forward and forge a more solid identity for herself.
I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl is divided into three sections: ‘Planchette’, ‘Visitant’ and ‘Revenant’. However, one poem takes place before these sections begin, or it might be more accurate to state that this piece takes place after the other sections, chronologically speaking, but is positioned before them in the book, a sort of prologue. This piece is entitled, “Ok, but you haven’t seen the last of me”. In this piece, the speaker states that she is thirty years old. She makes reference to erased memory and a covered bridge. She says, “I remember her eyes, but not her name” and “Her names touches my lungs like the edge of a plate. Hypothermia.” This makes me think of suppression, submersion, and drowning as a kind of defense mechanism. It also strikes me as an extreme way of saying that her name is at the tip of my tongue. It is very possible that this collection’s title alludes to the speaker’s journey back to the past in order to kill off a past version of herself by releasing this past self’s story. If this is the case, then perhaps she must first trawl this former self out of its murky depths, dredge up dark debris and strange artifacts, and attempt to work to the surface something that has been suppressed.
A planchette is the word for the pointer accompanying a Ouija board; that piece which one places her hand upon so that her subconscious mind can guide the spelling out of words from more hidden realms. This concept can be associated with the idea of dredging up inklings and remnants that only the subconscious mind is privy to. After the speaker in the prologue poem revealed her age as thirty, the speaker in ‘Planchette’ seems to revert back to a more girlish state or perspective, able to make strange associations and draw tenuous connections, but not equipped to offer solutions or provide concrete facts. Sometimes, she is a seemingly unreliable narrator, as in the poem, “A Red Tricycle in the Belly of the Pool”.
At the beginning of this piece:
a girl rode her red tricycle around the bottom of the pool
the pool had no water; it hadn’t rained
the girl kept smelling her hand
it smelled like honeywheat, or the inside of a girl’s panties
By the end of this same piece:
her throat burned and she couldn’t move her legs
it wasn’t a tricycle
it was something she couldn’t get her foot out from under
she hated to stop or lose her shoe and, I’m sorry
the pool was full of water
As the girl pedals forward, the details of the scene change. I wonder what that little “I’m sorry” is for. It may be related to some conflict involved with revealing heretofore unarticulated details or sacrificing a past self. Despite any conflict, though, I receive the impression that this narration must either remain mired in murk or move towards the truth. The pool is full of water and it’s time to sink or swim. Even when the girl was riding her bike on solid ground, her terrain was rough. Now she’s underwater.
As evidenced in the poem excerpt above and the poem snippet used to title this review (“panty flowers rising”) female panties are a recurring motif in this collection. They are presented as intimate artifacts and as strangely ominous debris. A pair of bloody panties might be mere garbage or some kind of more sinister clue. A description of the smell of a young girl’s panties hints at an innocent female sexuality that slowly mounts into something more primal and violent (or potentially provoking of violence). The titillation of high school romance and sexual suggestiveness grows more crude and lewd and intertwined with an unspoken menace. Young lust is juxtaposed with young death. Birds nest bangs give way to horror movie settings, as in the poem “Amanda Hopper’s House”, which begins:
It was a farmhouse for killing,
the kind I saw in the paper above a row of senior portraits:
girls found in the basement.
Frosted eye-shadow, bangs like birds’ nests.
Girls I saw and said to myself:
good. they deserve it.
“The stupid sluts” sit on my tongue.
I swallow, but the stupid sluts stick there like chicken bones.
This piece goes on to describe the speaker watching out the window from the breakfast table as Amanda’s older sister, Gloria performs her “splayed” role in an awkward sex scene with her boyfriend, followed by another murderous newspaper headline, followed by a directive from Amanda’s mother for the younger girls to stop “gaping”. This poem’s juxtaposition of sex and violence and its insidious intertwining of female sexual desirability with culpability for such violence provokes some disturbing suggestions and questions. Perhaps most disturbing is the assessment that sluts deserve it and the implication that this assessment has already been implanted into the consciousness of the young female speaker. Still, she can’t quite swallow it, which could signify a kind of queasiness, but which could also mean that those undigested bones will become more debris for the trail of clues.
Poems in the same vicinity include the speaker’s roped off crime scene bedroom, references to fishhooks and “rapist bait”, and an unknown naked man suddenly inside her bedroom at night. Several poems involve female masturbation, in which it would seem that the speaker is trying to take control of her own sexual pleasure, but even these pieces include an uncomfortable tone of furtiveness and voyeurism. There is a sense of a world that cannot be easily grasped by girls, because someone or something is trying to trick them or hide something from them.
Later, damaged seductresses crawl inside, oozing some sort of unspoken but seemingly dysfunctional sex drive. At times, I think the slinky narrative is moving towards some inevitable revelation about an awful sex crime–gross imposition or molestation or incest or rape. At other times, I think part of all the sex/death innuendo is due to such content being filtered through a young mind that overdramatizes and generates its own sexual horror out of the new, the unknown, a landscape of taboo in which “death & sex tickle the same damn spot”. The disturbing innuendo piques and twists and warps and continues to heighten.
Although the mounting menace is not explicitly exposed, it is repeatedly associated with femaleness. One third of the way through the second section of this collection, in the poem “Would You Like Me to Walk Your Baby?” a sense of unease and maybe even evil seems to be connected to just having big breasts and pointy shoes. Pointy shoes make me think witch-like and again cause me to wonder will this shifty speaker sink or float.
As the girlish speaker circles towards a more womanish entity, the development of a heightened libido seems to be accompanied by an even more pervasive aroma of potential sexual violence. The unspoken threat begins to assert itself more insidiously with repeated references to stray and bloody panties, spread legs, and strange insinuations of a danger that cannot be clearly explained. The poems at the end of the second section are rife with especially disturbing imagery, including a pointy-toothed woman playing with a little girl’s bones, a big scorpion on a floral print bedspread, flashbacks to strangely sexual slumber party dares, and repeated references to rape, as in “The Nursery with Half a Window Up Near the Ceiling”, which reads like some kind of hysterical cautionary tale with lines like:
The ritalin girls who watched
the babies said rape then they
all started to cry, their fat flesh quivering in jeans: Jesus…
A man leaned down to look in
the half-window but we could only see his boots pointing in
“He might like big girls or little
girls & even the iron bars won’t
block his penis if he wants in bad enough” they said
Following this disturbing piece, the last four poems in the section are even more disturbing in an amorphously creepy kind of way. They seem to ooze with dark omens and primordial portents and maybe even some virulent variation on vaginal discharge. The female forms populating these poems seem as if they have no control (sometimes it’s not even clear if they’re alive or dead) as things enter or exit between their legs.
From “They Shared Her on a Chicken White Sheet”:
…they ratcheted her up
to their level and one boy said you see this?
and the other said
can it dance? what with her whorl
From “The Amber Thawed, This Black Thing Scuttled Out”:
I saw wheels on his hooves
she wouldn’t get off
they looped a rope around his neck
it came from between her legs
they pulled them both away
he had a squeaky wheel
she had a missing eye
there was something sticky
it was running down the horse
it wasn’t blood
the men led on and on
there was no stable
the Indian blanket rubbed a hole in her thigh
the meat was grey inside
one of the men said he smelled burning tire
the other said he smelled karo syrup
she fastened her feet firm in the stirrups
she said oh sorry, oh sorry
From “Post Nuptials: the Wedding Party Floated Away on an Iceberg”:
I wanted a picture of the bride
before he hung the ice sheet
with her poppy of hymnal blood
right in the center of the floe
when I opened my eyes’
I was locked in a black meat box
with a Kodiak bear who salted
my balled body with fake snow
someone had stolen my camera
the train lurched before or after
As evidenced by these excerpts, the sordid intersections of female sex and violence have continued, and seem to be growing increasingly intense and distressing, with imagery evoking bestiality and butchery and dark underbellies. Female bodies are subjected to the ministrations of unidentified males. Female bodies are presented as malleable meat to be played with, a mysterious burden to be carelessly dragged away, and bloody cargo to be conquered and displayed. Female bodies have weird things between their legs; they are prodded and poked and observed. The speaker in these poems seems especially peripheral, observing these scenes from a detached perspective. There is a strange and disturbing fusion of clinical and visceral in the tone of these pieces. Part of me can’t help but think of a woman splayed out upon some sinister gynecological table with artifacts and debris being dredged forth from between spread legs.
Are females doomed to be exhibitionistic objects, whether under the hands of strange males or under the peculiarly fetishistic scrutiny of themselves? If they can’t even pleasure themselves without the eyes of inanimate objects watching (“I’m flat on my belly, hand in my jeans– / and how to say every penny has become the eye / of a dead relative watching me?”)—if furtive, unidentified male-creatures repeatedly invade the scene– if odd almost feral female-creatures creep through, too, like little signs that animalistic sexuality may position one as prey, then how can females surrender to their own sexual desires without the guilt of being complicit in their own possible entrapment or consumption or demise? Part of me can’t help but think of the blame the victim mentality taken to an even more problematic extreme in which the victim blames herself whilst simultaneously fetishizing herself until the filter is clogged with sodden hair; oversaturated with obsession about her own nefarious fate, tinged with a lurid sense of titillation.
One also thinks of camera filters while reading this collection. One thinks of scripts and how it might be possible to diverge from them. One thinks of stage sets and still shots and props and costume changes. The references to a stolen camera and “lurched before and after” in that last poem excerpt above are one of many allusions to different vantage points—from different points in time, from different angles. There are shifting frames and frames within frames and identity issues. I’ve already mentioned the seeming intersection of present and past, and there are also several pieces in which even within one time frame, one of the speaker’s own relatives fails to recognize her or seems to deny her very existence. Perhaps the pivotal question here is whether it is possible for someone to step out of the murky shadows and into a main acting role (or vice versa). Does someone have the power to change her own direction, despite whatever befell her in the past? Can one direct herself to close the chapter on a past scene and find her voice as a more stable entity?
As this book enters into its final section, the first piece of that section, “The Fox Had No Face the Loggermen Said”, seems to maintain the same dark, menacing, feral tone as the poems from the end of section two. As alluded to in the title, the men are again in control of assessing the scene; although we still have our shifty female consciousness lurking on the periphery and positing her own observations, she still seems secondary. Not only does the female presence have no primary voice; she doesn’t even have a face. Again, there is a creepy focus on something strange between the legs; in the lines “a woman moved so fast I couldn’t see / what white thing she tucked between her legs”, I am made to think of a woman furtively moving to hide some dirty secret, like the curse and misplaced shame associated with menstrual blood and having to staunch one’s flow.
In the first part of this poem, “they rolled a barrelful of something muffled / down the back of a mountain”, so the poem starts off with a stifled weight and seems like a kind of continuation of “The Amber Thawed…” piece, in which an immobile woman is being dragged along by men. At least in “The Fox…”, the woman is moving fast, but is it of her own volition? Spiders are hatching inside her mattress (another female bed invaded by another dark presence), her mouth is opening but words aren’t coming out, “she was wearing a nightdress the color of pistachios”. This is the piece that conjured up the image of Ronette Pulaski in my mind, largely due to its heavy momentum and dreamy/nightmarish imagery that struck me as almost Lynch-esque. Then the female speaker suddenly asserts herself a little more and says:
I wanted to throw her over my shoulder
She was too heavy and my arms were marmalade
she pointed to the boulder under the creek
right where the rope swing dropped off
it looked like the skull bone of Paul Bunyan’s blue ox
a sudden sickness of red algae bloomed to the surface
the current licked itself clean in a second
The nightmarish imagery continues throughout the piece and I’m not sure whether to interpret this poem’s ending as ominous or hopeful. On the hopeful side, perhaps the current licking itself clean could be analogous to a fever dream breaking. On the ominous side, perhaps the imagery of a red swirl being swiftly swallowed by a larger force could be indicative of the harsh indifference of larger forces towards one girl’s blood and bones. Still, she has left her clues and is pointing them out. She has not been entirely consumed. Part of me would like to read something positive in the cyclical rhythm of ebb & flow within this poem, despite its continued motif of dark dream imagery. Part of me would like to view this as a turning point.
The odd almost feral female-creatures creep through the next few poems like damaged starlets from the past or maybe like underdeveloped incarnations of the speaker who don’t want to become dispossessed so keep showing themselves—needily, beseechingly, imploringly—or maybe just like the wounded children that they are—somehow both detestable and endearing at the same time; both victimized and manipulative in their own right. Here is part of the description of one of these creatures from “Brown Study: A Girl Paces Beneath My Window”:
this is not my will-be lover’s
voice but that of a wry lynx
the enormity of her pockets, little shiv
that makes the epithet slattern so apt
who follows me home hirsute
puts the croup of desire back
The connotations I receive from this passage are many, ranging from wild cat to lurid sideshow attraction to sickness to sexuality to curse to a deep capacity to contain many pieces. The word “shiv” makes me think of both a pitiable little shiver and a potentially lethal weapon, most often used by prisoners. McGlynn is an excellent wielder of language, in terms of evoking multiple connotations, eliciting tones, and offering startlingly provocative imagery. This is only one of various pieces in the final section in which the girlish past self slinks in to haunt, plague, or cling to the speaker like some sort of stunted doppelganger. Whereas earlier in the collection, I was thinking that the speaker had an important reason for bringing clues to the surface, by the end of the collection, what with this frequent resurfacing of the past at unexpected and inopportune times, I am starting to think that maybe the speaker had a good reason for trying to drown or suppress this entity. Of course, repression can easily fester into something insidious, so the trick seems to be finding a way to synchronize or hybridize one’s multiple identities into something one can live with (and that the significant others in her life can live with); allowing the past self a certain existence and mode of expression, but a mode that does not perpetually hover on the brink of consuming or being consumed.
I don’t think that I ultimately gained any concrete resolution or epiphany or special knowledge from reading I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, but I could certainly relate to the content, much of which resonated for me on an almost subconscious level. This book offers an interesting and disquieting exploration of the young female psyche, under duress of persistent exposure to violence and sex and things one is not supposed to speak about when she is of a certain age. I am interested in male readers’ responses to and interpretations of this collection, in lieu of their different social conditioning and different set of mixed messages surrounding violence and sex. As a female, I felt personally familiar with much of this terrain: from the frosted eye shadow and birds nest bangs that I myself was outfitted with as a young teen—to the hushed slumber party conversations about the sexually active girls and furtive glimpses of awkward sex scenes—to the strange titillation of reading a newspaper article about rape, back in the days when the sexual nature of the crime seemed to take precedence over the violence, because sex still seemed so taboo and violence still seemed so unreal in our young lives. Of course, there comes a point at which those fascinated imaginings meet the real world and twist into something darker, because it’s no longer only make believe. Much of the content of this book seems to be situated in that sort of confusing transitional realm in which what used to be taboo and unreal is coming to life.
Many of us are familiar with the inundation of media images of sex and violence (especially as it relates to females) and how difficult it can be to extricate the real from the fictive, but we don’t so often experience this story through a poetic text. I found it very engaging to accompany this text’s shifty speaker on her personal journey of trying to extricate the real from the fictive, within this more intimately idiosyncratic context. There may be a cathartic release to be gained from revealing (or reading) these troubled inner landscapes and their darkly convoluted passageways of female sex, slumber party secrets, and those sinister lurkers who would crash the party and invade the inner sanctum of girls’ bedrooms and their illusions of safe harbor. There may be a kind of power to be gleaned from trying to pick up the pieces of shattered illusions and form them into a different kind of puzzle or a new pathway.
Juliet Cook’s poetry has recently been published or is forthcoming in Abjective, Action Yes, Diagram, Diode, Everyday Genius, Oranges & Sardines and many other online and print sources. She is the editor/publisher of Blood Pudding Press. She is author of numerous chapbooks, most recently PINK LEOTARD & SHOCK COLLAR (Spooky Girlfriend Press), Tongue Like a Stinger (Wheelhouse), and FONDANT PIG ANGST (Slash Pine Press). Her first full-length poetry collection, ‘Horrific Confection’ was published by BlazeVOX in 2008. For more information, feel free to visit her website at www.JulietCook.weebly.com.