Panty Flowers Rising: Juliet Cook on Karyna McGlynn’s I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl


I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, Karyna McGlynn, Sarabande Books, 2009

[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

of black…

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.

Purchase I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl

***

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.

Advertisements

The Revolting Body of Lara Glenum’s Maximum Gaga, reviewed by Juliet Cook


maximum-gaga

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)

and

“…egg-cream
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
of
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
&feeling nasty
I milk
The Normopath
& 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
roll out”

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
& Mino’s
semen caked under my fingernails

All that grotty jizz crusting to sugar in my ass crevice

No acetylene virgincakes
waxing mannequin

& 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.

Human Dark with Sugar by Brenda Shaughnessy, reviewed by Juliet Cook


Brenda Shaughnessy, Human Dark with Sugar, Copper Canyon Press

 

I loved Brenda Shaughnessy’s first poetry collection, Interior with Sudden Joy, thus was eager to partake of her second collection, Human Dark with Sugar. However, despite the two collections’ reminiscent-of-each-other titles, I thought they seemed stylistically dissimilar and Human Dark with Sugar did not immediately arouse my adoration or admiration—it was just fine, it didn’t wow or dazzle or thrill or particularly provoke. At least, that was my first impression.

 

It’s not exactly fair to compare two different collections, but why give into restraint. Shaughnessy’s last book was more interestingly opaque and ornate, whereas her current is more transparent and plain. Interior with Sudden Joy is more like a fizzy concoction crossed with suspicious elixir whereas Human Dark with Sugar is only slightly carbonated like a lo-cal seltzer. Begging the question, who wants enhanced water instead of an extra-special potion? Of course, many people do want enhanced water. Later it occurred to me that perhaps one particularly pertinent difference between the two collections is that ‘Interior’ deals more with the interiority of one particular speaker, whereas ‘Human Dark’ has somewhat more of an exterior focus, dealing with the human condition in a manner that might come across as broader and less quirky, but is ultimately no less relevant.

 

When I first started reading Human Dark with Sugar, though, I was struck by how much more plainspoken it seemed compared to what I had been anticipating. I suppose I shouldn’t enter into a new reading experience with expectations already in mind, but what can I say? I was anticipating quirkiness, obtuse eroticism, darts, and pleats. Instead I was greeted with what initially seemed like a disappointingly smooth, straightforward surface. In the first poem of the collection, “I’m Over the Moon”, the speaker clearly states, almost as if in explanation:

But my lovers have never been able to read

my mind. I’ve had to learn to be direct.

Upon which part of my mind protested, ‘No! Give me your frilly obliquity!’ In the realm of poetry, I do not tend to be drawn in by what seems overly obvious, universal, or predictable. I wish to form my own interpretations from evocative imagery and carefully-chosen yet peculiar details. I am desirous of quirky specificity.

 

Despite not being immediately titillated by the suggestion of oncoming directness, I did want to approach this book’s style and content with an open mind. I must admit that my non-enthralled regard continued throughout the collection’s second poem (“Magic Turns to Math and Back”) which informs, ‘So math, not metaphor, works’ and then goes on to speak of formulas and the third poem (“Why Is the Color of Snow?”) which instructs, “Melt yourself to make yourself more clear”. Even though that phrase is somewhat interesting to me, the references to precision and clarity were not boding well for my stylistic preferences as a reader. In tidy accompaniment to such references, the poems’ lines breaks are clean and consistent, the rhythm has a melodious flow, and there is quite a bit of rhyme. I tend to enjoy internal rhyme and assonance, but most of it falls near the ends of short lines here, imparting an effect that seemed a bit too sing-songy for my liking. Of course, the brief quotes presented so far are phrases plucked out of the context of considerably longer works. The first poem also includes some fairly explicit sexual imagery, but for some reason, even that did not pull me in—perhaps at least in part because I wasn’t sure how to contextualize it within the collection as a whole yet.

 

From the beginning of the book, the poems hint at themes associated with love, loss, the unrelenting passage of time, and some of the difficulties involved with attempting to stake out one’s own personal identity against these backdrops. Such themes continue to manifest themselves and play out as the book proceeds. I found myself wondering why this poet opted to contain such broad themes within the consistent and evenly-paced frameworks which most of the collection’s poems abide by. One theory could be that perhaps certain aspects of love, loss, and time seem so chaotic that the poet chose to exert some control over them by fitting them into neat structures of her own devising. One cannot halt the forward momentum of time, for example, but one can freeze frame certain moments of time into documents, to at least temporarily experience an illusion of control; even then, how long will it last before one realizes the relative absurdity of trying to control something larger than herself?

 

From the beginning of the book, there are references to order (both natural order and more human-imposed orders) and to the masses; there are allusions to the futility of escaping the order of things and the difficulty of setting oneself apart. Simultaneously, there is a certain sense of longing to do just that—to delineate oneself from the masses, to escape into some sort of distinction. Initially, this having-to-fit-in-yet-longing-to-break-away juxtaposition plays out in a rather generalized sense. As the collection proceeds, longing becomes more specified—the desire to set oneself apart as a woman, the desire to set oneself apart as a romantic partner, the desire to set a present version of oneself apart from a past version of oneself or try to somehow reconcile the different versions against the backdrop of lost love and passing time. Connecting many of these poems seems to be an underlying sense of low-grade horror hinting at implication within some sort of semi-numb, undifferentiated, I-am-replaceable haze yet on some level realizing that sometimes the alternatives to that fake womb may be much more acutely painful. So which state of being will one choose: numbed-out, dumbed-down lack of differentiation or painful individuation?

 

This conflict is effectively illustrated within “Parthenogenesis,” the fourth poem in the book and the first piece to intensely pique my interest. This piece explore the theme of self-control and of fitting in versus setting oneself apart within a female-centric context that resonated for me more than the somewhat more generalized context of the poems preceding it. This piece also makes use of more startling imagery and jarring juxtapositions and does so to powerful effect. The poem begins as follows:

It’s easy to make more of myself by eating,

and sometimes easy’s the thing.

 

To be double-me, half the trouble

but not lonely.

The piece then continues to create a tone of numb giving in and fitting in and dull gluttony; then suddenly takes a startling twist in the following jarringly juxtaposed couplet:

the feeling of being a natural woman,

like a sixteen-year-old getting knocked up

From there, the piece offers up some increasingly extreme visions of alternatives to overeating (i.e. mindless consumption i.e. buying into the natural order of things), alternatives like starving oneself, aborting oneself, eating glass, cutting off pieces of oneself.

 

In a way, this poem seems to be provoking a reader to consider the choices of either an easy, lazy mode of existence or else a painfully extreme mode of existence—but both of those modes seem to be rooted in self-immolation (either self-effacement or self-destruction); both of those modes seem to be dysfunctional and yielding of unhealthy results. Isn’t there a third choice, a reader might wonder.  An option that does not revolve around distracting oneself with overindulgence or adhering to extreme versions of punishing self-restraint? A choice more akin to normalcy? Well, the voice of the poem has considered that, too, and has this to say about the matter:

Sometimes I put in just the right amount,

but then I’m the worst kind of patsy, a chump

 

giving myself over to myself like a criminal

to the law, with nothing to show for it.

 

No reward, no news, no truth.

It’s too sad to be so ordinary every day.

 

Like some kind of employee.

Being told what to do…

The confusion of voice(s) in this piece seems to be the dilemma of a person who does not want to concede to ordinary truths; who wants to somehow rebel or set herself apart, but who can only seem to do so through self-destructive means. Maybe the voice in this poem is positing that there is ultimately no satisfying escape from the futility of ordinariness, from the ordinariness of the human condition, from the overall absurdity of existence, ultimately ending in the oblivion of time’s passage no matter how one might choose to assert herself.

 

Some might read “Parthenogenesis” as an eating disorder poem, but I read it as reaching beyond that into the realm of order/disorder and function/dysfunction. Perhaps even serving as a disturbing anti-consumption piece—disturbing especially because there is no satisfying solution even if one tries to manage a healthy balance or negotiate a middle ground.

 

At times while reading this collection and considering the themes it repeatedly explored, I found myself wishing that the language and structure of the poems conveyed more of a sense of urgency or dissonance, rather than being presented in such a straightforward and fairly traditional format. The short line lengths and non-surprising line breaks led me to read these pieces with a slow and careful pace that sometimes did not seem to mesh well with the thematic concerns. Perhaps the structure of these poems is trying to enact its own statement about the futility of attempting to contain oneself within ordinary and expected formats.

 

Despite language usage that sometimes seems overly obvious, many of these poems do include an underlying resistance against the obvious. In ‘Parthenogenesis,’ the speaker would rather starve herself than give in to normal eating habits. In ‘Old Bed,’ the speaker would rather deprive herself of sleep to the point of hallucination than succumb to normal patterns of sleep—and her description of the bed and resistance to sleep in this piece also seems to speak of a culture that has become overly reliant on medication, whether self-medication or societal-sanctioned remedies, as in:

This pink, synthetic honey spoiling

the tea of my life, already steeped into a stupor…

 

It’s like a fad now faded, trendy and cheap.

 

Sleep: if everyone put a spike

through their heads and wore paper pants

 

to work I’d be the one to say ‘No thanks.’

I’m not so insecure that I need

 

to be ridiculous, to dream, to belong

to the smiling group, like anyone.

 

I don’t need a cult of sleep to tell me to die

every night. I don’t trust the world…

Again the resistance to normalcy or to what a misguided society now tries to prescribe as normalcy, to complacency, to giving in. This speaker does not trust the impulse that seems to seek to turn us into zombies, into sheep, into sleepy teams, embracing what everyone else unquestioningly embraces because it’s very ubiquity has come to make it seem like some sort of collective unconscious—but is it really? Or is something more insidious than that? Something more akin to a carefully-constructed, corporate-plotted drug commercial posing as reality? And even if one somehow recognizes this, how does one resist the easy fix?  How does one speak against it and have a chance of being heard when so many people are automatically buying into the ‘sleep drug” that is advertised to us so ubiquitously that it begins to seem acceptable and normal and like the natural order of things.

 

The next piece, “Spring in Space: A Lecture,” states:

The message is: there is never enough,

 

Though we celebrate the hoax of boundlessness.

Yet another indication that in spite of the adherence to straightforward structures and relatively obvious language, the voice of these poems is not willing to blindly accept the status quo. On some level she recognizes it as a hoax, an illusion, a farce, a comedy of manners—and she repeatedly points this out, but of course recognition does not equal escape. She seems to be stuck when it comes to the matter of how to move beyond traditional structures, if such progression is even possible. As evidenced in the very structure of these poems, the boundaries seem so constricting, the acceptable parameters so very narrow (and part of me wants to scream, ‘So forsake acceptability then!’)

 

Seemingly weak lines like “Love is the source, of course” crop up here & there—and I’m not quite sure if they’re meant to be taken seriously or to poke fun at aphorism-istic self-help speak or maybe it’s something in between. After all, many of us persist in believing that ‘love will conquer all’, but this book’s poetry sometimes casts even that commonly held hope into doubt.

 

Appearing in the center of the collection, the long poem “Replaceable until You’re Not” deals with a serious romantic partnership and some of the repercussions of its demise. This includes the strangeness of feeling stuck in time and mentally stilted because one can imagine a certain version of herself residing in a past partner’s memory—and even if she has moved on to an extent, that version of her will remain suspended, unable to progress, as in:

I’ll always be the same woman you loved,

              this woman I no longer am,

 

I’ll be her and re-be her

             because I can’t replace myself.

 

Hers is the body you loved, she was yours,

              this future corpse;

 

no matter how many lovers she, her body, and I have,

              only you know the curvature that stops your heart…

The subject matter traffics in some pretty complex and thought-provoking terrain suggesting even our own preservation in time is beyond our control for it is at least partly based in other’s perceptions of non-comprehensive versions of us that may remain stagnant and pinned in the past no matter how we choose to proceed in the present and future. How do we reconcile these past/present/future incarnations of ourselves? How do we choose which versions to embrace? Is there a productive way for these versions to co-exist or is it inevitable to feel as if one is almost perpetually shedding skins and losing something that can never be regained?

 

No matter how time progresses and shifts and changes us, older versions of us will exist in other people’s minds, in other moments in time, (just as older versions of other people are preserved within us). Sometimes considering these other versions can be quite unsettling and other times, perhaps such versions are worthy of small celebration on their own terms. The poem “This Loved Body’ offers up such a celebration in prose poetry sections of lush, vivid imagery that specifically celebrates the details of a lover’s body. It is not entirely clear whether the speaker is celebrating a present lover or a past lover—and maybe it doesn’t matter that much. In terms of both style and tone, this poem feels like a departure from much of the rest of the collection, but be that as it may, it as an evocative celebration of a passionate interlude in time and the detailed impression another individual has the power to impress upon one. Whether extending from the past or the present, this piece imparts a certain sense of positivism about the power of love and unique human interaction even in the midst of all this numbness and interchangeableness and non-delineation. The language in this piece seems rich enough to suggest that perhaps certain special connections can save us from the ordinary after all. Even if something so powerful is not always able to sustain itself, some of its details will continue to exist within one and isn’t that worth something?

 

Overall, although the styling and the surfaces of most of these poems does not initially thrill, but further consideration of their underlying layers and of their thematic concerns provokes complex thought processes and is worth a read and then maybe a careful reread.

*

Juliet Cook is a poet and the editor of Blood Pudding Press. A few of her recent publication credits include ‘DIAGRAM’, ‘OCTOPUS’, ‘ditch’, ‘blossombones’, ‘Sein Und Werden’ and ‘Prick of the Spindle’.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and currently has a poem representing in Sundress Publications Best of the Net 2007 Anthology.  Her various print chapbooks can be acquired via Blood Pudding Press at www.BloodPuddingPress.etsy.com.  Her first e-chapbook, ‘Projectile Vomit’, will be published soon by Scantily Clad Press.   Another print chapbook, ‘Heart Urchin’ is forthcoming from Trainwreck Press.