This Thursday, please join the Hazel & Wren team at Rosalux Gallery in northeast Minneapolis for Incident: A Reading, in collaboration with the current exhibition, “Incident: Rebecca Krinke and Duane Ditty.” A night of community, art, feathers, —and of course, writers— the evening will feature three local poets: Timothy Otte, Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, and Opal McCarthy.
This week, I’ve collected three images inspired by Krinke’s and Ditty’s “Incident” show, and which should in turn provide some inspiration you. Incidentally, these three images are also excellent preparation for Thursday night, when we’ll be writing a collaborative, audience-generated poem inspired by the artwork. Sound like fun? Good. See you there.
Josef Sudek, Remembrances of E. A. Poe, 1959. Photograph. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Missy Hammond Dunaway, A Quiet Bird and a Noisy Bird, 2010. Archival ink on paper. www.mhdunaway.com
Beth Dow, Clearing, Wakehurst Place, 2004, from In the Garden series. Photograph. www.bethdow.com
Patricia Lockwood is not the kind of poet whose book you give to an older family member, unless that family member has a bit of a wild streak. Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals explores the important questions of today, as enumerated on the back of the book: “What if a deer did porn? Is America going down on Canada? What happens when Niagara Falls gets drunk at a wedding?” and many more. Despite the absurdity, however, these poems are well made and often find room to explore more serious subjects—which makes these poems all the more dangerous, as you never know what sort of turn a poem will take next.
The collection’s title comes from first poem, “Is Your Country a He or a She in Your Mouth:”
Mine is a man I think, I love men, they call me
a fatherlandsexual, all the motherlandsexuals
have been sailed away, and there were never
any here in the first place, they tell us.
The poem threatens to come apart from these opening lines, the speaker’s “I think” signaling that this narrator is unreliable. Even the grammar tries to destroy the poem; Lockwood crams several independent clauses into one sentence, the way a hyperactive child might. Toward the end of “Is Your Country A He or a She in Your Mouth” the speaker proclaims, “at last I am using the accent of the homeland, / at last I am a homelandsexual,” finally finding some sense of belonging.
There is no narrative in Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals, and no sections to separate poems into thematic blocks. Lockwood asks us to take each poem on the same plane, and even the order of poems feels more like a suggestion than a directive. Lockwood pulls no punches, as a look at the table of contents reveals. Sexuality is strange and rarely erotic in these poems, and cultural taboos abound. Titles such as “Search ‘Lizard Vagina’ and You Shall Find,” “Nessie Wants to Watch Herself Doing It,” “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics” are just the tip of the iceberg. Just the third poem in the collection finds a beloved childhood character, Bambi, acting in a porn. The poem, titled “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer,” is Lockwood’s bastardization of a pastoral:
A great wide clearing in the face of the deer
Says THE MEADOW, THE MEADOW! and all of us watching.
The deer’s mouths moving as if they are reading.
But no, they are eating the grass.
Lockwood’s poems are what might happen if you got writing prompts from the writers of The Onion.
It would be a mistake to assume that Lockwood isn’t serious, however. She simply uses humor and surreal images as a contrast to the darker moments in her work. “List of Cross-Dressing Soldiers”, one of the most tender poems in the collection, opens with descriptions of women who dressed as men to fight in wars. “Together / with men they were blown from their pronouns”, Lockwood writes, a beautifully concise line that puts men and women on the same level of tragedy. Later in the poem, the speaker describes the interactions of her brother with his fellow soldiers:
“Kisses,” he writes to a friend.
His friend writes back, “Cuddles.” Bunch of girls,
bunch of girls. They write each other, “Miss you,
brother.” Bunch of girls, bunch of girls. They passed
the hours with ticklefights. They grew their mustaches
together. They lost their hearts to local dogs,
what a bunch of girls.
“What a bunch of girls” feels like a punch line, and it might have been had it not come hard on the heels of lines about people burning to death and the suicide of another soldier. Lockwood’s democratic treatment of these soldiers blurs the line between male and female, forcing the reader to confront the tenderness and horror seen by every soldier, regardless of sex, since humans first went to war.
Elsewhere in the book, Lockwood dares us to laugh, as in what is arguably the book’s most poignant and emotionally devastating poem, “Rape Joke.” I hesitated even writing about this particular piece because, as the poem itself predicts, by writing a poem called “Rape Joke, you’re asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you.” The poem, five pages long and made up of unlineated paragraphs, details a rape and its aftermath, frequently referring to both the rapist and the situation as “the rape joke.” The dare comes in the final lines:
The rape joke is that the next day he gave you Pet Sounds. No really. Pet Sounds. He said he was sorry and then he gave you Pet Sounds. Come on, that’s a little bit funny.
The whole poem, originally published by The Awl, is worth a read.
Patricia Lockwood has done something brilliant in Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals: she’s managed to write poems that are at once well crafted and on the verge of dissolving. She’s managed to write poems that are funny, yet serious, and occasionally very sad. There’s something democratic about the way these poems shift from feeling to feeling, line to line. Like Hannah Gamble, Anthony Madrid, and Michael Robbins (who is also published by Penguin), Lockwood is making poetry unsafe again.
What other poets working today are exploding notions of what’s “acceptable” subject matter in poetry?
Phones are certainly a part of modern day life. Mobile phones, anyway. This week let’s study the telephone and write some words about it. Just to keep it interesting, though, I’ve gathered up three telephones of a slightly more antiquated variety. Brrrrriiinng!
Roy Lichtenstein, Ohhh… Alright…, 1964. Oil and magna on canvas. Private collection.
Richard Estes, Telephone Booths, 1967. Acrylic on masonite. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain.
Todd McLellan, Apart Phone, from Things Come Apart series, 2012. Photograph. www.toddmclellan.com
Consider all the reality shows available on television today, and it’s not difficult to conclude that viewers love people behaving badly. Now bookish sorts can turn off the tube and still get a dose of deviant deeds in Murray Farish’s new collection of short stories, Inappropriate Behavior. From strikingly realistic portraits of people struggling to maintain their sense of self in difficult circumstances to the fractured worlds of people barely holding on to reality, Inappropriate Behavior offers a range of stories that are just as voyeuristic as any reality TV show.
Farish distills the stresses facing many families today and illustrates them with shocking clarity in the title story. “Inappropriate Behavior” follows what could be considered a typical forty-something couple—George has been unemployed for months, Miranda’s struggling to keep the family afloat with her salary, and their son, Archie, has inappropriate behavior neither the school nor medical community can properly diagnose.
The strongest section of the story is a pages-long string of unrelenting questions mimicking the constant loop that must run through the minds of those who have less money coming in than going out.
Why does an American CEO earn 350 times the salary of the average worker? Because that’s what the market will bear? What are we going to do? If my child’s new school doesn’t notice that his classmates have locked him in a broom closet for three hours, does that constitute neglect? Does nobody know poor Rip Van Winkle? What are the effects of homelessness on children?
You can just hear the voice-over going into commercial: “Will George find a job? Can Miranda hang on to hers? Will the money run out? Will things ever get better? Stay tuned!” “Inappropriate Behavior” could easily be a reality show on the now profoundly misnamed TLC.
In other stories, Farish uses the immediacy of the first-person POV to create the confessional atmosphere so popular on reality TV. “Mayflies” is a particularly poignant story about Ms. Willet, a thirty-seven-year-old woman whose life is filled with heartbreak and shattered dreams. She married her high school boyfriend because she got pregnant and is stuck in the same small-minded small town she grew up in. Her older son shot and killed her younger son before joining the Marines, and her husband is slowly drinking himself to death. She works at a diner with Sandy, a “melodramatic girl who claims to have big dreams,” and Royce, “a twenty-four-year-old child already well past the apex of his powers,” who vaguely reminds her of her husband. Although she distances herself emotionally from everyone now, she still feels protective of Sandy. “I’d like to be able to tell her things. I’d like to tell her to go away, farther than Auburn. Go states away, countries away. Go and don’t come back.”
The story takes place over the course of one night, a summer night in the midst of the annual mayfly spawning season when mayflies fill the air and the surfaces of the town. Ms. Willet is restless, and when she sees Sandy kiss Royce after an apparent date, she uses her car to exact an act of self-redemption and protection for Sandy. She’s caused considerable damage but feels no remorse.
I can think in this moment, but I cannot seem to feel, so I think about what I should feel, and I don’t know. I think I should go get help. I think about the times I let Royce sleep with me. . . . I think about Buck, and how we stayed together all those years even though we only got married because of Ronnie, and then how, years later, here comes little Ford, the boy I wanted, the boy we actually made love to make. I think, Royce is someone’s child too—but she’s dead. I think I know why I did this to him, and I think it’s almost a good enough reason.
I say, “If you don’t die, you’d better by God stay away from that girl.”
But inappropriate behavior isn’t limited to actions. As Farish illustrates in “The Passage,” inaction also qualifies as inappropriate behavior. “The Passage” imagines Joe Bill, a naïve young man, sharing quarters with Lee Harvey Oswald on an ocean voyage in 1959. Joe Bill eventually reads the mysterious journals of his cabin mate and confronts him on the contents. Lee warns him that one day Joe Bill will have to deny knowing him or what was in his journal. After the Kennedy assassination, Joe Bill tells the reporters and investigators what Lee told him to say. But Joe Bill has questions of his own.
And of course, there was the biggest question of all. . . .It’s been with him every day since and will be forever, and it’s the one question he has an answer for: What did you do about it, Joe Bill? And the answer is, nothing.
Farish has a strong debut with Inappropriate Behavior. As with all short story collections, some stories are stronger than others, but even the weaker stories here don’t slow down the momentum. Inappropriate Behavior is an engaging, quick read. It’s summer, folks. Turn off the television, head outside, and sate your own voyeuristic appetite with material that’s just as juicy but much more substantive than the standard reality show fare.
Where do you prefer to get your inappropriate behavior — reality television or books? Does fictionalized inappropriate behavior work better in small doses (short stories) or big doses (novels)?