This week, I have stairs on my mind. A specific stairwell is on my mind in particular, but I won’t bore you with those details today. Instead, I’ve collected three sets of stairs for you, to prompt your own step-minded thoughts.
Oskar Schlemmer, Bauhaus Stairway, 1932. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York.
Tamara Thomsen, Stairway, 2008. Watercolor on paper. www.tamarathomsen.com
M. C. Escher, House of Stairs, 1951. Lithograph.
Reading this lyric essay is an explorative dive journey. We join McCarthy as she explores sexuality, self, and the roots and sounds of language. The dictionary is a supporting character throughout, offering a framework from which McCarthy jumps into her oral exploration. This playfulness of language seeps into every line, and it’s apparent early on why the essay was named “An Oral Poetics”:
I’m still an oral character. I taste surge like lapping up hot milk. my tongue lolling the urrrge luridly, dripping form the roof of my mouthcave. My mouth is a chamber of resonance, or is it reactivity?
The pleasure in language is paired with her explorative tone to lighten the heavier content: slaughterhouses, blowjobs, a nuclear leak in Middletown, PA are all topics throughout the essay. This is an informed essay—there are footnotes to other texts throughout, and we see familiar faces in the poets mentioned such as C.D. Wright, Louise Glück, and Emily Dickinson. McCarthy writes also of Cinderella, popsicles, and preschool, but these innocent-seeming moments are rife with dark undertones, as we see in this passage about Cinderella’s slipper:
A vair slipper. This is footwear for a virgin, made from coats of squirrels with grey backs and white bellies. In the original Cinderella, the prince fitted her with a vair slipper, not glass. If I wake up in the mirrored morning and see their girl, the only choice left to me is what I put my foot in today: shard or squirrel? I choose my mouth.
As you can see, her playfulness also comes from turning a phrase on it’s head, and mixing up well-known adages and stories: Cinderella’s slipper, putting her foot in her mouth. These stereotypical cultural stories are revealed for the complex and flawed story lines that they are. These moments of poetic surprise keep the reader tumbling through the essay greedily, enjoying the romp.
While labeled an essay, SURGE feels more like a long prose poem. It also includes interjecting sections in smaller, italic font that act as mini poems within the larger prose piece. The section about the nuclear reactor failure in Middletown, PA, is a bit abrupt; however, McCarthy warns us of this right away, starting that section off with, “Abruptly, I confess—” The section reads more like a nonfiction essay instead of a lyric essay, which works because it juxtaposes the harsh facts of this leak that was never admitted to, but clearly affected those living in the surrounding areas.
The ending comes sooner than you’d like, as a strong, forceful wave of an ending. Here’s the beginning sentence of the last paragraph:
My girl of desire, my blazing hungry unfinished girl wants a poetry that bleeds into the ground, poems that seep into anyplace you are porous and make you twitch and ache and heave.
This poetry does just that: seeps in, and leaves you heaving and aching. It’s poetry that stays with you in your bones, tickling at those pre-conceived cultural notions as you go throughout your day.
Luckily for anyone in the Twin Cities area, you can hear Opal read along with Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, and our very own Timothy Otte TONIGHT! Join us for Incident: A Reading at 7:00 pm at Rosalux Gallery in Northeast Minneapolis.
Do you think the line between lyric essays and long prose poems is blurry, or definite? What other writers flip fairytales or stereotypes on their head?
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?