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What We’re Reading: Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals

2014 July 17
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What We're ReadingLockwood cover

Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood (Penguin, 2014)

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.


Admit it.

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?