WARNING: Due to the nature of the book being reviewed,
this article contains explicit language not intended for children
or for those who are easily offended.
the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics
Reviewed by CJ Laity
Citing a poetic tendency that cropped up through publications such as Fence, Chain, and Tinfish, the editors, Arielle Greenberg (who coined the term in 2001) and Lara Glenum, say the Gurlesque anti-movement inspires radical change by "incorporating the grotesque and cruel with the spangled and dreamy." If there were a mission to the Gurlesque anthology, it would be to begin a conversation that uses the "collision or collusion of fantasy and ethics" to ultimately expose America as a "rape culture," and by doing so, to take back language, girlhood, and women's lives. But a mission would suggest a camp, clique or club, and the editors insist that this tendency has not become that.
So far I've read some critique, debate and discussion, but women, who seem to think that the book's biggest flaw is that it doesn't include more lesbian poetry, have so far been the dominant voices on the matter. My notion is that the book's intention is to challenge the stereotypes created by men, so the book is intended to be read and talked about by men.
This is a review for men, written by a man. Since I plan to cite many quotes here, naming every poet and poem referenced would be quite tedious; so in most cases I will merely include the number of the page that the quote is found on.
This collection of 18 "third wave feminist" poets is a spin-off of the hardcore poetry and performances of the late 80s, when Karen Finley invoked the wrath of Jesse Helms by smearing chocolate syrup all over her breasts, and Wendy O. Williams sang about getting "butt fucked" while chopping her guitar in half with a chainsaw, and Chicago poet Lorri Jackson wrote lines like "she did what her boyfriend wanted / and he finally left her for good / she cried rape for a few days / after giggling the knife up where it hurts"—and with those lines she opened for bands like Ministry and the Revolting Cocks. The militant Sister Serpents of the early nineties eventually found more power in sarcasm than in seriousness, and the next generation was transformed into Riot Grrls. It is from that platform this anthology admits it was launched.
With poem titles such as "This Is A Fucking Poem" and "A Thousand Virgins Shout Fuck Off" and "Sunday Morning Cunt Poem" Saturnalia Books' new anthology Gurlesque (the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics) certainly doesn't shy away from what it is: a pure act of anarchy. Indeed, the first stanza of the book includes the sentence "First he spit on my asshole and then start in with a middle finger and then the cock slid in no sound come out, only a maw gaping, grind hard into ground."
Let's not dick around about it. The Gurlesque anthology is a violation of just about everything that is sacred: "A holiday shit stain" (pg. 32) so to speak. It is especially a violation of poetry itself. It's as if the authors are literally fucking poetry by shoving their bold, capital letters into their poems, ripping words out of their poems and leaving blank spaces, trapping words in boxes like coffins, raping the poetry with deliberate grammatical errors, jamming gibberish into their stanzas—"punkbunnypopsicle" (pg. 239)—and littering their verse with footnotes, random thoughts, perhaps a sudden onomatopoeia and other acts of complete nonsense—"happy disco-colored elephants" (pg. 279)—while taunting anyone who would be offended by it with biting sarcasm: "I even am a girl. Wow, fuck me." (pg. 28) or "How nice it is to be broken!" (pg. 195). The women of Gurlesque say fuck form. Their poetry comes in the form of a book pitch, a screenplay, a diary entry, a resume, a job interview, even a classified ad in which you can purchase a "gift box of human skulls" and pay for it with "kitten or monkey fetuses" (pg. 271).
This anthology is a comprehensive study in bi-polar madness. It contains silly terms like "loosey-goosey" within ten words of curses like "Bullshit" (pg. 258). It is an assault on anyone who still believes in crushes or puppy love: "Oh pooches, need me! Up her ass a maggot smelling of leather and amber and hair" (pg. 31). With lines like that, these poets rebel against everything that is expected of them as females. They have become so sick and tire of being prisoners in their "rape culture" that they have gone quite mad, and have transferred that madness into their poetry.
"Kitty, sweet kitty. Your simply the best.
ANXIETY ATTACK! ANXIETY ATTACK!"
(from "She Sure Likes The Cream" by Nada Gordon)
The design here seems to be to take every preconception, expectation and pet peeve men have regarding women, and to deliver it back to them with such exaggeration that it becomes sickening. Those cute stuffed ponies you won for your girlfriend at the carnival are gathering in a pack behind the movie theatre "amongst the cigarette butts, getting their hooves stuck in wads of gum" (pg. 224). Everything you assume your girl is into, her hula hoops (pg. 91) and jump ropes (pg. 120) and karaoke machines (pg. 92) and bright silver hair barrettes (pg. 196), have been replaced by a "galaxy of worms" (pg. 59) and a "blunt word cock" (pg. 96) and an anus that smells "like an old dollar bill" (pg. 81). Even the photo album is not immune to the Gurlesque poets' word attack:
"For an hour I take pictures of my cunt. Spread cunt, panties pulled askew, prim virginal cunt, cunt with asshole, cunt without asshole. I make a photo album, one cunt on each page."
(from "I Threw Away My Gun And My Harness" by Tina Brown Celona)
The romantic moon is "A kind of ancient date-rape drug" (pg. 65) and not even the purity of a newborn child escapes the vile insurgency of Gurlesque.
"Margaret stares at the baby jars and wonders if one of them were taken out, would her or she be rubbery like a rotten egg" (pg. 45).
"And all these blurbs are for s---. Like if I were to carry around a turd and pretend it is my baby" (pg. 107).
And, men, in case you think you might get aroused by the cute little girl's naughty disobedience, like watching Gogo in Kill Bill in her schoolgirl uniform wielding her deadly weapon, or just in case you think you might find something forbidden and erotic here like peeking into your girlfriend's Victoria Secret catalogue: think again.
"Cotton briefs are like meeting in the rainforest
no longer just for girls being killed gong to school" (pg. 208).
In fact, there isn't a single erotic moment in Gurlesque. The boobs in here had their fathers killed and their fingers cut off (pg. 155) and the nipples look like pig snouts (pg. 177) and are "supplanting napalms" (pg. 197). The models on the Gurlesque catwalk are not only dressed up as Cleopatra and "Cookies and Cream" but also as "Disaster at Sea" and "Slaying of the First Born" (pgs. 268 – 269).
"Miss Wiggles is a sensitive
large quantity of limpid urine"
(from "The Wandering Uterus" by Kim Rosenfield)
In order to insure that you don't get the wrong idea, female body parts are presented as mere objects by the Gurlesque poets:
"Your body is opium and you are its only true smoker" (pg. 55).
"The heart grows like moss and this is all I will ever say about that" (pg. 165).
I don't know about you, but the thought of moss growing has never been one of my major turn-ons. The only turn-on in this 300-page anthology is weirdness, and the authors of the poetry are the only ones being turned on by it.
These women are determined to make every one of your assumptions and demands backfire on you by giving you exactly what you expect and ask for. Do you think you know what is on a woman's mind? The Gurlesque poet will leave her page blank so that you have to fill it in for her. Do you expect her to tell you what is on her mind? She will say it then: "I hate you therefore we will be together forever" (pg. 30). Do you accuse her of speaking in code, not saying what she really means? Be careful: "No, it was I and I blank I bandit blather that louse that fiddle-dee-dee little lame chimera that came as the name yes different" (pg 198). Or perhaps you think she never gets to the point.
"Lip, carnelian bitch-froth. Airless hiss, worn in a scythe. Skin glove
laced tight, a wax doll mildewed sinking limb. Great hole
full of mouth-holes. Eye-holes, cavities and sugar cubes."
(from "Horse" by Danielle Pafunda)
Do you think she's always late? She'll hand you an entire chapter of prose so that you have to wait for the next poet. Do you think of her as your servant? Fine. "I am here to lick your shoes, your hairy shins, your eventual cock" (pg. 101). Do you need her to repeat herself because you weren't listening the first time? Well then, she won't stop repeating: "a come pound me subject me, a come pound me prettily, a come pound me sex instance, a come pound me come sex me sex instance" (pg. 199). Right about now, you probably want her to just shut up already, right? Well, that isn't likely to happen.
"I am going talk about how no one loves me
until the words feel fake in my mouth" (pg. 239).
Guess what, men, the truth is these poets don't give a fuck what you want, because in their collective opinion, for the most part, you are all dolts and animals. Face it. You don't understand women anyway so why should they try to make any sense for you? You don't care what she wants, do you? Do you? What does she want? Perhaps she wants you to put yourself in her shoes.
"Can you imagine dear men
what it is to be a woman being fucked" (pg. 79).
"The guy fucks you five eight minutes
you think you are supposed to come
you do not. What's wrong with you?
frididaire girl" (pg. 79).
"nigh am so sick of doubting
myself an thinking I am bad" (pg. 77).
Perhaps she wants you to look at your own bi-polar behavior.
it's all pinky promises, rhinestone tiaras &
eating hot French fries at midnight.
Tender mooing & then,
something is tearing a hole into the air" (pg. 252).
Perhaps she wants you to look at your own sexism.
"Hey saekshi, the American GIs cried to the Korean
barmaids, pronouncing saekshi 'sexy'
though saekshi meant respectable woman" (pg. 98).
Perhaps she wants you to look at your own neediness.
"We barely knew each other yet he confessed to me until his face clattered off like a hubcap" (pg 102).
Or perhaps she doesn't want anything from you at all. Perhaps it's not about you. Perhaps that's the point. Maybe she simply wants to be the scatological one for a change.
"I look at the cat.
One of us has farted" (pg. 279).
But when reading this book, one thing is for sure: she doesn't want to be medicated. She wants to be empowered. And she is not waiting for your goddamn permission or approval. She doesn't need you to tell her who she is or what she stands for. She is taking the power, whether you like it or not.
"I just want to piss down my own leg" (pg 107).
But, hey, what do I know? I'm just a man.
How can we describe a Gurlesque poet?
"She's an animal mujahedeen
a one-eyed voodoo goddess
With a clashing color scheme"
(from "She Sure Likes The Cream [song version]" by Nada Gordon)
The vicious, lawless, obscene poetry in Gurlesque is disturbing and complicated, nightmarish and mesmerizing, silly and unsettling. The many layers of a Gurlesque poem need to be gently peeled away like pretty petticoats in order to reveal the "violence of cute" beneath.
Gurlesque can be purchased by clicking here.
Note: Here is a review of Saturnalia Books' Gurlesque Anthology. WARNING: Due to the nature of the book being reviewed, this article contains explicit language not intended for children or for those who are easily offended.