Bury the Girls, Then Bury Their Babies
The face of a young girl stares out from the cover of Fiddle is Flood (Blood Pudding Press, 2015), Lauren Gordon’s stark and awe-inspiring chapbook. Her hair intermingles with a collage of sky, vines, bare legs. Another girl lies on her back along the bottom, looking up, wistful, white skin gleaming. Though a black-and-white ink drawing, the girls’ lips are plump, pouty even. A bursting red flower, scattered amongst the scrolling detail, is the only color. Gordon created this cover herself; the lush, rouge flower provides readers a visual, introductory cue for her explosive poems that circle sex and death. Through Gordon’s sparse words and lyrical lines such as:
cut the bluestem grass
in the blazing sun
walk through swarms
of white butterflies
the big brown jug
the wild cool creek
Gordon creates her own nursery rhyme and a darkness emerges, as dark as the black bird arching its neck in song on the cover.
As many readers may be aware, these poems were largely inspired by the Little House book series, first published in 1932 — a series that wove yarns around rural life in the American Midwest during the late 19th century; the stories were so quaint in setting and detail, so oddly clean in character and tale. The female characters of the books, for example, always wore long muslin dresses, but they never seemed to get very dirty — even though a regular chore (especially for characters Laura and Mary) was literally sweeping dirt floors. This cleanliness serves as a great metaphor for other types of physical and spiritual purity: sexuality is not discussed or displayed, even though Laura’s future husband, Almanzo, was a good ten years older than Laura. When the family suffers from fever and shaking (malaria) and don’t understand what it is, they look to God. Their prayers fall on deaf ears. When Mary goes blind from scarlet fever, rather than rail at God, or show anger, Ma says it was from eating bad watermelon.
Gordon enforces this theme of repression in an interview at The Volta, discussing the ways in which all “unmentionable” coming-of-age themes (sex, menstruation, death, religion) in the Little House series seemed to be pushed deep down inside and tied off with bonnet ribbons. Gordon explores all that is taboo in this collection, frequently employing messy images drawn from the stories’ setting: milk, tears, blood, plasma, and The River.
The eroticism in these persona poems, for example, is frequently revealed through fluids.
From “Ellen’s Calf Bawls”:
I skim the milk
dip my fingers
let her rough lick
tonguing and suckling
She’ll butt the pail
unfettered udder, bottle balk
Gordon repeats “milk” in these sensory exploding lines. The readers taste and smell it. Even the “unfettered udder” is blatantly sexual and unapologetic. Gordon moves from the pure white milk to the mud and grime. Dirt lines the cracks and spine of this collection in such a delectable way. Gordon places her characters in the mud quite a bit, both literally and figuratively. A favorite set of lines are from “Be a Good Girl and Swallow the River” read:
silver fishes and all that swim in the darkness
like flicks of shine because good girls suck the mud
and this is what it is like to lose your blood
to make a body you drink it up and push the river…
The mud alludes to sexual fluid, bodily fluids, (the woman always a vessel to receive and then give and give), but the mud is also the final resting place for Laura’s miscarriage. The mud is where everyone goes to decompose.
In “Ma Scraps the Boiled Orange,” the Laura persona confides:
Mary and I eat the shavings
roughage for keen eyes of buffalo wallows
sharp to stalk wolves, cicadas still in skin
pocket pebbled breaking weight
I listen for the Indians
press a cold tongue
to the ceiling of my mouth
lay a hot hand
to myself under
the piecemeal quilt
In Gordon’s work, though anticipating danger from Indians, the allusion to masturbation smacks the reader across the face: this is not your mother’s Little House book.
These young women are raised to believe they are special treasures, but when they come of age, in Gordon’s poems, the true reality shines bright: they are objectified by a “traditional” culture that is under the impression that it cares for and nurtures them. All too soon, misogyny rears its ugly head. Laura is “pinned under the town drunk.” Laura and Mary are also sexually objectified as soon as possible. The men in these poems are not just fetching buckets of water or brushing hand against hand on a walk at twilight. In “Pa Sent me to Town,”
Ma sprinkled my calico
make it sweet, Ma
sweet prairie grass sweet, Ma
hit it with spittle
Ma hot striking stranger eyes
all over my body…
Gordon repeats the word “sweet” a word often used to describe little girls, but it is disturbing in a sense here. Other words like “hot” and “spittle” really deliver the tone home to an all-new way of thinking about this particular time period as well as punching us in our modern-age guts, conjuring up countless stories we’ve all heard about the street harassment of women (and even young girls).
Yet the poems are clearly arranged to show they have not forgotten their place as “women.” Laura and Mary go from hiding under a bedsheet to also getting their periods, are “tented” (an allusion to The Red Tent where females on their periods are sequestered, perhaps?) and then being married off. In the Little House world, as Gordon sees it, there isn’t time to enjoy the thrill of growing up. Laura persona says she wants to be Pa’s “bouncing baby boy” and how can we blame her when her path to her role as “mother” is so defined, the role as tight as any straitjacket? Laura fulfills her destiny only because she owns a working uterus. In the poem, “Then I’m a Woman, Full and Fleshed,” Gordon writes:
I will not vomit
in my very own pantry
where flour lies corn meal slides
into bucking waves awash I wonder
I’ll have this boy
this bouncing boy…
Sixteen-year-old Laura has a miscarriage. There are no “unmentionables” here, where the grasshoppers “fuck their way out west” and “Almanzo, all man, wants to know me…” Here is the line that describes Laura’s baby brother: “one terrible day he straightened out his little body and was dead.” The lines are powerful and awful in their straight forwardness. Death is just an event written on the calendar. Having a baby, even at age sixteen, is still painted as the clichéd woman’s work: Gordon illustrates Laura’s complete isolation:
…up parched tight grass
never seeing the soft prairie
never feeling the soft weight
of your son pressing
your ribs when I’m sixteen
my prayers sound like a woman
behind a sheet in the ink…
Laura is alone in her nightmares, or in this case, a sheet “with a knife, a knife renting air terrors…” even though Laura is still a girl, suffering in silence. Then she gets to bury her little baby in the river mud.
And where is God during all of this catastrophe? Everywhere. He is in the river. He is in the evil muskrats in the hay. He is in the harvest pick. He is in Pa’s songs. God is a presence here, but he probably “hates” and “scolds” more than Laura Ingalls Wilder would like. God is a popular trope when nothing else can be easily explained.
Gordon weaves a full-bodied tone with these poems; they capture a kind of modern-day fairy tale, where death steals so many lines and while we fiddle, the world burns… and floods.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and currently lives in the DC area with her family. She is the author of six chapbooks. The most recent ones are forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press, Crisis Chronicles Press and Shirt Pocket Press. Her first full length poetry collection is forthcoming from Lucky Bastard Press. Recent work can be seen / is forthcoming at Pretty Owl Poetry, Yes, Poetry, Gargoyle Magazine, Jet Fuel Review, Glittermob, The Norfolk Review, Moss Trill, Pith, So to Speak, Apple Valley Review, Otis Nebula, Freezeray, and Hobart.