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Lisa A. Flowers

A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON

WAVE BOOKS, 2012

ISBN 978-1933517599

REVIEWED BY LISA A. FLOWERS  

 

coco

Last year, CAConrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon—a book that encompassed a perfect blend of street insolence and elegiac tribute—was published. Raunchy and tantrumy, insightful and spiritually reverent, Rumpelstilskin-stampingly angry, and uproariously hilarious, it was a kind of hash oil distilled from its author’s originality and strangeness, and an unforgettable hymn of praise to the work of others.

Over a year later, each re-reading is not merely a return to something puissant and relevant, but a trip to a landscape that, like certain atramentous or transcendental places in the heart, turn out to be knowable only when you come to them. Marsupial is a work of pretty much unlimited generosity that is is there for you when you need it, and it has a portal and a therapy for every condition: love, loss, ecstasy, rage.

The (soma)tic exercises in Marsupial’s title are derived from Soma, a sacred Vedic drink and the Greek word meaning “body”, and the flesh—and the sacred memory of the flesh of the dead—are ingeniously preserved and remembered in Conrad’s hands as they are in no one else’s. Some of the muses that preside over his passion for the corporeal are not unlike the talismanic ‘good luck’ rituals behind dance, or extreme sports: highly superstitious, forged of an immediacy residing not so much out in space, toward a theoretical (and always encroaching) theological ecstasy or doom, but into those forces concentrated into immediate physicality and its sustenance and performance.  There is something of the time-fear of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson here—a punk rock Quentin, too marvelously and electrifyingly angry to die, as the dead keep falling through the book rapidly, like a meteor shower, almost too frequently to be eulogized. As such, the most moving crux of Marsupial is perhaps best summed up by Conrad’s contemporary, the poet Ariana Reines, who wrote, in another context, “What is exhumed not from the earth but from a body itself is an addictive kind of beauty you can’t easily get over” and “Earth, I will have to miss you; I miss you already./and yet when I touch myself whom I should not trust/It is still the heaviest and most jealous feelings that bind me to you, like blood”.

Cum, blood, the body’s voluntary/desired and involuntary/undesired responses to love, passion, trauma. Conrad, one of the most head-on of poets, has rightfully bristled at being called an escapist. “I want my blood, my vomit, my piss and semen IN my poems”, he said in a recent interview. “I will be at war with Death for as long as I can stand it, and I have (Soma)tics prepared for writing poems under the influence of chemotherapy and other horrific ways we survive.” These are poems that do not abandon their subjects, or treat transfiguration and escapism as if they are the same thing, but forge ahead to restore human beings and moments—in their own right—to the organic states of grace they might have been in before they became corrupted by illness, cynicism, tragedy. As in most spiritual and theological rituals, Conrad’s great obsession seems to be bringing the living and the dead into one place—a longing apt to be consummated in lines as lovely as white candles: “Everyone is in two places here/ and in memory holds porches to their light”. Yet, the essential difference between the preservation-value of pending mortality and the preservation-value of pending immortality—aren’t both concentrated toward the same hope?—is always in question, as is the union of both states ideally suited to mimic and keep each other. So it is in Musk, a poem born from the exercise Séance Your Own Way: “Dormancy entered a flayed/ Bond by/Soda fountains of the world it/Seems funny but it is/Exactly funny how/Exceptions cram/into the disappear.”

With its obsession with fluids, food, physicality, Marsupial sometimes has the wild, unhinged glee of a three-year-old Jackson Pollocking their feces across the wall, as in White Helium:

Smear snot or blood or semen or pussy juice or ear wax or piss or vomit or shit or spit or sweat or whatever excretion you have available onto your balloon. Hold onto the string as it floats above you. Relax on your back on the floor. Hold the string by your toes with your legs extended. Look at the balloon with binoculars. What emblem is this? What Jolly Roger?

Ditto, unforgettably, for the book’s politically-loaded title track:

Someone downtown bought a new refrigerator and I carried the large cardboard box upstairs to my apartment. Lined with blankets and pillows it was the perfect marsupial pouch for the new poetry exercise. I punched a hole in the back and inserted a baby bottle filled with soy milk to suck on. Just outside the box DVDs of Pasolini’s films played, first The Decameron, then The Canterbury Tales…My boyfriend came over. We played Pasolini’s SALO OR 120 DAYS OF SODOM. We removed the baby bottle from the back of my cardboard pouch and my boyfriend used it as a glory hole.  Graffiti around his cock and little wigs made of cotton and pillow stuffing. I glued a frame around the hole, asked him to back up and enter slowly, a portrait of a cannon at the castle gates.

salo

Too, wherever it meanders, whatever criticisms its detractors have leveled at it, Marsupial has that quality that always has been and always will be characteristic of original work: completely magical and unpredictable imagery. A quality that, in turn, is summed up by the great Mina Loy, whose manifesto (“If you are very frank with yourself and don’t mind how ridiculous anything that comes to you may seem, you will have a chance of capturing the symbol of your direct reaction”) Conrad gives ample credit to. This, in tandem with “sometimes you have to kill your darlings” and “show, don’t tell”, has always pretty much been the most reliable of literary advice going. However, rules are only as valuable as the message they endeavor to protect, and, thankfully, there is little of the sacrificing of dears in Marsupial: true to the reverence, often expressed in his work, for nearly everything as sentient life, Conrad kills nothing, and all the pretty chickens and their dam run free and pecking at our ankles through the streets of his poems like a brood of unruly children whose parents believe—with Monty Python’s stern Jehovah—that every sperm is sacred. As an instructional-book-by-definition, Marsupial “tells” in wonderful, wacky proselytizing, a blend of radical humanitarianism and fabulously cathartic misanthropy—as in the beginning of this exercise:

Go to a shopping mall parking lot with trees and other landscaping growing between the cars to create this poem. Find a tree you connect with, feel it out, bark, branches, leaves. Sit on its roots to see if it wants you OFF! These trees are SICK WITH converting car exhaust and shopper exhale all fucking day!

There’s Feast of the Seven Colors , a series of exercises ornamented by titles likeDistorted torque of FLORA’S red (written after eating only red foods for a day while under the influence of a red wig, right side in curls, left side straight)” and “Rehab saved his life but drugs saved mine at the blue HOUR (written after eating only blue foods for a day while under the influence of Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ played on a continuous loop from 6 a.m. to midnight)”. Yellow’s synesthesia eddies the young, doomed spark of high heeled boys (“glitter anchors an eye underskilled for death”) with a feral tracking-through-the-foliage of missed intimacies (“So many things I’d like to smell/but am not allowed Franz Kafka’s crotch”). Largely, Marsupial is also a passive-aggressive dialogue with a spirituality equally revered and held in contempt. Kick the Flush could just as well be directed at God(s):

HE could if HE

Wanted to develop

An odor to please us take

HIS shirt off

Aid our anticipation

But when HE demanded respect HE

Was surprised to

Find out what HE

Really deserved…

It was HIS need to

Apologize that drove HIM

To uploading

Rude sensations

HIS fracture of listening

Causing whistle blanks

That’s when

We woke the blue

Lights in HIS head

It’s how we earned our freedom

Now I open my gorgeous entrails to

The sun…

But Conrad understands that things of life, the beloved experiences that made and make it worth living, are not to be left behind, “gotten over”, in the sense that such a term is usually used; not to be digested and shat out for a higher continuation. They are, rather, the building blocks of wisdom and spiritual continuation, always aspiring to be the closest possible touching point of the dead to the living. “If you can’t believe you’re going to heaven in your own body and on a first name basis with all the members of your family,” Joan Didion famously said in The White Album, quoting an acquaintance, what’s the point of dying?”. Marsupial espouses the cultivation of an enlightenment that does not involve the surrendering of self to the vaporizing of a superior consciousness, like the maiden in Grimm who cannily turns herself into a lake to escape her pursuer, or the ice hotels of Scandinavia that melt every spring, only to be rebuilt from the solidifying of their own element in spring. Nowhere is the latter analogy more movingly turned around than in the AIDS Snow Family exercise:

In January gather snow. This is intimate, this calling to honor the shock of being alive. I made one tiny snowman named CAConrad and one tiny snowman named Tommy Schneider. For six months they held hands in the privacy of my freezer while I visited the streets and buildings in the Philadelphia of our love. Snow crystals travel miles out of clouds into the light of our city. My snowman read to his snowman the letters I brought home to the freezer. It’s 2010, AIDS is different in this century you didn’t live to see…the day after Summer Solstice I took the snowmen out of the freezer.  90 degrees, we melted quicker than expected, even sooner than I could have imagined.

Sooner than we could have imagined, for, as Conrad reminds us, “another temperature of/human is/another/folded wing missed by/the tailor”. “You have waited/you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers”, wrote Whitman. At its heart, Marsupial, too, is a reassurance to the dead (and the memories and experiences of everyone who has ever–or will ever—live) that they are eternally recognizable in the hope of love’s total recall, through ages of death and transfiguration:

I’m not so

Pretty with

My skin

Removed

No

He said

Prettier.

 

 

don mee choi bio pic

from Diary of Return

August 8, 2002

I arrived below the 38th parallel.  Everyone and every place I know are below the waist

of a nation.  Before I arrived, empire arrived, that is to say empire is great.  I follow its geography.  From a distance the waist below looks like any other small rural village of winding alleys and traditional tile-roofed houses surrounded by rice paddies, vegetable fields, and mountains.  It reminded me of home, that is to say this is my home.

Close up: clubs, restaurants, souvenir and clothing stores with signs in English, that is

to say English has arrived before me and was here even before I had left.  PAPA SAN, LOVE SHOP, POP’S, GOLDEN TAILOR, PAWN.  I followed the signs and they led to one of the gates to Camp Stanley, a heliport, that is to say language is not be to believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience.  A woman in her seventies lived next to LOVE SHOP. She was taking an afternoon nap.  She has never left below the waist and eventually came to be regarded as a great patriot by her government, that is to say she followed the signs and suffered from lice infestation during the war and passed the lice on to the GIs.  I followed the houses that reminded me of home.  They led me to another metal gate and barbed wire.  Another woman was having lunch at My Sister’s Place.

She did not remember which year she had returned except that she remembered hearing about the assassination of our Father, that is to say she was here and I was still elsewhere and the unity of language is fundamentally political.  She told me a story with her right index finger.  Her finger fiercely pointed to her mouth, then between her spread legs, and then her behind.  She had no choice under the GI’s gun, that is to say she had no choice about absolute choice, that is to say her poverty was without choice and when absolute choice was forced upon her she chose a GI, that is to say she chose empire because empire is greater than our Father, that is to say she followed and left her daughter to its geography and her index finger had no choice but be fierce under absolute choice, that is to say she had arrived home.

 

Italics: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

__________________________________________________
Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010) and the recipient of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award. She has received the 2012 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for All the Garbage of the World, Unite! by Kim Hyesoon. Her translations also include Anxiety of Words published by Zephyr, When the Plug Gets Unplugged & Princess Abandoned by Tinfish, and Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers by Action Books.

basile pic

LOURDES

Matthew is plain on the tongue and fleeting.

Lourdes sits, instead of sex, on two blue crates,
feeds herself blue lemons. Lips sodden,

she bathes. She tastes the burn
in the lantern of her chest.

Lourdes snakes straight through the garden into her own bed

opens her dignities and pleasures
like guava

white cotton underwear
___to the side
open with pulque

wet of cachaca
without the sugarcane,

& boys with biblical names
make no appearance,

especially Matthew,

a worn worm soldier jamming its way
into the core of a ripe melon.

____________________________________
Lisa Marie Basile
 comes from the bloodline of Giambattista Basile, the fairy-tale writer. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA program. She is the author of Andalucia (Brothel Books) and Triste (Dancing Girl Press). Her chapbook, war/lock, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press in 2014. She is the founding editor of Patasola Press, an assistant editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal and a managing member of the Poetry Society of New York.  She contributes to a few secret projects and wears Joseph Quintela’s #bookdress.

hecker biopic

Conscientious Protests
–after Julio Cortazar

What a conscientious protest: marketing One A Day vitamins to death-row inmates,
performing a little Crip Walk when security wands the standing body like a barcode,
listening to the bald deputy bad-mouth his own root canal that hasn’t happened yet.

What a conscientious protest: naming each bandoleer bullet after the cast of Soap:
Jimmy Baio lodged in a Basra watermelon, Diana Canova blew off a man’s wrist in
Mosul, Billy Crystal jammed in the barrel and fell out of the muzzle looking like a nickel
run over by a combine harvester, Robert Guillaume killed two relatives hugging in
Karbala (through his back and out of hers), Richard Mulligan and Katherine Helmond
fired into the air together as a warning to nobody.

What a conscientious protest: making The Today Show explain itself as a concept,
justify its existence as a time passage in the Milky Way galaxy, codify its moment
in culture and divulge its intentions for providing baking tips, 5 easy steps to person-
alize refrigerator magnets, polarizing soccer moms with a well-placed kidnapping
statistic conducted specifically for one county in Kentucky, then cut to commercial
on an awkward boy holding a sign: “I came all the way from Nag Hammadi Library’s
heresiology section to meet Willard Scott since I’m Mithra and I do whatever I want.”

What a conscientious protest: Occupy Ebenezer Place in Wick, Caithness, Scotland,
credited as the shortest street in the world at 6 ft., 9 in. In boots and hoodie, my 6 ft.,
4 in. frame disrupts miserliness, auto and pedestrian traffic, Tuesday trash collection.

____________________________________________________
Jeffrey Hecker
was born in 1977 in Norfolk, Virginia. A graduate of Old Dominion University, he’s the author of Rumble Seat (San Francisco Bay Press, 2011) & the chapbook Hornbook (Horse Less Press, 2012). Recent work has appeared or forthcoming in La Reata Review, Mascara Literary Review, Atticus Review, La Fovea, The Waterhouse Review, Zocalo Public Square, The Burning Bush 2, Turtleneck Press, and LEVELER. He resides in Olde Towne Portsmouth, Virginia

Kim Vodicka bio pic

E N T I T L E D:

LET’S DRINK AND FUCK

Lucille Baller,
a walking bowel movement.

All the pretty girls and the Mardi Gras, too.

Bitches go hard. Bitches fat it out, too,
when push comes to love.

Never let the truth
get in the way of
your eyes.

Paris is burning, and we shan’t be home tonight.

You cut me I bleed perfumania.

I want a normal happy life,
I either wanna wife and children,
or I wanna rich and famous,
or I wanna be had.

Cuz I’m a white privilege,
my spirit animal is niggaz,
my spirit faggot is the world that ain’t
fair.

To make some impression, some mark upon the world,
all you have.

You hit it big, you anal bleach.
Paris is burning, and we shan’t be home tonight.

Sometimes you prom yourself to sleep.

The girl with two heads has also two hearts.

And all that vajiggle jaggles most beautimously.

Gotta loosen up this making face for everything.

So if we’re all going to hell, well
well then,
okay, then
okay.

We are perfectly troubled of contents,
there.

Ever since I felt your lisp on my lisp
down the bury the hatch.

We wear a strawberry letter.

Poised and elegant are the jonquils
in yellow and green repose.

Poised and elegant are we, reposed,
unblessed.

Oh but yes, I do, and t’ruly bleed love,
still I cannot b’leed all,
so be still, my heart.

Stand by your,
your not-man.

If all the raindrops were lemon drops and cum shots,
oh, what a—
oh.
Well then.

My spirit faggot is the world that ain’t all Ferris wheels or Bueller’s
day off.

When the things of our adore of nor concern
are all for goodness sake’s.

The hope that was the one bright awesomely,
the light.

Paris is burning, and we shan’t be home tonight.

All
is full
of hate.

And it ain’t rape
if you scream
HOLD UP, WAIT.

Whatever,
quoth the raven,
whatever,
my dog ate my willpower.

I slut shame belief.

The fucks you give are costly.
The fucks you don’t don’t cost a thing.

Fuck don’t cost a thing,
except your life, maybe,
but it was worth it, maybe
you’re worth it.
Maybe she’s born with it.

Full blown roses and/or AIDS.

Maybe it’s Makebelieve.

Bitches go hard. Bitches fat it out, too.

The fat one,
the black one,
the hot one,
the one.

Bitches go hard. BITCHES FAT IT OUT, TOO.

And it won’t stop.
And it can’t stop.

Stop it.

So their bacchanal was a debacle,
there was nothing with which to peel the bananas,
no shadowplay from which to venture forth.

So if you don’t like what’s on the table,
you better find a McDonald’s
and a roll of paper towels.

Some redeeming social value.

Have your infinities mammogrammed yearly.

___________________________________________________
Kim Vodicka grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana and received her B.A. in English from UL Lafayette in 2010 and her M.F.A. in Poetry from LSU in 2013. During her time in Baton Rouge, she coordinated Delta Mouth Literary Festival, hosted a psychedelic rock show, “Shangri-La-La Land,” on KLSU, and interned for Dig magazine. Her artwork has been published in Tenderloin, and her poems have been published in Shampoo, Ekleksographia, Dig, Spork, Unlikely Stories, and RealPoetik. Her first book, Aesthesia Balderdash, was published in June 2012 by Trembling Pillow Press.

bibliophile pic

Elizabethton, Tennessee, 1929

When wages sank and conditions became intolerable, women led a strike of the Glanzstoff Textile Mill. While their menfolk’s anger often erupted in violence, women used laughter and bold defiance of conventional feminine behavior as weapons against a bewildered National Guard, which was made up of their neighbors until backup was called. Though prosecutors branded them “wild” and “disorderly,” the women earned support from their pastor, sheriff, fellow townspeople, and local merchants.

Those big companies sprang like arrows
into the heart pine of Appalachia,
shaking hands with homegrown ambition,
eyes popping for our breasted hills,
sinewy creeks, and I suppose for what they saw
as backward-walking mountain folk.
They knew we had few laws to cry
for what a man ought give,
and no union to guard
what no man should take. No woman here
lines her closet with pretty things bought in town
or strings the hollows with high hopes.
A straight wage and a level word
we earned wading the chemical baths
that pull plain cellulose to clean filaments of rayon,
to stockings and bolts of color cloth.
We pulled that stuff, and when words ran out,
we shut the mill down, lined up like vertebrae
across the road.
They came with tear gas, nearly putting out our eyes,
but we stood, by God, stood laughing
at the National Guard -
boys who’d sat next to us in school,
who’d pitched rocks into the Watauga River,
one of them father to my children ten years ago.
For my divorce,
and our backtalk,
for shoving away soldier’s guns stuck in our faces,
they called us “lewd,”
and, red-faced, ordered us to walk 12 miles to jail.
We said no.
Later, raises never showed.
Management one-by-one scattered our girls
to the fields and washtubs,
bending our backs, biting our tongues.
But I knew what I was doing and I don’t deny it:
the six weeks we worked for ourselves
and stood for each other,
echoes of our shouts disappearing
like the longleaf pine
while we laughed, boys,
we just laughed and laughed.


__________________________________________________
Cesca Janece Waterfield is a journalist, poet, and songwriter based in Virginia. She has been selected three times to receive songwriter grants from The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). She is the author of Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad (Two-Handed Engine Press). Her poems and fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals. She can be reached at cescawaterfield.com

jarrell

Mary Jarrell, left, with her husband, Flannery O Connor, Peter Taylor, & Robert Humphrey. Courtesy of UNC, Greensboro

 

Mary Jarrell’s late husband, Randall Jarrell, is well known to literary people for his wonderful satirical novel, Pictures from an Institution, for his ingenious criticism, for his translations of Rilke and Chekhov, for his endearing children’s books, and, of course, for his poetry.

In 2002, I had the privilege of interviewing Mrs Jarrell for a proposed documentary on the World War II air war, and the literature that had defined it. Though the project never came to fruition, the interview was, of course, invaluable in its own way, and took on a life of its own. Though in many ways Mrs Jarrell—from the POV of anecdotes alone— didn’t reveal anything that hadn’t already been exhaustively covered in various biographies (including her own memoir, Remembering Randall) being in her vibrant presence, and in the presence of her husband’s memorabilia, was a rich enough experience.

The following interview took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, in October of 2002, at Wellspring, Mrs Jarrell’s assisted living community.

***
Mary Jarrell has survived almost all of her scholarly contemporaries. In person, she is tall and slim, with a face (as was said of Zelda Fitzgerald’s) that is far more beautiful and enigmatic than one would gather from viewing her photographs. It’s apparent that she must have been quite something in her youth, but, as seems to be the phenomenon of old age, all that beauty has migrated to the eyes, and it is through them that one can see her as she must have looked at the time she shared her life with her husband. She lives alone in a retirement community, closely surrounded by neighbors, with a dachshund as devoted to her as a child.

Moments after Mrs. Jarrell (“Mary please”) welcomes me inside, we are joined by a tiny black and tan dachshund that is not a puppy, she says, “but a full grown mini who weighs seven pounds.” She lifts the creature in her arms.

“Meet Schatzi,” she says. “It’s the diminutive for Schatzel; means ‘little treasure.’ Half the dogs In Germany are called Schatzi.”

I’ve already noticed that she seems a little hard of hearing, and as I check the sound level on my recorder, she says, “I’ll just get closer to you…some people have a gentle voice that I don’t pick up very well.” By now I’m ready to start asking her questions, but something tells me not to lead off the discussion of her husband’s work with The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, and I remark instead on my liking for his treatment of the surrealism of the passing of time in his poem The Face.

“Oh yes…. ‘I haven’t changed/you haven’t looked.’ Randall dreaded it, getting old. He didn’t want it to happen; so the passing of time was very real to him…and he was sorry to have to live through it”, she says.

Though I’m glad my remark has stirred such easy and immediate candor, her response also sets off a tremor of alarm: it seems to steer us in a direction I’d resolved to avoid (or at least not to broach this early in the interview): the lingering speculation that Randall’s death in a traffic accident at age fifty-one had been semi-suicidal.

In her memoir, and in many interviews, she’d of course dealt summarily with this conjecture (it wasn’t so, according to the coroner’s report), and I reassure myself that by now any resentment she may once have felt toward those still perpetuating the rumor in literary circles might have settled into the almost dispassionate objectivity she’d consistently shown on the subject in her writings.

So I decide to start out with Ball Turret, after all.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
(“The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner”)

In Remembering Randall, Mary had elaborated on the fact that the poem was for Jarrell both a triumph and source of consternation, as it was the relentless public demand for the piece that inspired him to worry that he might become a one hit wonder.

“At present, you know, it goes for $250.00 a shot, and is in steady demand for TV as well as the printed page,” she says, gently touching the dachshund’s nose.

“Randall’s poem can be interpreted as being both anti-war and anti-state. But I presume he didn’t question the necessity of the second World War?”

Her answer is immediate and somewhat surprising. “He did …he really did. I was just dealing with that in one of his letters in which takes that up. He was very critical, especially of the Army, because to him in a way… it was an institution, sort of like Academia. And it had certain routines and inescapable requirements. Instead of looking at his past …you know, they knew he had been a teacher…they sent him to interviewing candidates and finally decided to train him to instruct cadets… and when they saw his teaching ability, they trained him for celestial navigation.”

I’m not sure I understand her answer, and rephrase the question. But she frames her reply in terms of her own feelings about the war (Hitler had to be stopped, etc), not Randall’s; and I drop the topic and remark that Jarrell’s brilliant criticism could eviscerate the loftiest reputations. (“Auden is like a man who keeps showing how well he can hold his liquor until he becomes a drunk.”)

“He finally moved away from that sort of thing”, Mary tells me, “He said, I’m not going to write any more severe criticism…it’s not worth it. It happened with his teaching, too. He only taught people that he really admired. Never mind the bad poetry. He didn’t teach bad poets.”

Abruptly, she laughs, relaxing. “You got this on tape?”

I tell her that I do, and ask her if she believes that Randall would have viewed the poetry of this day and age as being in a state of decline.

“Ohhhh, I’m afraid he would,” she answers quickly. “I have a friend that I often see… he’s retired, and divorced and teaches poetry at the Shepherd’s Center. And he likes poetry. But just this past weekend he told me that nobody, even the faculty over there, was interested in poetry. It’s always been a small minority, but it’s marvelous to see those who have lived on.”

Some modern poets (like Jarrell’s good friend Robert Lowell) who have done so, I observe, were surely helped by Randall’s honest praise.

“After some of his {Lowell’s) breakdowns… and after some time had elapsed…he wrote more and more of that ‘my life confessional’ sort of thing… Randall would’ve hated that. But the public liked it. Randall wanted it lyric and he wanted it visionary, and he wished that Cal had stayed with his marvelous historical poems like The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”

“What about the Beats? In your book you discuss a visit by Kerouac and Gregory Corso to your home, but it would seem unlikely that Randall would embrace the Beats as a legitimate literary movement, judging from his tastes. Can you expand on this?”

She adjusts the dachshund on her lap. “Randall wrote about that better than I could, and he acknowledged that they did have a part in those years; but he never liked the fact that they wouldn’t revise. We met Corso out in San Francisco, and liked him a great deal. But again, he was constantly submitting poems to Randall, but he wouldn’t revise. He’d quit, and start another until he had ten half-written poems, and Randall couldn’t stand that.” We both laugh.

“There’s a quote you might like… just this morning, on the cover of… well, it’ll be on the cover of the book that’s coming out. It deals with Randall’s…high demand on others.” She rises quickly to look for the excerpt and is gone for several minutes, but returns empty handed. “Well…it’s somewhere. But it’s a quote by Robert Penn Warren, and he acknowledged Randall as a very great critic, said that he was generous with his criticism, but that he had such high standards for other poets, and himself; and of course the critic Helen Vendler said that ‘Jarrell put his talent into his poetry and his genius into his criticism.’ And I think he just thought people didn’t spend enough time; he knew how much time it took. He would use the Army phrase ‘wash out’ to describe something in a manuscript that needed to be removed. He’d tell somebody, ‘I think I’d just wash that out’ And he told Eleanor Taylor {poet and wife of writer Peter Taylor} that about her own poems a couple of times”

(Draft page from ‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo’, by Randall Jarrell)

 

My research in preparing for the meeting had given me the impression that for some literary historians, Randall Jarrell’s place in modern American letters had been secured as much through his criticism as his poetry; so if I had true journalistic instincts I’d try to keep Mary talking about that aspect of his career.

But I was afraid (perhaps groundlessly) that she was becoming tired, and I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t leave without asking about what, aside from his criticism and one novel, I personally liked best of all her husbands creations…his children’s books.

“Randall’s lovely poem The Lost Children deals not only, like Peter Pan, with the inevitable loss of childhood from itself, but with a parent’s loss of a vicarious childhood through the children that grow up and away from them into adulthood. I get the feeling from some other of his poems that romantic love, for Randall, was maybe also somewhat a vicarious childhood….and this certainly seems to be the case in The Gingerbread Rabbit. Do you feel that’s true?”

“Yes,” she smiles, and looks out into the garden for a bit.

“Two little girls, one fair, one dark

one alive, one dead,

are running hand in hand through
a sunny house…
They run away from me…

But I am happy…

When I wake I feel no sadness, only delight.

I’ve seen them again, and I am comforted

that, somewhere, they still are”

(“The Lost Children”)

Surely this is Mary’s voice, the voice of his beloved speaking through Jarrell (dubbed “Child Randall” by Robert Lowell in an elegy) and it is this that gives the poem its empathetic tenderness. When, in The Animal Family, the hunter brings a “baby” home, the family unit, so coveted by Randall Jarrell, comes full circle:

“In two days he was sitting on the floor
by the table when they ate, eating with them…

in a week it was as if he had lived with them always.”

***

We walk out into the sunshine toward the awning where we are to board the vehicle that’s to take us to the resident’s dining room (I had been expecting a minivan driven by a retirement home employee) and I get a kick out of the fact that Mary Jarrell, a woman of a certain age, not only drives, but drives a svelte, compact sports car, flaming red, bearing the personalized license plate, “POEMS”.

Since long before writing Remembering Randall, Mary von Schrader Jarrell has, emphatically, been herself. And her answer to my final question strikes me with the realization that maybe it’s her story that I’ve mostly missed.

It had been arranged that we part company after lunch, “not so much for a nap, but to rest my eyes and lie prone with one arm over Schatzi at my side and practice my yoga deep breathing.” As we wait for my cab outside, I apologize for tiring her.

“I’m tired, yes. But happy,” she replies. “It links me to once again quote Benjamin Franklin’s observation to the signers of the Constitution, ‘I’m so old I am intruding in posterity’.” She smiles, and her remarkable eyes are as bright as a child’s in the sun.

“How do you think Randall would have felt about 9/11?” I ask her impulsively.

“Oh, he’d feel it”, she says, “but I can’t presume to say what his feelings would be. I mean, one’s opinions do change, and he didn’t live to see that. He died at fifty-one. But I didn’t.”

 

They Used to Dance On Saturday Nights
By Gillian Devereux
Aforementioned Productions, 2012, 34 p.
ISBN 978-0-9823741-4-6

The carnival performers in Gillian Devereux’s They Used to Dance on Saturday Nights (Aforementioned Productions) are always, like Robert Lowell’s prostitutes, “freelancing out along the razor’s edge”, always subject to the fatalities of their trades—knife throwing,  tightrope walking,  sword or fire swallowing. Entertainers are only as lucrative as the opacity of their parlor tricks and/or the chance genetic mutations of their tragedies. Freaks may “share a stomach or a torso”; may “frolic”, frighten” or “fold their bodies flat as farmland”, or an armless girl may have a beauty in [her] strangeness that could ruin a man”. Images may be unexpectedly lovely, or transcendental: a dancing bear “soft as snow piled on pine boughs”, the salmon it’s tossed in its captivity leaping up into freedom and the constellations. Spectator and performer are a working system powered by the promise of newness, the momentary triumph of the illusory exotic.

There are also no dearth of “mutilated souls in cold morgues of obligation”, in Roethke’s phrase, variations of the quintessentially cruel ringmasters or mistress, whose

Children float in dingy beakers
Filled with blue-green bile: the dead stars
Of the dime museum, two-headed fetuses,
Stillborn monsters I carried like a thief…
To pay my way, I populated this carnival
Like Cronus, filled my belly with my own
Offspring, fed on small, disfigured bodies
Until, at last, I birthed my own meal ticket

Devereux’s text is most admirable as a metaphor for illness and survival. Many of her characters are examinations of Plath’s “magician’s girl who does not flinch”, professionals geared to stoicism and efficiency that is nothing like the seemingly effortless magic perceived by their audience. Performers themselves become spectators, housed in their own corporeality, captive audiences to the breakdowns of their own physical existences. But they are anything but passive observers. In The Act of Ignition, a girl whom “The sun hangs over [like] a tumor”

Stands
Alone in a field…
Then a flicker of light
Cuts through her, spills down
He arms and legs, chars her hair,
Crumbles her clothes to ash…
Her power developed
Suddenly: one morning she awoke,
Felt all her organs shift and spark
Like flint inside her…
She learned
To control this in time.
She learned
A single cell can incite a riot…

In Under the Big Top the limitations of the body—momentarily transcended by aerialism and dazzling feats of physical skill—are contrasted against the somehow-less-impressively powered (to the onlooker) accomplishments of nature and the cosmos:

No one notices the night sky…

No one sees
the backdrop, the shadow that shapes
_____and guards each delicate constellation.

Each star spins on invisible wire, falls
_____effortlessly into its assigned position
and not one person applauds….

I fall night after night,
_____netless and alone. I trained for this

my whole life, spent years in the air
_____learning to dive through the white
blare of spotlight; the physics of flight

_____swinging me over the bar
and farther, a solitary wheeling circle…

But nobody ever sees me…

It’s interesting to imagine copies of Devereux’s chapbook being handed out at the gate as carnival programmes; like Diane Arbus’ photographs, they tell us more than any mere propaganda ever could. Certainly this slim volume has something to teach us about magic and control, how indistinguishable the two often are from each other.

 

One of the most dreamily sinister images in Dana Curtis’ Camera Stellata appears in the poem The Final Amnesia, which features an abandoned Eden drifting in space with hanged gardeners who “have decided to die/to give the roses/wings/the mint/dominion.” In the void of such lawlessness, “God’s Rapist” has begotten a miscellany of stars, planets, illegitimate black holes, and feminine “iconoclast[s] awhirl in stasis”…”each attempt to abort” drying their hair to thorns: the streams running from Christ’s crown those of Mary’s menses, or miscarriage: a kind of cosmic Handmaid’s Tale interspersed over Biblical prophecy.

camera stellata

Female voices cycle through the narration, some truculent and young, recalling coming-of-age visions of “blood, vomit, loud sex in asparagus fields”, some sorrowful as Russian mothers striding among bombed-out ruins as chemical fires flicker on the horizon. Flames (as in war, as in zodiac, as in mythical salamander, as in creation and regeneration of the solar system) are a recurring image here, and music is Pythagorean/of the spheres. (Cemetery opens with the Shostakovich quote, “The majority of our symphonies are tombstones. Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone…where do you put the tombstones? Only music can do that for them”).  Ergo, Curtis’ poetry here is at times strongly reminiscent of translations of Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, reading almost as if it had been composed in a foreign tongue and filtered back into an approximation of English. The effect is a language that’s both sparse and opulent, finding a home somewhere between the pared-down grandeur of HD and the epic generalities/sweep of Dylan Thomas.

From Salamander:

She said her death lobbied to be gruesome…she won’t live anywhere she can’t imagine

This is an apt overview of Camera, whose speakers are committed not so much to transcendentalism as to exploration within the parameters of their own doom. This is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, of course (as all existentialism is), but it’s a defiant, expansive strain that’s nobody’s fool or prisoner. Just as the heroes of Norse folklore (as in mythographer and scholar Edith Hamilton’s famous account) are heroic without hope of spiritual deliverance in any truly transformative sense, Curtis’ language is never so triumphant as when it comes into collision with the end of itself (“Look/the swans hit the water like ruined wine”). The nymph Daphne’s transformation into laurel tree was not liberation from her pursuer, but merely the next best thing. Similarly, in Entropy

The woods were never an escape, but I escaped

Trapped in roots and mushrooms.

There was never any her, not

Here, no longer, a little

Longer before the film of scum eats the pool.

“I died outside the garden gate/arranged the letters because I must be gibberish” is what we hear in Elegy, which begins “Shall I compare you to nothing?” In a place where history and time have yet to begin, zero is, by definition, the only possible comparison with itself, and time’s possibilities, being new, are endless. In Towards the Uncreation, Eve, having slain the serpent, invites the exiled back into paradise:

In her arms, no garden but a

 dead snake and she says…

Come

back and reveal

the equations and constellations

Retreat opens with the startling line, “As if I’d entered one of my own pores”. Here, learning “the true, luminous nature of digestion”, we pass right on through to On Her Blindness, which ends: “The mirror is a sea/feathered glorious”…a line reminiscent of Ariel’s “and now I foam to wheat/a glitter of seas”.

The book’s title track, Camera Stellata, is as much love poem to Astarte and/or Venus as it is love poem subverted into physics:

She hates me and I hate 

a horizon penetrating a blindfold…

She’s not the beauty I recall…

Pink is torn…pink trespasses the installations

 I design

A liquid event

 horizon. I just might

stroke her throat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is pretty much everything here: sex as anatomy, anatomy as physics, the “horizon penetrating a blindfold” as event horizon itself; the wormhole as the throat that might or might not swallow the venom of After Vienna, where the Akhmatovian speaker knows “the poisonbaths have failed to make [her] immune.” But toxicity is relative to the antidotes in the myths so scattered throughout the book: if Eden’s serpent were Snow White’s stepmother with her poisoned apple, help might just as well arrive in the form of astronomy’s white dwarfs wished upon…as stars…in the Disney song. As in For Seraphim Walking Dogs, original sin might have relegated us to “running errands past the cobra farm/but for every place we’ve been/there might be an antidote.” Camera Stellata, like the proverbial butterfly dreaming it’s a man, is (to our delight) finally a luminous cosmological prayer dreaming it’s an existentialist swan song.

durbin

LF: One of the things I thought was interesting–and admirably bold–about The Hills was that it wasn’t afraid to, conceivably, bore its readers;  wasn’t afraid to not entertain, which is a rather ingenious juxtaposition considering that, of course, the book is about entertainment, and by default about instant gratification. (In your recent reading at AWP, you even mention that the piece, as read aloud, might conceivably come across as “boring” without the participation of readers acting as the voices of various characters, so the narrative is clearly a multimedia interaction as presentation as well as in print). Beneath the “naked eye” repetition, there’s an indefinable undercurrent–as if someone had slipped something into a drink and the room had started to shift and alter imperceptibly, or a kind of white noise that had been quietly building had suddenly made itself heard. The ostensibly perfunctory/stoic text has suddenly become richer, more layered, and more disturbed; the dialogue within more frantic and uncontrolled, though nothing ever really happens on the surface. Methodology-wise, this is a radical departure from your first collection, The Ravenous Audience, which is extremely visceral and instantly/almost tactilely engaging; can you talk a little about any such methods you might have employed  in composing The Hills, as (unlike many clearly “channeled” poems) it does seem to have come into existence by the hands of a deliberate methodology?

KD: The Hills is, as you point out, an exercise in tedium, and yet there is a sort of dramatic pull to it not unlike, say, a Jane Austen novel–if one is willing to give themselves over to the breaking of the action by descriptions of weird minutia in the setting, such as a bottle of champagne behind a juicer, camera angles, all the weird mannerisms of the characters, things like people pulling hairs out of their mouths. These oddities can be pleasurable, tactile, to read, or frustrating because of how they don’t really reveal. The set of constraints I followed with constructing the piece were to simply describe, in minute detail, every moment of an entire episode, with block texts broken into scenes. The title of the episode is “I Know What You Did,” and it’s one of many interchangeable episodes of the show, wherein Lauren Conrad (the show’s heroine) confronts Heidi, her former BFF, at a now defunct faux-French nightclub in Los Angeles, for telling the press that Lauren and her ex-boyfriend made sex tapes. I am still not done with the full version of The Hills, which will be in the diamond edition of E!, and which comes out this summer. Each scene, which is about 20-30 seconds of screen time, takes me about two hours to write.

After Ravenous came out, as off-putting as the text was to people because of its intensely sexual and violent subject matter, I felt that the poems themselves were very seductive and had a cinematic pull to them. E! is not a seductive book, purposely–it has an ironic effect, considering that I more or less just re-iterated the most seductive “texts” of our pop culture. I mean, the Lindsay Lohan Arrives at Court section of the book is just a complete lifting of a text from an online tabloid that millions of people read, and yet it’s the section of E! that people are most bored by. I suppose you could say this is because what we are interested in as a culture is in essence very boring, but I feel like that’s too easy of an answer. Like all good conceptual art, the texts of E! are pre-existing “material”, de-contextualized. In that way, E! is a completely disorienting book because it de-familiarizes pop culture so totally; it’s a text that unravels, but very, very slowly and almost imperceptibly, as you point out. And so if you don’t read it all the way through, with attention, you can miss that and read it too flatly. But you’re reading pop culture, which is something people normally don’t pay attention to, is the thing–they usually “miss” the very thing which shows us so much about ourselves.. Because I felt that people were missing E! in performance/readings,  I started having them act out the characters in The Hills. It forces them to encounter a text that they might have been really ambivalent about before–and often they start to “get it” and really love it (one reader said he felt “exhilarated as he’s never felt at a poetry reading” after being Heidi in Boston). This happens even if they don’t know who those characters are. The audience then embodies the basic premise of this body of work, which is “we do this, we are this.” We live reality TV every day of our lives; we are Lauren and Heidi.

LF: Your chapter on Dynasty was my favorite part of the book, and seemed to me, as I described it in my review, as a kind of morbid stop-motion dollhouse. I am curious about your personal thoughts on the representations therein, either from a feminist perspective or as commentary on popular media’s idea of what the public “wants” re female interaction.  I thought it significant that telltale glimpses of the actor’s “real” ages kept slipping like cracks of sunlight into the poem. Though the piece is obviously largely hilarious, there’s something sinister looming over the camp–a kind of overseer embodying the possibility of a kind of encroaching  metaphorical death (of youth, perhaps) or change. Did these more ominous images come out naturally in the process of transcription; and, if so, were you aware of them when they appeared, or did you notice them in hindsight?

KD: With the Dynasty section, what happened was that I discovered through the process of freezing, then transcribing, nighttime television’s first major catfight, in a series of stills, that the tragedy of “the catfight” and women’s loss of beauty in our culture, manifested itself quietly and tragically. I like that you called it a stop-motion dollhouse. It very much is that. Some of the images looked to me like a still life as well; there is one still where a gilded picture of women with parasols is on the wall while Krystle and Alexis fight that simply breaks my heart–that doubling of the two women on the wall, our dolls. And yet the section is funny, too. Our funny woman problems: wigs slipping, silk ripping, fire-engine red press-on nails. Cue the laugh track.

As for what you say about the manifestations coming out the woodwork (or out of the pixels), I’d say yes–I didn’t know with any of the sections in this book what would manifest from my processes of writing. I felt drawn to certain images/texts (images are texts), set up constraints, and went to work. I figured by looking closely at something usually glossed over–seen as “shallow”–I would find much, terribly much, that had been neglected. And I did. And yet I didn’t want to “say” what I had found, I wanted others to experience my process through reading the text, my process of writing, not about, but writing, reality TV.

I love what you said in your review about the book’s method forcing one to look at one’s own conscience. That is a beautiful way to put it. It did that to me too.

DurbinCoverSpread

LF: Your Anna Nicole piece was also carnivalesquely disturbing, and I thought it was fantastic that you had someone putting clown makeup on you as you read it at AWP–just as the child in the now notorious video that’s the poem’s subject was applying it to Smith’s face as events unfolded. Obviously you kept your own ideas about Smith’s possible complicity in said footage to yourself, but I wonder what you think: do you identify that particular spectacle (and perhaps the enigma of Anna Nicole herself) with the natural but still contrived camp of, say, John Waters, as opposed to a more “organic” kind of Tennessee Williams Baby Doll  innocence? (I use these examples as templates in keeping with the women/drag queen-and-screen premises of both E! and Ravenous). How do you think either interpretation might change the way–or, perhaps more accurately, the level of sympathy–with which Smith is generally viewed?

KD: I think any/all of these descriptions of Anna Nicole’s problem seem apt, the only thing is that we can sit here and talk about Anna Nicole forever, and about Marilyn Monroe too, but at the end of the day that’s us sitting here talking about these women and the problem(s) of these women, and there’s something gross about that. I didn’t want to write another text that tsked tsked at the problem of the destroyed blonde angel. I wanted to simply re-arrange a text that already existed that was fucked, and multiply fucked by having been introduced into court evidence. Another thing I wanted to do was mix up tabloid and CNN/news reportage (because they are all the same now anyway), and then to see what that might teach me, or what experience I might have via reading that text re-arranged, to see what I was not seeing. A lot of things became viewable through this process. An experience of heartbreak, mostly, that–I was going to say despite, but I won’t say despite, and I won’t say because of either, but alongside or entangled with, the mechanical and uncanny and bizarre and unreal qualities of the text–a tragedy that is very human and very, very alive. We think of television, we think of reality television especially, as being so fake and scripted and what-have-you, but it seems to me more alive than life, life spilling beyond life. Whatever was real, whatever was “fake” with that Anna tape, what I learned by looking more closely at the transcripts, scrambling them, was an ecstatic tragedy, and that tragedy had to do, yet again, with a woman who was not seen, not witnessed, who was dismissed as a clown, and who could not see herself. The echoes of her pain are still reverberating, like a mechanical baby doll, crying forever: a baby, our baby, who can never be soothed.

_______________________________________________________
Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles-based writer and performance artist. She is author of The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books), E! Entertainment (Blanc Press Diamond Edition), the conceptual fashion magazine The Fashion Issue (Wonder, forthcoming), and, with Amaranth Borsuk,  ABRA (Zg Press, forthcoming). She has also written five chapbooks. Her projects have been featured in Spex, Huffington Post, The New Yorker, Salon.com, Poets and Writers, Poets.org, VLAK, Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, Black Warrior Review, Joyland, berfrois, SUPERMACHINE, Drunken Boat, NPR, Bookslut,  and The American Scholar, among others. She is founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, an online arts and criticism journal about Lady Gaga, which will be published as a book from Zg Press in 2012. She co-curated a forum on women writers and fashion for Delirious Hem, SEAM RIPPER. Her performance Prices Upon Request was performed at Yuki Sharoni Salon in Beverly Hills, her piece Pardonmywhoremoans was performed in BELLYFLOP swimming pool gallery in Los Angeles, her Bad Princess Walk was performed at the West Hollywood Book Fair in 2011, her installation Pile of Panties took place on Sunset Blvd as part of the Los Angeles Road Concerts in 2011, and her short film Tumblr is the Only Place I Don’t Pretend I’m Okay premiered at TOTEM in Brooklyn in 2012. She writes about celebrity style for Hollywood.com.

E! Entertainment
By Kate Durbin
Insert/Blanc Press, 2012
Full color 40 p. chapbook
$12.00

DurbinCoverSpread

If Hedda Hopper had been reincarnated into a bag lady forced to stuff her own newspaper columns into her clothes for warmth, the wyrd outer hummings of her cycle toward rebirth might well have been echoed in Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment.  The 40 page deconstruction,  namesake of the television network and interspersed with lurid screenshots, is prose-poetry fed less by muses than by an alternative kind of green energy powered by their garbage: “recording angel” concept gone Murdoch wiretap, courtroom stenography as art that fluctuates between high and low like designer prescription drug-induced mood swings.

The book opens with an episode (presented as script-summary) from reality TV’s The Hills. The shot (recognizable and iconic in renditions from Wilder to Lynch) rises over the narrative like a smog-crepuscular sun:

Opening shot pans over Los Angeles. The buildings sparkle in the sunlight. Episode title appears in white font. ‘YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID’.  Shot of Sunset Boulevard sign, man in grey shirt going over crosswalk…

But Durbin is not interested in exploring mystery here so much as she is leaving us to dissect it, if we can find it. E!’s four chapters (the remaining three are on Dynasty, Lindsay Lohan, and Anna Nicole Smith) are so wholly representative of their medium their strategy is almost undetectable, its illumination indistinguishable from the famous sunlight in which it exists. Just as cubism and surrealism aim toward simultaneous representation, The Hills explores the overlap of interiority within presentation, like a sheet of tracing paper: “closed captioning” repeatedly refusing and belying the accuracy of spoken dialogue–as if the piece were composing itself against its own five-second broadcast delay:

 “I’m intimidated’ says a male voice with a British accent. The white letters say the same thing….’okay,” says Lauren. The white letters do not say this.

Shot of Lauren putting her hand over her heart and leaning forward…shot of Lauren’s face ….her eyes are glassy and her nose looks like a button.

The aforementioned chapter on Dynasty is E!’s crown jewel, a campy, morbidly funny stop-motion dollhouse in which Joan Collins and Linda Evans in a cat fight are repeatedly played and put on freeze frame:

Alexis’ blurred upper body fills ¾ of the frame. Her black hair is pouffy and a wig. Krystle’s face is coming at her. The crease of her cheek can be seen. The rest of her face is indistinct, and looks old.

                                           —-

Collins and Evans are as fairytale crones with false faces, their true countenances only glimpsed at certain slants of light, angles, pauses.  Sometimes the glamour loses its footing and the realtime-face–the pathos under the camp–can be seen, the blow-by-blow cattiness stopped and neutered into a fascinating playset:

Alexis sits on a beige sofa. Her tummy fat bulges. Her black wig is mussed. She is picking up a large crystal vase from a dark wood dressing table. Her fingernails are press-on and fire-engine red. The veins in her hands bulge.

….

Krystle is face-down on a chartreuse sofa. She is covered in broken glass. Behind the sofa the stairs to the upper level of the room are covered in something white. It must be feathers.

This last vignette, with its suggestion of forensic crime scene and waiting white angel–or specter–looming just out of the frame, reads like a horror story blurb. Another image brings to mind a wonderfully ghastly portrait of a foliage-camouflaged bogey or gremlin, crouching in the corner, reaching up for its prey with alarmingly long arms:

…There is a potted plant is the corner. Krystle is crouched near it. Her right arm reaches out all the way to her right. She is almost touching the upper level of the room with it.

Some of these scenarios run as fascinating companion pieces to the work of visual “dollhouse” artist Laurie Simmons, whose photographs feature everything from plastic figurines to ventriloquist’s dummies to Japanese love dolls:

—-

Alexis is at the upper level of the room, which is elevated five feet above the lower level of  the room. Her blue skirt flares out. Her left leg is in the air. She is wearing granny flats.

—-

Alexis and Krystle are lying on the wood floor, locked in an embrace. Krystle’s right leg is blurry and slung over Alexis. In the foreground is a small round dark wood table with a crystal vase on it filled with yellow daisies and green filler.

Of course, we are all “green filler”/worm food sooner or later, but Alexis and Krystle  are also action figures filled with the Stretch Armstrongish green “goo” of envy, hair-pulling drag queens brawling it out:

Krystle fills most of the frame. She is scrunching her face so her wrinkles show a lot. Her cheekbones are savage.

Extracts from the infamous Howard K. Stern/Anna Nicole Smith “clown makeup” video (in which a drug-stupefied Smith is alleged to have mistaken her own unborn eight-month-old child for the swelling of flatulence) make up the book’s fourth and final chapter. Though there is a brief preamble suggesting the whole scene might be staged, no comprehensive explanation for the scene is offered, and so, for those who haven’t seen the footage, Durbin’s transcript evokes a blow-up doll in whose womb Hasbro’s Baby Alive kicks up a can-can of a storm, a manic mechanical stillbirth:

RILEY: It’s your baby.  The clown doesn’t need gas medicine, she needs baaaaby medicine. That’s your baby kicking you. She isn’t real. Look. She’s having brain trouble. Brain trouble. It’s a battery baby. She’s fake. It’s fake. She has major brain trouble. Get the screwdriver. Yes, take one battery out to prove that’s not a real baby. Camera, camera…

ANNA: I think I just have a little gas. It hurts and I need some gas poot stuff so I can poot it out. I need somecuz look how big this belly’s getting cuz it’s gas. Nu uh. It’s gas…it’s cryin. Get her a binkie; it’s cryin. My baby whore. I’m gonna go give her her binkie cuz she don’t know how to take care of a baby.

MECHANICAL BABY: Mama. Mama. Waah. Waah. Mama. Mama. Mama…

There is something disturbingly “unattended” about this, as if it–and, indeed, E! itself, like Lynch’s Club Silencio–are, conceivably, “all a tape recording”. But the surveillance-or-theater question remains key; Durbin doesn’t explicate. As readers, we’re left to navigate possible meanings with no tools but our own understanding of the absurd and–strangely–our own conscience. It’s an ingenious strategy that has the boldness to potentially dismiss itself as literature–just as its subject, reality TV, is so often summarily dismissed. “My visibilities hide/I gleam like a mirror,” wrote Plath. The back cover of E!–a looking-glass image of its front cover, with correspondingly reversed text and images–is just one of many variations upon this theme. Whether we’re looking into a funhouse distortion or simply seeing a reflection of something already, innately warped is up to us–and a loaded, philosophically complex question dwarfed in an entertainment value that–significance notwithstanding and by any other name–smells exactly we want it to.