‘Four-Legged Girl’ by Diane Seuss
“Beneath the nacreous wig he felt it coming”
As I was reading Seuss’s visceral third collection, I thought of my good poet friend with a crooked spine—how she broke her back for a lover who didn’t love her back. Now she performs enduring physical pain as a kind of joke about herself, gleefully, and sometimes as a warning. Which isn’t to say that this book warns about love; rather, the poems situate themselves somewhere post-love, post-desire, after beauty. From “Spirea’s covered in those clotted blooms”:
“But now. Here, mid-May, past prime,
the tulips brown and splay like washed-up things,
and the glory girls have stepped out of their gowns, set down their racks,
unlatched their trains. Beauty was a burden after all, wasn’t it?
And love. I remember it like some wet, leggy foal
I had to hold in my arms for nights on end to keep it warm.”
Don’t get it twisted: this book doesn’t happen in the quiet after-dark of a life fully lived; there’s nothing quiet about the poet’s imagination as she studies those pink entrails’ ripped seams. I thought about how I took my girlfriend on our fourth-or-so date, for her birthday, to a six-foot-tall stinking corpse flower at the National Arboretum in Washington. The corpse flower blooms unpredictably—every fifty to a hundred years, over the course of a few weeks—emitting a rank odor to attract pollinators while it slowly unfolds one giant, purple petal at a time. I was pleased to stream the corpse flower at night like a kind of porn.
This book is about that, about Seuss’s warped camera angle and attention to life’s kind-of-pornography—as if the author, from her hard-won place as shrew, finally governs the putrid details of her own unfolding. Husband, gone. Father long dead, lover dead, friends dead. Sifting the artifacts from a former life as an avant-garde, almost punk-queen mermaid in the Bowery—red vinyl boots, sequined seafoam skirt, black-and-pink tiger-stripe leggings.
In another poem on desire and its consequences, “I snapped it over my knee like kindling,” the speaker’s junkie ex-boyfriend visits from the dead:
“He made a beautiful ghost, fox eyes and deep blue
unruly curls. Arms constellated with needle marks. I thought
of the time he pressed an ice cold can of Coke against my
sunburned ass. Those patent leather boots I wore when I first
got to New York. How he opened my blisters with a razor blade.”
Lust undulates like uterine dissonance, something the speaker could commit to because of its dissonance. Something every former girl can relate to—it ruined me a little, but I was already ruined. What I’m saying is: no poignancy here.
Diane inflates inside of Diane’s personality, but not for personality’s sake. Rather, something just beyond the page gnaws at her such that the rich, deliciously dictioned, floral long lines do more than undermine traditional notions of poetics and poetic beauty; they scratch the itch. “Don’t you miss those days, / the open-mouthed kisses, lips swollen as deer twats in the springtime? / We lived a life of smutty angst and reckless kleptomania at the eye-shadow emporium. / Still pretending to be girls, and hetero, wearing lacy knickers and shit kickers.”
Like the four-legged girl and six-fingered freaks to come before and after her, Seuss entrances us with the glamorous grotesque, the rich, fecund vivacity of the dying. In “Warhol’s Shadows,” even infestations merit glorious examination: “the roaches, brown, their egg purses dark, the newborns / translucent amber.” And then:
“Warhol was there, a column of chalk at dead center of the gallery,
signing copies of Interview. I think I told him his art was pretty,
which didn’t merit even an eye roll or a glance, for I was no one,
a punk in a sea of punks, hooked to a doomed junkie.
I had no identity that Warhol could recognize—identity—
that pale, flat, cold, bewigged thing. To be someone is to be swallowed
by a glass of ice water and to live inside its imperious solitude.
Warhol did his best to pretend the paintings were simply commerce,
More of the same, but they were not the same.
There was death in them. Beneath the nacreous wig he felt it coming.”
I thought of my meditation teacher, who recently texted me: “Yup. Queer death consciousness is the new black.” The aesthetic here is queer, for sure, but nothing twee about it.
Half the poems take place in Seuss’s native Southern Michigan, peppered with the real-fleshed ghosts of her rural homeland, a kind of Midwestern Gothic where both grandfathers and taxidermied owls sport glass eyes. Out in the flatland country, wind threatens. Somewhere down the road, a corn silo burns, and no one knows why.
gave up taxidermy and became a Jehovah’s Witness, some of us absconded with her
impressive collection of stuffed predatory birds, wings extended in mid-flight.
I impaled mine, a barn owl with blue glass eyes, on a long copper tube I found
at the shut-down pattern factory. I brandished my own like a papal umbraculum
whose purpose had nothing to do with weather, not shade but shadow. A mayoral
candidate ran on a platform of installing a velarium over the town, a sort of awning,
the corners tied to city limit signs, like the retractable one at the Roman Coliseum.
He was defeated in a landslide. The minister’s final sermon had a catchy title:
There Is No Protection. Not Really.”
The hilarious and the absurd ground grief’s tenor in these poems, as do freaks in (as opposed to of) nature. As a Michigander-cum-east-coast urbanite, I’m turned on as much by the thrice-mentioned shut-down pattern factory as, in a poem enumerating Seuss’s many odd jobs, “cleaning splooge off the walls in the peep / show gallery and laundering Trixie’s thong.”
Everyone who used to be a girl should read this: everyone who has suffered from her girlhood as well as every girl who has given way to monstrosity as survival. Ornate but never decorous, electric but old-school coal-powered for sure, these poems ask and almost answer the question: for those of us who got our start waxing the big slide at Kelly’s Sportsland, where in the world of poetics and ideas do our lexicons—our white rural-ness, our poverty, perversions, and affects—fit?