by Elisa Gabbert & Kathleen Rooney
Reviewed by John Deming
Anthems for a Seventeen-Year Old Girl
American collaborative poetry is a peculiar rabbit, partially because the American tradition is so rooted in self-reliance. In the introduction to Saints of Hysteria, an anthology of collaborative poetry published last year, Charles Henri Ford (an early practitioner of 20th century collaboration) is quoted as calling the method a kind of “intellectual sport.” Yes, sport. Play sounds about right; as the reader, you get to watch poets have a blast.
But I’m suspicious of most collaborative poetry. In Saints of Hysteria, poems are accompanied by authors’ notes explaining process. I can’t help but feel that this is because in much collaborative poetry, process is the only valuable part; the poems themselves are seldom live enough to outstrip the poets’ blatant need for creative, collaborative process—in select cases, their need for a public banding of arms. But of course it’s the resulting organism, not the authorship, which matters most in poetry.
That said, I’ll borrow a construction from the venerable Kurt Loder: I think I’d trade the last six “collaborative” books I’ve read for just half of Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney’s hip, smart, self-aware and incredibly focused new collection.
The best thing about That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness is that it is a singular, sustained inspiration spoken by a singular, if conflicted, voice. The other best thing is how completely unreserved the authors are about using “teenage” language. They live in 21st century United States, which means they live in the world of text messages, of expressions like “LOL” and “hottie”—and they have the speech of the place. Which of course means they risk a number of easy criticisms.
Yet these criticisms would not only show a complete misunderstanding of satire and irony–they would be the criticisms of some all-knowing “authority figure” who thinks—teaches, even—that things can only be one way. This “authority figure” is to be defied. Of course rebellion for its own sake, while charming, is ultimately juvenile. This poet willfully floats on her sinking raft, fully aware of the air as it hisses out, fully aware that she is, by natural law, on the road to becoming some form of “authority figure” herself.
That is, the Gabert/Rooney poet at once makes fun of and celebrates her own naïveté. She is a strikingly, believably conflicted young woman who is generally good-natured about her romantic, professional, and fatalistic struggles. She is sarcastic, but never cynical:
college is a rite of middle classage. They said
Write what you know—what I know is
These lines seem a refusal of banal regurgitations that might creep up in formal education. But there’s a nice contradiction; amid her anti-intellectualism, she relies significantly on formalism. There is a lot of speedy, associative back-and-forth, but there’s also an abundance of villanelles, tritinas and ghazals, even a cento. Our heroine has an unreserved flare for modern slang, pop culture references, and playful commentary on the business of poetry. In fact, the title That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness is a slice of poetic commentary, a neatly ironic reference to another line of “collaborative poetry”: a Robert Bly translation of Theodor Storm, one that can only be described as vintage Bly, almost absurdly romantic.
The jokey Bly reference is emblematic of how wholly ironic this book is. Early on, our poet remarks that “somehow bad drama is worse than bad comedy.” Some items in this book border on the latter, but do so knowingly. Take for example the constant impulse to rhyme:
Yet the leader of the rabbits was
making a racket, disappearing over
the ridge in a blaze-orange jacket.
There’s a whole history of forced rhymes that “work” because the poet or songwriter delights in his ability to find and link like-sounding language (think hip-hop, think Woody Guthrie and the folk tradition that predetermined him). Yet these moments of play are quick, associative distractions from various personal issues the poet encounters. For one, she has always had to obey authority figures:
figure, biblical allusions are the hobgoblin
of gregarious gasbags, frantic last gasps of your brand
of blowhard. Coming home in a body bag
is not what I got this bod all jacked to do. Can’t you
accept my pacifist vows? One more kapow
& I’m through being Officer Dirty Little Secret.
If one is to defy someone purely on the basis of the fact that that person is an “authority figure,” then what does one do if one succeeds, and overthrows the powerful? Regardless of their virtues, they are to become an “authority figure” and, by definition, should be resisted by the next generation. Our poet anticipates this transition: “The word monster comes from the Latin to show. / If you don’t believe me, you might have a problem with trust.”
This coming-of-age quality resists being rote or sentimental because it’s completely unabashed, unhinged. This narrator is like Allen Ginsberg’s narrator in “America”; she indicts the Established Order as a means of exposing her own weaknesses. She propels herself into adulthood in the most American way possible: goes to college, makes friends, makes sloppy decisions, learns about herself from them. “Temp” offers some cloudy intoxication:
…I can’t breathe in here. Are those
the hands of an angel holding my hair?
Throwing up, I think, it’s just like me to think
this is so unlike me, this thick upheaval.
Forget the puns for a moment and you see a person—one person, not two—growing older, testing her own limits, seeing if the image she’s projected of herself lo these many years is in fact the person she is growing into: a college graduate taught with great cliché to write what she knows while wondering (perhaps with an eye on the job market) if she knows anything at all.
If her business of choice didn’t turn out be as glamorous as it could’ve been, neither did her love life. The poet often addresses her partner; in “Second Person Omnipotent,” he’s likened to (or is) one of those odd Renaissance Faire aficionados:
Ever since you bought those pantaloons
it’s King Richard’s Feste this, Renaissance
Faire that. Can’t we stay home? I’m sick of
jousting. Any time you go to a spectacle,
you expect to be “slayed.” This willingness,
nay, desperateness to be impressed,
your notorious sense of wonder has long
been one of the world’s greatest blunders.
Playful, virulent. In “What Happens in Vegas,” we even learn that someone is “in serious recovery / from the breakup of the century.” But if relationships aren’t quite perfect, that’s okay. The book also offers what I’ll call a tongue-in-cheek Sex and the City aesthetic (I say this as a person who despises the show). Talking with girlfriends about relationships and sex is as good, if not better, than assorted attempts at meaningful, long-term relationships. Sadness is replaced with nostalgic sass:
…Misty looks bombed
& Crystal’s passed out in the unisex restroom.
A fitting name, really, since we’ve all had sex
in that funky little lovesexy wreck of a room.
Some people will hate this kind of talk, which is fine, but I think if they do, they misunderstand satire. This book catalogues the mutation—not destruction—of idealism. This is an important distinction. While I love Cate Marvin’s book Fragment of the Head of a Queen, I’ve always hated a rhetorical question issued as part of the “summary” on the back of the book: “What are we to do when experience hands our idealism back to us in pieces?” I think anyone who grows up thinking they’ll someday wear a sparkling gown and glass slippers probably deserves to get blindsided. The poet behind Voluptuousness treats disappointment with perspective, as though there are far greater evils in the world.
Which leads to the important point that the book’s formal bent and slangy girl-talk bent would be for naught if no for its fatalistic bent. The quotes I’ve presented so far should give you a good sense for the tone and play of Voluptuousness, but leave out an important element: the surety of death, of nothing, of how empty ambition can be, even as a war on death. “The Day After the Day After Tomorrow” is emblematic of how play (the poem’s title puns a movie title) can be counter-balanced by our most elemental fears:
…I never asked to be a hero,
friends, but since when have we gotten what we want?
I know there was something I wanted to do before the end,
but I forgot. Tell mother I loved her. The sky is green.
And earlier, in “Lucid Villanelle,” we see this balance again: “& I’ll never die b/c this is a dream.” Yes, even people who say “LOL” and “b/c” will die someday. “Tritinal w/ DTHWSH” has a morbidity all its own:
A death wish is a normal wish
for the girl who’s done everything. I wish
I could fill the blanks of every if-then
scenario w/ surprise. But life, friends,
upends all wishes & dies—see you then.
The poets are in such accord that you forget it’s a collaboration; the poets are single cells on alternate sides of the brain; the poems are the point, not the process. “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly,” writes ironist Thom Yorke. You still have to pay the bills. In the final poem, our poet wraps up every loose end and resists her childish rebellion:
Tiny hearts all over my c.v. led me
to a lovely unemployment. I say:
Let the kids do what they’re gonna—
that’s the only way they’ll learn.
I miss it already, all the kissing
of my youth, the days of yore.
Forget what I’ve said before. This is
all I’ve got. There isn’t any more.
She indicts the authority figure; she’s also ready to make some concessions; it’s the stuff of growing up in America.
If Ford is right and collaborative poetry is “intellectual sport,” I think that most collaborative poetry is more like the Home Run Derby than it is a real game; all pomp and workout, little at stake (pardon the baseball reference; the MLB Home Run Derby just took place a few miles from my home). And Rooney and Gabbert have a good bit of fun. The poem titles, for example, are often funny (“Dark Days With the Dark Knight”), sometimes annoying (“Abercrombie Addresses Fitch”), and always enthusiastic (“Baby, Oh No!”)—yet I have hunch that each knows what it is doing. You might argue that the slang and references will soon be outmoded and irrelevant, that looking back, this book might look like little more than two pals goofing off with way too much free-association and forced rhyme. Fair enough. But a book that’s able to simultaneously accept and reject the Established Order of its own medium is not a common thing.