you are in the diode archives v5n3



Review | The Girls of the Peculiar, Catherine Pierce
Saturnalia Books

When poets commit to adolescence for subject matter, they often sell the soul of their poems to nostalgia, and though nostalgia always conceals its horns and tail, talks sweetly and flatters one’s past like a good camera, it never gives up to a reader what it has taken from the speaker and used, the substance always alluded to but never revealed. Catherine Pierce’s second collection The Girls of the Peculiar, however, defies nostalgia in its treatment of coming-of-age characters by enacting an ideal laid out in Wallace Stevens’s magisterial excursus of ars poetica, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.” He describes the poem’s paragon work, writing that it should be “Part of the res itself and not about it.”

“You’re kidding, right?” ask the choral speaker of Pierce’s “Poem from the Girls We Were,” and then, with greater specificity:

                                          You want
            this back? This all-night nausea,
            this skull-splitting what-is-it?
            You want, again, to sit quaking
            in a rusted Dodge, afraid of your own
            rage firefighting inside you? The heat
            you recall is no sun, and no jellyfish, either—
            it’s a planet exploding with you
            at its molten center. Come sit amidst
            these songs again and tell us what you want
            to live here. [19]

The Girls of the Peculiar doesn’t recount the past but relives it, and, in doing so, revises it. To further quote Stevens, “The poet speaks the poem as it is. / Not as it was.” The poem then is a kind of time machine, the vehicle that sets one’s mindset back thirty years. The poet becomes drama girl, quiet girl, delinquent and geek; a chorus of each and beyond, to the end that the imagined past experiences prompt a butterfly effect of revision on the present, “The Future” that seemed to the girls they were, “a century away.” [1] The self is now confused to the point of crisis:

            At the base of a mountain,
            you see, in the hazeless light,
            the revised version of yourself. [62]

But why would a poet change oneself by delving into the voice of others? Perhaps the answer lies in a sequence of poems that centers around five types of girls. “Drifting / was safe travel,” the Quiet Girls say, “we knew it then, and we were right.” [6] But the Drama Girls counter:

            Were we never a still lake? No, we never were.
            We never reflected back anything but ourselves.
            We never shifted subtle with the wind. It was not

            our desire. We were our desire.

And, later:

                                                  We send our voices out
            into air, and air eats them. We are meant to be thrown
            stones. Where is the mirrored sky for us to shatter? [18]

Is each poem in the sequence spoken by a unique chorus of girls? Or are all the girls the same? Perhaps we’ve come upon an omni-speaker looking into a trifold mirror angled toward infinity, but each reflection is slightly different, altered by a blink of the eye, the light, a scratch on the glass. But in a catalogue of ifs that is never answered by an effect, Pierce presents the mirror image and then destroys it:

            If I’d looked at myself
            in the mirror. If I’d stopped
            ogling myself in the mirror
            If I’d smashed every mirror [49]

Even as the poet tries on multiple personas and then rejects them by returning to the present self, the mirror seems to splinter and lodge in her skin; the shards cannot be tweezed out by razor-sharp guilt or coaxed out by living “inside every word.” [72]

Every word in The Girls teeters on the edge of the conversational and the crafted, always after art but resistant to artifice. While some poets would forgo significance in order to orchestrate some musical score, Pierce’s personal narratives build around appropriate details that she delivers in such a way so that the information colludes toward music,  as in “Reading YM at the Pool, Age 12” where the speaker “will try the trick of lemons” to lighten her hair, “condition with mayonnaise” and

                        practice holding her tongue
            between her fingers so she won’t gag
            on the first kiss (sloppy and slipshod, she expects). [39]

Most of the poems can be read as un-nuanced information, delivered for meaning and not language, but digging deeper, line-by-line, the music and prosody surfaces. Excerpting a sonnet-size chunk of “The ‘70s Aren’t Coming Back,” we find slant rhyme and paced delivery of information, reminiscent of more formal work:

                                     The soft plumes of Miss Maryland’s
            hair were sincere and fantastic, but ventriloquists
            never won; Miss Texas would take it, if you knew
            anything about beauty and you did. The couch
            was velour and the color of bricks. Your mind
            was a minefield—every wicked thought a tripwire
            you sprung again and again until you evaporated
            inside guilt’s white blasts. The six o’clock news
            hummed in the background like cicadas outside
            your window. What war? The couch was so soft.
            Miss Maryland was a cockatiel. Your head
            was a haunted factory, but there was cinnamon
            in the spaghetti sauce. The O’Jays were on the radio.
            You knew Rhoda Morgenstern and Spiro T. Agnew [59]

But to read this selection, we are hardly aware of any formal insurgence, as Pierce directs our attention to the speaker’s testimony, how the tangible is filtered through perception and expectation:

            Used to be I was locked in the future. And the future
            was no blank canvas, was no white page, but
            was crammed with graveyards and rivers and red-eyes. [11]

The one exception to the collection’s real and imagined personal (and choral) narratives is “A Short Biography of the American People By City” which relies on a fable-like allegory system of city names:

            In Surprise, every day is a party, streamers
            in the trees and piñatas bursting. No one from Surprise

            visits Dismal, though they’ve heard of its fog-
            shrouded hills and barren stream beds. In Dismal they dream

            of Happy and What Cheer, but it’s all they can do
            to someday make it to Boring, where homes are narrow

            but clean and each dog is part Lab, part spaniel. The boys
            in Boring long for the girls of Peculiar—they’ve heard

            tales of leather and feathers, of lipstick the color
            of tin cans and long hair the shade of the sky. [65]

It’s this poem from which the collection takes its title and its whimsical design. Punctuated by a daisy-like sun, a pink sky, and three ladies out to sea (one in the livery of Rosie the Riveter, another in the role of a beat, and the last, a badass), the cover may prompt a reader may wonder if the book speaks to a specific “feminine” demographic. But the design is not prescriptive as covers so often are, and yet it converses with the poems and complicates them with irony. The cover, too, resists the nostalgia of subject matter and, more subversively, design.

As an example, consider the last ten years of National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winning collections written by women. All had covers that were decidedly anti-whimsical, even if they embraced an imaginative image or portrayed “feminine” objects. There’s the scientific (Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars), the rustic (Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard; Ruth Stone’s In the Next Galaxy), the naturalist (Kay Ryan’s The Best of It; Nikky Finney’s Head Off and Split; and, more artistically so, Jean Valentine’s The Door in the Mountain), and domestic (Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife). While all of the named books are indeed attractive, to see a book that contains such fraught renderings and reckonings of girlhood with a cover that inspires and is inspired by whimsy might incite us to examine our clichéd notions of gender-specific image, color, or design while providing a project-specific level of productive tension between the book object and the poems.

So what does Pierce’s inquiry into identity, craft, and the book’s design add up to? Pierce maybe answers this question in the last poem’s catalogue, slant:

            Sometimes the minutes add up to an old song

            and radio crackle. Sometimes they add up
            to that movie, you know the one, with the kids lost

            in the woods and the good ending. Sometimes
            they add up to spinning and shrieks and the girls

            on the Zipper. Always they add up to a plea for more,
            a hand closing around nothing, then opening again. [78]

Perhaps ars poetica, perhaps epiphanic reckoning, the last lines, like the rest of the collection, resist nostalgia. Nostalgia is, after all, an act of preservation, taking from experience and memory, collecting from a life and curating it. Catherine Pierce, however, is in the business of re-creation, the way Lowell produced English “versions” of foreign language poems instead of translations. After all, no experience can be transliterated into poetry, no matter how vividly and accurately remembered. Detail is always subject to the exactness of words, significance to clarity. Poetry, like the moon, causes all things to weigh differently than they do in terrestrial experience. We breathe a different air there. When we walk, we don’t merely take steps. We leap.  


Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (forthcoming from University of Akron Press, 2013), the Editor’s Choice for the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize, and two chapbooks including Bestiary of Gall (forthcoming from Sundress Publications, 2013). She is the associate literary editor of Blackbird and the recipient of the 2012 Poetry Prize from The Journal, a Zoland Poetry Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, and a scholarship to the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. She received her MFA in poetry from Virginia Commonwealth University and BA from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her poetry appears in many journals, including AGNI, The Collagist, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Indiana Review, The Kenyon Review, Sycamore Review, and Third Coast; and her reviews have been published in Blackbird, The Journal, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.