|Arsenic Lobster poetry journal||
Natural History Rape Museum|
by Danielle Pafunda
Bloof Books (2013)
Danielle Pafunda’s Natural History Rape Museum preserves a collection of familiar violence, much like such a museum would do and Pafunda is the curator and docent. It’s a horror to witness, to tour; a monument and documentation of a darker, bloodier time. Some of the poems in this book helped define the Gurlesque aesthetic; they are violent, grotesque, and most importantly, feminist. (The Gurlesque was termed by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg in their 2010 anthology of the same name. They define the Gurlesque, partially, as, “poems rooted… in the understanding of America as a rape culture, [and] there appeared almost no trace of the earnestness, sensitivity or self-seriousness that marked… poems stemming from Second Wave feminism.”)1
Each of the five sections of the Natural History Rape Museum is its own bizarre, grotesque room filled with elaborate violent curiosities. Pafunda wants you to stay a while in each one.
The first room is one of self-loathing where the title has been injected within the body of the poem. “I hated myself in your womb from conception” is the tragedy of a girlhood set aside to be ignored. Inherent violence follows the exit from the mother’s body and the proclamation that it’s a vagina!: “All my long life they every day loved me / by sticking their fingers into my pudge.”
Here in this museum, the female body is revealed as an exhibit to be hated, fondled, dominated and hidden for its own protection/preservation. That is, Pafunda outlines rape culture in this opening poem.
The museum docent/speaker guides you through more rooms and the poems display title specimens like, “The man in your life will exercise his flink till it wail” and “I am boring you to death; I am boring into you”. These boxed-in titles in the book’s first and fourth sections interrupt, penetrate and disrupt the poems and their natural forms. They are a graphical metaphor for violation.
“We have come here to discuss / the rape death bad mood / of my friend, sister, / twin sister, / that dead girl” Pafunda writes in “You put me in this dress, I’m just wearing it. Externally.”
Pafunda’s speaker is performing the feminine by externally wearing the dress, and by having biologic female organs, but the speaker rejects the internalization of femaleness because it would be easier to erase femaleness and the problems that come with it, monstrosity among them: “she will slice out her hundred tongues”, “the womb, a tick tock, a shrapnel-bearing croc.”
This hyper-feminine performance runs throughout the book and ties delicately each exhibit/section together with multiple grotesque images, actions and situations. Sometimes the speaker is mother-like, sometimes the speakers is helpless. Sometimes the speaker is the embodiment of pain, the “middle face”, as it’s called.
An ever-constant in this Museum is the Fuckwad: a bad guy, a dominator and an antagonist.
Violation and violence are commonplace in this museum, often perpetuated by the Fuckwad; “the Fuckwad scooped out her girl bag.” He certainly earns his name as he enacts violence onto the speaker by equating her with a dish of cigars, a lost dog that’s wandered off, a mutt. He keeps her in the same place with guilt, saying “And what will / baby-job think? // What will he odious pus / in the empty nest….” He keeps her in a cage, tells her not to think because she’s too pretty, and debases her psychologically. The Fuckwad, a stand-in for the patriarchy, “wants to know why she’s bothering to dress / like a lady.”
With violence comes pain, on which the museum tour ends. Pain emanates from the female body in its many roles, one of which is motherhood: “Still, I rate pain. I rate my own operation, and a room in which to distend my anus. My contraction machine, my flared labia, my regret that I cannot attend this event, am rushed out in the surge of field. Fielding. My middle face banished, homo sacer, neither sacrifice nor dead meat. A mother mask was stitched to my raw zone. It was a mistake, but it was not wholly successful.”
In Pafunda’s earlier books, Iatrogenic & My Zorba, the characters seem unresolved, are fluid in gender, and perform multiple roles, including an abandoning fetus, a host, a guide. This book continues that tradition—the fluid, performative speaker (sometimes in power over the Fuckwad, sometimes dominated by the Fuckwad) is still unresolved at the end, still in pain. “I relic pain, I treat my skullcap, and fan out my beard.”
But the Fuckwad, that patriarchy stand-in, what happens to him? All I can say is that “His files are on display in the Natural History Rape Museum.”
1 Glenum, Lara, and Arielle Greenberg, eds. Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics. Ardmore, PA: Saturnalia Books, 2010.
Review by Jessica Dyer
But Our Princess Is in Another Castle|
by B.J. Best
Rose Metal Press (2013)
It is human to expect narrative, to thread meaning, B.J. Best writes in “The Legend of Zelda,” and he could be referring to any of a number of key elements that course through But Our Princess Is in Another Castle: video games, failed relationships, successful relationships, aging, death, or even the prose poem itself. Best engages in the unexpected, revealing that a range of emotion can lurk beneath a medium typically associated with the glassy-eyed pursuit of high scores and unlocking levels. He continually reinforces an important notion, that the finest poems are not about what they seem to be, that telling readers how they’re supposed to feel is far less valuable than guiding them through their own game.
Best often uses the context of a video game to tackle philosophical questions, to humanize crudely pixelated characters, or to achieve both pursuits simultaneously. In “Dig Dug,” the speaker muses, Maybe one day my shovel will hit something other than stone. A retired Carmen Sandiego still wears sunglasses…after living in 256 colors for so long, she has to acclimate to all the world’s nuance. In “Q*bert,” All day, our hero has been chasing or chased, as the script requires.
The poems are at their most successful when Best lingers in the concrete real world while using the virtual world as a subtle backdrop. In “Mega Man,” the speaker cuddles up at the fair with a girl named Rebecca: We rode the Tilt-a-Whirl. The bumper cars. The Gravitron to see if centrifugal force could make our heads stop spinning. “Our Year in Atari” is a series of relationship-oriented couplets whose video-game titles heighten the humor and/or discomfort of the dialogue.
Even though video games inspired the poem titles of But Our Princess Is in Another Castle and give the book its distinctive thread, the book has much to offer for people who have no interest in Googling “Kid Icarus,” “Astrosmash,” or “Grim Fandango” (although doing so would reveal hidden riches). At times, only a faint trace of a game is detectable, as when the speaker of “Loom” recalls his mother ironing while footage of the Challenger explosion replays on TV, or when “Excitebike” incorporates pathos in its depiction of parenting.
Most of But Our Princess Is in Another Castle consists of prose poems, which have given Best an especially effective form to blur the line between memoir-like storytelling and a more concentrated, often allegorical style. Similarly, he is able to blur the line between video-game fantasy and more active life experiences. Best seamlessly uncovers the truth in the former as a metaphor for the latter, so the reader might not always know where the game stops and life begins. In the 21st century, it is becoming harder to discern whether the game is a microcosm of life or vice versa, a fact of which But Our Princess Is in Another Castle is well aware.
Review by Daniel M. Shapiro
Daniel is a special education teacher who lives in Pittsburgh. Burt Reynolds once insulted him but then backed off by calling him “gorgeous.” Not to be outdone, Charles Nelson Reilly once told Shapiro that his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., was “a shithole.” He used to edit a lingerie catalog and still knows more about bras than his wife does. His new poetry collection, How the Potato Chip Was Invented, is available from sunnyoutside press.