Arsenic Lobster poetry journal Issue Twenty-eight
Spring 2012
Thirteen Designer Vaginas
Juliet Cook

Hyacinth Girl Press, 2011

Read Juliet’s poems in Arsenic Lobster Issue Twenty-three Summer 2010, Issue Twenty-three Summer 2010

Read a review of a prior chapbook Issue Twenty-two Spring 2010

Inevitably, at some point in life, women will be invited to contemplate completely unnecessary ideals vis-a-vis procedures that will unnaturally enhance the body. If you have not yet had this experience, and would like to get a jump-start on it, read Juliet Cook’s newest chapbook, Thirteen Designer Vaginas from Hyacinth Girl Press, a chapbook that will render you horrified while you simultaneously embrace the social implications of having a vagina that might need fixing.

I looked up vaginal rejuvenation surgery just as Cook notes on the author bio page, which wasn’t nearly as provocative as reading Designer Vaginas, so save some time and read Cook’s version, a distillation of voluntary mutilation. Hovering between personal opinion, critical critique, and appropriation, Designer Vaginas may be the first time I’ve considered the existence of a decorated vagina and why anyone might or might not want one.

It’s moments like, “a designer vagina might just be another punch line poem,” that allows you to see the ambiguity, uncertainty, and secrecy peppered throughout this chap. Women don’t necessarily go around bragging about their brand new vaginas, but these moments of honesty are what make Cook’s concoction a voracious critique, sometimes cheering for and sometimes against “snazzy tassels atop her misshapen meat curtain.”

Much of Designer Vaginas comments on want and desire, suggesting that a pink, taut vagina is something all women inherently aspire to: “Am I wrong to want to be more like a patisserie, instead of a discount grocery store.” It’s true that a generally unseen and temperamental environment is not the most comfortable of places, even when it is attached to you forever.

Cook explores the scariness of rejuvenation, which is really just a light term for cutting, pulling, and tucking the delicate pieces of what should already be your most cherished body part. Not only are the mechanics of rejuvenation frightening, but the vagina itself has notoriously been seen as a scary misconception, described as food stuffs (“beef garden”), types of animals (“the red snapper”), geographical locations (“bone yard”), and even just plain gross (“skunk guts”).

Pairing the label “designer” with something the general public does not think of as fashionable, stylish, or expensive is a fabulous concept in itself. Cook’s deft use of sparkling language for the vagina refreshes the old and often offensive clichés. For example, “exotic candy-making machine” or “pink foam egg carton wastebasket,” is much more affectionate and interesting than, say, “cradle of filth” or “cum dumpster.”

The vagina has been conflated with so many negative euphemisms mostly because a lot of people don’t understand the vagina, even if it is your own. Women are held to such an obscenely high standard that no one in their right mind can achieve or afford, so Cook seems to be suggesting that it might just be time to get over it and reclaim your “pink scalloped lips” as they are.

There is so much going on under the radar in Designer Vaginas. Not only does the language seem to birth from the page, but you are forced to consider how we talk about and name the vagina, the woman attached to it, and the not so unfamiliar (at least to those of us with vaginas) conflicting roles she, and it, are expected to perform throughout life.

Thirteen Designer Vaginas is not a clear-cut expedition into the workings of the vagina and its mistress; it doesn’t offer any confident answers. It’s more of a grotesque exposé on the most ambiguous, misunderstood, and highly sought after parts of biological history. Cook’s expertise in making her reader feel uncomfortable is undeniable. Sometimes we need a “banana cream factory” to remind us we are uncomfortable anyway.
Review by Dolly Lemke
Dolly lives and works in Chicago.
She co-curates The Dollhouse Reading Series. Get it?