Arsenic Lobster poetry journal
Susan Slaviero's full-length debut, Cyborgia, infests the consciousness like a slithy, malicious virus. Devious as malware, insidious as a Trojan horse, it slips in as Bloodformed letters on her collar / or siphoned ink, a red scent. // When she hallucinates, it's the real thing (“Sleepwalker”). The same could be said for the author's imagination. Slaviero's feminist cyborgs, to her great credit, do become quickly and startlingly real, seducing us skillfully into a beautiful horror movie, populated by pro(to)-woman, mechanized brides, and machines more fishflesh than sexbot.
This credibility is attained thanks to Slaviero's savvy decision not to render her post-apocalyptic landscape in the fractured, deconstructed diction one might expect, but in near-school-perfect syntax, replete with broad meta-winks to epistles, triptychs and, as one poem is titled, Portmanteau (a word that is a blend of two or more words). The familiar sentence constructions and accompanying nod to formalism have the effect of keeping us securely grounded, as in a plug, providing an additional measure of safety should the poem ever develop an internal short-circuit.
One need not be worried. The voices of the various femme-bots in the collection are eerily even, orchestrated to a pitch-perfect, bloodless tone that registers as coolly void of inflection: a synthesized flat effect...characteristic of my vampire // <species>. But, as if to hint that her cyborgs aren't as (self)realized as meets the eye, Slaviero uses unconventionally placed brackets, parenthesis, double colons, and yes, portmanteaux, as manifested by unconventional word case (GRIDlock. HATchet. WOUnd) and subdivision: I am (hyper)textual, an alien / automaton (dis)arranged / Your chimerical heroine(e).
These sparsely-placed, intentional bugs in an otherwise slickly elegant code can have the effect of endowing the poems' speakers with more than one voicethe echo-remnant of a once-human consciousness, now muffled beneath a “steel-toothed gear as mouth concept” (“Zeroes and Ones”). In Slaviero's crafty hands, this device never feels affected.
Her magnificent female characters (now available in either decorative brass or stainless / <steel>) appear to have been created under a male gaze, for male pleasure, male fantasy. Witness: The way she looks, you'd think / zippers do not exist. Witness: well-dressed meat. But somewhere down the assembly line, something went terribly wrong, and the script gets flipped. The seamless, sexy cyborg someone had in mind when he labeled her vixen/mistress/bitch demonstrates emphatically that she is not his “Celluloid Marionette.” Rather, she's his “Bride of Frankenstein 2.0,” his “VirtualGirl III,” a “Cyborg Cowgirl”gunslinger arms rolling loose.
Or perhaps she's simply more evolved. The first of four sections is subtitled “The Red Queen Hypothesis,” a theory borrowed from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, which holds that “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” The concept posits that there's a constant “evolutionary arms race” between competing speciessay, male and female. Or as set forth in the poem “Parthenogenesis” (a form of asexual reproduction found among some female invertebrates and plants): your daughters are live-bearing / and asymmetrical. Once you are gone, they will produce only drones.
The remaining three sections organize the collection's 51 poems into groupings of female icons and archetypes: the villainess as represented in film (“Celluloid Marionettes”); as victim/heroine in fairy tale (“Boolean Fairy Tales”); and as depicted in utopian discourse/virtual space (“Ontology of the Virtual Body”). Given their significant thematic overlap, they function more like intermissions than different acts. In all their guises, Slaviero's protagonists are largely triumphant, finally the alpha-gender. The male becomes superfluous, sassed: in the twenty-six minutes since I've been resurrected I have devised about ten different ways to disassemble you. Imagine what I could do with an hour and a box of power tools. (“Consider the Dangers of Reconstructing Your Wife as Cyborg”).
From time to time, Slaviero hints that her heroines' superpowers were achieved at the expense of vulnerability, human emotion, pleasures of the flesh, but this never feels sentimental. A character might suffer amnesia of the body, might win our compassion as we witness her build myself a daughter of wire and potatoes, bits of broken toys. But even as she recalls the taste of artichoke hearts or the shape of round berries, it never feels like a ploy for our sympathies.
It's all thrillingly chilling, in the tradition of a good slasher flick, and Slaviero doesn't allow us to look away for even a second, delivering in poem after unflinching poem. If there's a fault here, in fact, it's that the collection can at times feel like it's in overdrive. But upon second and third reads, that, too, feels correctly programmed, rendering Slaviero's verse with all the bristling energy of an ovary smashed beneath her kittenheel, a lyricism as dangerous, as relentless as radioactive mind-music.
Poetry Editor, Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal