Arsenic Lobster poetry journal
Issue Twenty-two
Spring 2010
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Juliet Cook, Fondant Pig Angst
December 2009, Slash Pine Press
Hand-stitched chapbook, 28pp

The cover of Juliet Cook's Fondant Pig Angst makes me uneasy. The poems inside make me queasy. Much of the imagery sets off a slight gag reflex. The overall effect of the collection is like floating face-down / in a large steel vat of tapioca pudding.

So why am I drawn to it time and again? I was asked to review it by Arsenic Lobster publisher Susan Yount, whose taste in poetry is as close to pitch-perfect as it gets and, like a train wreck, it fascinated me. Fondant Pig Angst is the first chapbook of poems to be published by the University of Alabama's Slash Pine Press. I was not familiar with Cook's previous work, but it would seem that somewhere along the assembly line, Cook has taken to heart two schools of poetic thought: anti-decoration and Gurlesque.

In poet and New York Times best-selling memoirist Mary Karr's award winning essay, ''Against Decoration,'' Karr rails against overly elaborate work and metaphors that overshadow meaning. She asserts that, ''to pay so little attention to the essentially human elements of a poem makes a monster of poetry's primary emotional self. . . so that the art becomes exclusively decorative and at times grotesque.'' Rather than share Karr's aesthetic or even heed her advice, Cook seems to be testing its truth by writing an exaggerated version of the very sort of poetry Karr criticized.

And in Gurlesque poetry, a term recently coined by contemporary poet Arielle Greenberg, female poets ''own their sexuality, wear it proudly, are thoroughly enmeshed in the visceral experiences of gender; these poems are. . .lush and campy, full of pop culture detritus, and ultimately very powerful.'' To be sure, Cook parades the viscerally sexy if not, by some standards, the softly pornographic; she can't seem to stop giggling as he cuts / holes for my nipples to stick through.

But perhaps Cook's work is best explained through close readings of two of the chap's poems. In ''Midwestern Gothic,'' the first poem in the collection, the narrator confesses amidst a cornfield-darkened landscape of barns filled with injury-inviting machinery and chicken heads hanging from hooks: The grotesque melted flesh of others' / freak accidents scarred me. Twenty odd years / I hid in a smokehouse and still wasn't cured meat. / I was a disaster of unnatural proportions. A dirty girl- / furnace whose filter was never changed until I became / my own cyclone.

This is a narrator, then, who never recovered from a traumatic event, an event that haunts and informs everything she does. Indeed, she has become her own cyclone or even (Karr's worst nightmare) somewhat of a poetic monster.

And the penultimate poem, ''Pig Trough as Concept,'' reads like Cliff notes to those who still don't get it: This vat is akin to an industrial-sized pig trough / You can think about gluttony, poor impulse control, self-/ perpetuating cycles of doll flesh. I'll think about my own / flesh as a blemished mess that needs to be smoothed all over / Cover suspicious moles with candied rosettes.

True, the depths of self-loathing apparent in both of these passages could potentially be at odds with the Gurlesque mantra of sexual empowerment, but in Cook's narrator, they somehow manage to uncomfortably co-exist. And while I don't envy the tortured psyche of the chap's narrator, I most certainly envy lines like the following ones from ''Warm Milk'' describing a girl's unfortunate deflowering by a ''black kitty carousel animal'':

It sucked out her insides cleanly. Sandpapered up.
Duct taped mouth with red paint. Foreign object
rape is not retractable. This larger than life-size black

kitty doesn't even have claws. Its swollen paws affixed
to the base of a whirling pedestal, controlled by a panel
behind the scenes. What does bolt mean?

It has conflicting definitions.

These poems all work seamlessly as objects, like William Carlos Williams' little machines. There is consistency of image, metaphor and, if one can just get past the long menu of gross, a delectable feast of savory music. Each time I read the book (by now, at least five) I see more beauty and less ugly. Each time, Cook teaches me that to truly appreciate these poems, I need to look them directly in the eyes. No averting the gaze, and no glazing over. Unless, of course, it is with an appropriately thick and creamy icing.

Lissa Kiernan
Poetry Editor, Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal
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