Keyhole Press and Switchback Books
reviewed by Angela Veronica Wong
The increasing and oppressive social anxiety felt in the past decade of war, violence, terror and interplay of privilege (social, financial, cultural) and our immediate world may have lead to the recent rise of girlhood as subject — and nostalgia as affect — exploring the construct of girlhood to work towards an understanding of the girl as woman..Even its most fun and pink and glittery incarnations American girlhood is underscored by the uncertainties of power, body, hate, and heterosexuality. Marisa Crawford’s The Haunted House and Carrie Murphy’s Pretty Tilt are both collections that seem to consciously position themselves with “gurlesque” poetry, and work toward reconstructing and recreating girlhood through a poetry that acts as cultural examination.
Or, as Carrie Murphy writes, “Under my fingertips,/ the shape of the beds of his nails/ (a poem I wrote at sixteen),/ the tools I used to write myself a girl.” Both Murphy and Crawford present a girlhood that directly, fiercely, intersects with pop culture — pop culture as Western, or perhaps more aptly American, product. Murphy builds an identity through pop culture, pulling in references to Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, Ani DiFranco, in a way that tracks the conflicting messages of female role models available to young girls of America. In particular, “Glossary” seems a wonderful, but also terrifying, list of growing up girl in the early 1990s and 2000s. Among some of what she lists: “Ironic: four different Alanises with different hairstyles,” “The scene in She’s All That where she walks down the steps & then trips into the hot guy’s arms,” “Feminism: A copy of The Second Sex but not really getting it. Naming my cat Simone” (23). “Not really getting it” is the point; Murphy’s narrator senses the significance of Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex enough to name her cat after it, but hasn’t quite figured out what the real impact of De Beauvoir is. Girlhood is about building and opening up to these different possible versions of self.
Murphy leans a bit more toward the sexually explicit, these moments that challenge our desire for the feminine to be quiet, chaste, virginal: “She so wanted her// panties crusted by you, but/ instead she watched you bring home/ blowsy brittle girls & fuck them/ against the kitchen window” (“Cinderelly Cinderelly” 14). By giving a frank account of girl-heterosexuality and shattering sweet ideas of daydreaming girls by trafficking in more adult, sexual fantasies, Murphy asks to push against the conventional.
Like Murphy, Crawford uses pop culture references to situate her poems’ girlhood as well: The Haunted House has Whitney Houston, Drew Barrymore, The Land Before Time. When we are confronted with the presence of so many objects of femininity (bra straps, “candy cane stripes” on nails, blow dryers, purses) and the movement of objects into feminine space (clothing, telephones), we must recognize that the girlhood and femininity presented is intricately tied to the material, the production, consumerism—which in turn addresses the privilege of heterosexual femininity, and also the oppressiveness of performing it. Both poets reflect an American perspective of girlhood not just in the materialism, but also in the sentiment. Murphy’s perspective seems a bit more in the manner of her line “All we have in common is our colossal boredom” and in the way she wields the ampersand throughout her poems, sometimes abrupt and adolescent, sometimes like she is defiantly duct-taping things together. Crawford’s collection is often beautifully discursive on experiencing girlhood, something its many poems set in prose allow—growing up is our narrative, she reminds us. She resurrects a voice that is sweet and sometimes absurd, both exposing and internalizing the expectations of girlhood. In a poem speaking of confessions, fears and hopes around marriage and loneliness to Cera from The Land Before Time, she writes “Cera, is my mascara running … Is your frill like a bridal veil?” followed by “Does your home/ feel empty, does your ring finger throb, does the bridge reach across the ravine?” (“For Cera,” 64). Crawford’s success is in raising these questions surrounding girls so sweetly there is no sense of self-satisfaction or self-congratulations in identifying, marking, and exposing these questions. This is seen also in “Deirdre,” in which she lifts out the shame felt in femininity, of being a girl: “Deirdre said barn red paint from the playhouse got all over her shorts and panties” (19). Throughout The Haunted House, Crawford uses address, she uses third person and creates characters, she tells her own versions of fables to achieve these difficult, subtle movements through femininity. The poems are not “frank” for the sake of “frankness,” but by living a world that is at once alternate and familiar, she is able to access a certain fresh honesty that is evocative of a joyful, but complicated girlhood.
Is girlhood or femininity enclosure or liberation? Are we a product of it, or do we produce it? And is it possible that in search of a “frankness” in discourse around American girlhood, what we actually achieve is an emptiness, a blankness of reflection, a perpetuation? It should be difficult to answer these questions, and in particular when references and allusions are flagpoles that mark the whens and wheres of poems. Murphy’s girls suggest, in the things that happen to them, a darkness of passivity that rises when discussing boys, boys, and boys: a poem entitled “The Behavior of FUNYUNS in the Mouth” continues in its first line, “is what boys want to talk about when they’re stoned &/ sculpted onto park benches” and ends “Fake isn’t the same idea as pretend./ Happy isn’t the same as high./ Girls aren’t the same as stars” (37). There is always the complication of sex and the unknown of sex, and that tautological burden of having a female body is always having a female body—a body that can be and is too often lost, mutilated (both through physical violence and consumerist performance—makeup, fashion, hair), impregnated, raped, and killed. In the face of this reality, perhaps it is amazing that girls can become women at all, and perhaps that is worth celebrating in and of itself. As Crawford writes:
I’d like to thank the seeds, all the seeds that turned into trees after everyone said they’d never grow.
(“Ghost Story,” 15)
After all, girlhood is directed toward a future, even when that future is suspended or avoided, it is in the movement of becoming. With this in mind, it might not be surprising to recognize the long shadow of the fairytale cast upon both collections. Where Crawford’s “glass cases,” speaks to the delicacy and fragility of girlhood, the nuance of the potentiality of danger, Murphy’s allusions toward Cinderella and Snow White are interested in the hard shell of girlhood—her poem “The Seven Strongest Men in Town” lists a series of challenges to the strength and abilities of her feminine speaker and instructions on how to be. The speaker is told she “can’t drive in heels,” she “should keep \[her] lights on,” she should “not use much blush.” But underneath these instructions is the threat of violence on female bodies because of the female body: “They/ say they can suck the skin off a peach” (21). These are the moments where Murphy’s poems are most compelling, when they move beyond the descriptions of the unknown to investigate its intimate violence. In other words, moving from a language of the self-conscious referencing and adolescence, which might at times feel heavy and exclusive, into metaphoric possibilities of the unsaid. It seems important to note that Crawford and Murphy’s book come to being in an American poetry that also has girlhood reconstructed from such books as Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts (among many others) in which we must confront that we can mask but not hide violence toward girls.
There is a wild, fascinating multiplicity of voices and styles arising across poetry, and many of the voices that are challenging us, demanding us, to reassess poetry, belong to women, women who are interested in surrealism, lyricism, and redefining and reorienting the experimental and conceptual. But if Arielle Greenberg in 2003, interested in identifying a trend, tied together what might be interpreted as a pop-art commonality to poetry, a certain “cuteness” (as understood by Sianne Ngai), how can we very broadly propose to look at, in the shadow of gurlesque, what is being produced now? In a seeming trend toward destabilizing object/subject, disguised as a move toward the abject, is there a flatness in which heterosexual femininity and its resulting representation is neither cotton-candy nor complicated, but simple—tethered to masculine desire and definition? Against this, the vitality of both Marisa Crawford and Carrie Murphy’s collections give us insight to an American girlhood that, as just a slice of the many experiences out there, is still so complicated, and so valuable to understanding American-ness. Murphy’s title says it most aptly: Pretty Tilt — girlhood is about learning and leaning this positioning.