I Don't Like Reading Patricia Lockwood's Poems. You Should Still Read Her New Book.

Reading between the lines.
June 2 2014 11:34 AM

Steak-Umm out of Sacred Cows

Patricia Lockwood’s poetry, and the discomfort it’s meant to cause squares like me.

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Patricia Lockwood.

Photograph byGrep Hoax

Here’s the thing: For the most part, I don’t like reading Patricia Lockwood’s poems. They make me feel slow-witted and over-serious, clumsy, credulous, and uncool. They make me feel like the guy who ruins all the fun. Her poems aren’t wrong; I am that guy. But I don’t like being reminded.

And it’s not just that. A few pages into her second collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, I start to feel that I’ve entered a word where seriousness is unwelcome and sentiment suspect—where outrageousness is essential but actual outrage, mine or anyone’s, is altogether out of bounds.

But I’m wrong. Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” is not just the most shared poem in the still-short history of social media (the publicity materials for Motherland claim that it got more than 100,000 likes on Facebook), or the reason that a poet who skipped the machinery of poet-making and has only one book under her belt just starred in a splashy New York Times Magazine profile. It is also one of the most amazing poems I’ve read recently. Not only does it do the things I imagine her poems won’t; it does them uniquely well precisely because of those qualities that make me think they can’t.

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There are, of course, other reasons that the poem works, including Lockwood’s relentless jigsaw wit. But more than that, “Rape Joke” astonishes me because her bone-deep suspicion of sincerity—her commitment to making Steak-Umm out of sacred cows—enacts, in its uncomfortable relationship to the subject at hand, the ways rape traps its victims inside a set of contradictions that require and resist communication. At once unspeakable and obvious, pervasive and singular, rape locks its victims in an identity that is as caustic as it is cliché, and Lockwood’s wild unbalancing act makes the endless, unsolvable aftermath real even as it asserts her right to define that which insists on defining her.

“The rape joke is that of course there was blood,” she writes, “which in human beings is so close to the surface.” Much of Lockwood’s poetry performs her freedom from expectations—the unwillingness to have her writing hemmed in by the strictures of taste or even the bounds of physics—so in this line the act of naming, so plainly, her common human vulnerability devastates me. Soon enough, she’s once again her own somewhat unreliable interpreter:

The rape joke is that this is finally artless. The rape joke is that you do not write artlessly.
The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you.

“You’re asking for it ”? This is hardly artless.

The poem ends:

The rape joke is that the next day he gave you Pet Sounds. No really. Pet Sounds. He said he was sorry and then he gave you Pet Sounds. Come on, that’s a little bit funny.
Admit it.

It’s fitting that the final moment is both so plain and so overcharged with possible meanings. Coming at the end of the poem, “Admit it” refers not only to the idea that the gift might be “a little bit funny” but to the fact that the rape took place—a fact both victim and society try to ignore. (That sense is made stronger by the line’s echo of the famous “Write it!” from Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”) More subtly, and more to the point, it’s a pun on the rapist’s unwarranted power to force someone’s body to admit his; taking the form of a command, it abruptly turns the speaker’s attempted authority, the attempt at control that drives the poem from its very first sentences, on the person reading her words.

Subversive, ingenious, a little elusive, and, yes, funny, that two-word last line, like the poem as a whole, is Lockwood at her best. It’s also, if I’m paying enough attention, a reminder that my discomfort with Lockwood’s other poems (one of which appeared in Slate) might have something do with my advantaged standing as a straight white male in the culture she handles with such imaginative disregard.

Lockwood tends to work at the growing intersection of camp and cool, a place where enthusiasm and indifference manage to overlap—as in these lines from “The Hornet Mascot Falls in Love”:

            The air he breathes is filled
with flying cheerleader parts. Splits
flips and splits, and ponytails in orbit,
the calm eye of the panty in the center
of the cartwheel, the word HORNETS
—how?—flying off the white uniform.
Cheerleaders are a whole, are known
to disassemble in the middle of the air
and come back down with different
thighs, necks from other girls, a lean
gold torso of Amber-Ray on a bubbling
bottom half of Brooke.

As in most of Lockwood’s poems, she delights in the absurdity of her materials, turning the spectacle up to 11 while she lets its component parts slip loose (in this case, literally). She loves to personify the inhuman at the same time as she depersonalizes the human, creating a swirl of slippery images out of our already ridiculous conceptions. Here, the mascot around whom the cheerleaders break into parts and re-assemble has already started to become what his costume half-heartedly pretends he is; then, as the poem goes on, he starts breaking down and recombining with them, too.

Most of these poems have a kind of narrative momentum and depend for their effects on the relentless shifting of concepts and identities. The story never stops, but its premises keep changing on the fly, sort of like a longer version of Lockwood’s famous Twitter feed, which often features comedic “sexts” such as this:  

The poems go further, though, letting the absurd implications of American life and language turn unreal and real, divorce and marry or, more often, simply get it on. These may not be my kind of poems, but I can’t dismiss them.

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And yet I still feel compelled to be that guy, if only for a moment. Why “Amber-Ray”? Why “Brooke”? Here and there in these poems, Lockwood’s jokes seem to see the poems’ intended audience more clearly than their subjects, and the rest of her work loses something by its implication in that sometimes-cliquish relationship. (It’s a note she plays in a slightly different key with her bio, which boasts, somewhat condescendingly, that she “was born in a trailer in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and raised in all of the worst cities of the Midwest.”)

There’s much to be said for irreverence, though, even for a reader like me whom irreverence makes uncomfortable. (As it’s meant to.) There’s certainly value in having imaginative, energetic fun at the expense, for example, of our dangerous American reverence for football culture, or of most any reverence, or at the expense of nothing at all, though sometimes the stakes run out before the riffing does, as they do here in “He Marries the Stuffed Owl Exhibit: At the Indiana Welcome Center”:

He marries her mites and the wires in her wings,
he marries her yellow glass eyes and black centers,
he marries her near-total head turn, he marries
         the curve of each of her claws, he marries
the information plaque, he marries the extinction
         of this kind of owl, he marries the owl
that she loved in life and the last thought of him
in the thick of her mind
         just one inch away from the bullet, there,
                                    he marries the moths 
who make holes in the owl, who have eaten the owl
almost all away...

For all of Lockwood’s skepticism, though, and all of the ways in which she skewers sentimentality, she also, as times, manages to clear new space for feeling. In an interview with the Rumpus, Lockwood described poems as “places.” It’s a surprising term for a poet whose writing can’t sit still, but I’ve found it helpful in thinking about who these poems are for. For the nimble, the skeptical, and the restless, writing like this represents a way to be in a country whose failures seem to them as much aesthetic as they are ethical. Take, for example, our culture’s objectification of women, which poem after poem reanimates in excess. In “Revealing Nature Photographs”: “nature/ makes gaping fake-agony faces, nature is consensual dad-/ on-daughter, nature is completely obsessed with twins.” Lockwood’s poems are less a critique of that culture than an alternative opened up sideways to it, a place made of the mind’s freedom to move through it on its own outrageous, occasionally indifferent, improvisatory terms.

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Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood. Penguin.

Jonathan Farmer is the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of At Length.