Burlesquing the Midwestern Gothic: On Mary Biddinger’s O Holy Insurgency

Anna Journey

New York, NY: Black Lawrence Press, 2013. 91 pages. $14.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

“Start // with unyielding cruise control,” writes Mary Biddinger in her poem “Gem of the North,” “two / blueberry donuts without filling. // Do not drink water from the taps.” Biddinger’s imperative might advise us how to approach her poems’ speedy velocity and sensual detail, while looking out for the danger that lurks in every domestic corner or eerie cornfield. In her second full-length poetry collection, O Holy Insurgency, Biddinger continues to explore her longstanding interest in evoking the gritty, noir textures of the Rust Belt’s postindustrial derelictions—locus of the speaker’s childhood and adolescence. Neither Philip Levine’s Detroit nor James Wright’s Ohio, Biddinger’s feverish prairie has more in common with the Ozarks of early to middle period C.D. Wright. Both writers engage the peculiar and fervently particularized details of local color flavored with the gothic, erotic, idiomatic, psychological, and cinematic. More specifically, Biddinger approaches the landscapes of the Midwestern gothic with a neo-surrealist’s juxtapositional abandon as well as a steely eroticism shaped by the spectacular imagery and vertiginous movements of the neo-baroque. In Biddinger’s poems, the body becomes a site of performance, sensual excess, and startling perspectival shifts.

Throughout O Holy Insurgency, we encounter “the lady with the burlap voice,” “the headless core of a deer you once / tripped over on the side of the highway,” and a speaker who declares: “It was like the time / my hand slipped right through / a peach.” Biddinger’s mode of Lynchian irony delights in unearthing the macabre in the mundane (“You were more lucid / than the clearest gelatin lamb // in my grandmother’s refrigerator. / She’d suspend one penny // in the dead center as an appendix.”). Her humor relishes the peculiar resemblances that beckon from capitalist kitsch (“Our bodies the sole inspiration / for Velcro, though we earned no royalties”). Her approach to the grotesque shifts nimbly from deadpan declaratives to a giddy confidentiality (“my friend once presented a bloated // Canada goose to his mother, replete with worms. / She refused to make sausage.”). Additionally, her interest in the flamboyant oddity and often sinister manifestations of camp recalls the genre of the Gurlesque: “Her favorite doll / was a girl on one side, and beneath / the red gingham skirt, a wolf.”

In Biddinger’s poems, the Midwest languishes in its “elbow-high corn” and seedy, small-town particulars: pawn shops, gas stations, dirt bikes, the “pie counter of Uncle Rowdy’s,” a “Gun sunk // to the bottom of a lagoon.” This is a landscape of both vulnerability and menace, of “slaughterhouses / and red sequins,” where “We both felt too close / to the sky.” Because of the landscape’s pervasive sense of ruin, Biddinger’s poems often enact a bodily self-assertion as a way to defy an encroaching marginalization or effacement, as when one speaker declares, “I’d / watch the Olympics naked // in a motel that never bothered to ask / my name”—her body a site, too, for performance and extraordinary displays. Biddinger often structures her speaker’s performative dynamic through the opposition of a lyric speaker and a “you,” the latter by turns a beloved, a childhood friend, and the speaker’s own doppelgangered accomplice. In the poem “Treaty Line,” for example, from the first section of O Holy Insurgency, titled Anno Domini (abbreviated as “AD” and meaning, “The Year of Our Lord,” as if the speaker’s own childhood were a sacred timeline), the speaker acknowledges her own plurality:

There were children in the dust outside
the door, and I became one of them. I still have

two sides. A lake behind the house, and behind
the lake, a field. Split rails banked by chain

link. I found a place where they converge.
Here, let me put your hand on the seam.

To Biddinger’s speaker, boundaries between self and other, or between self and landscape, often blur in arrested moments of cinematic spectacle: she steps into the dust and “became one of them.” And like the landscape that alternates between lake and field, “I still have // two sides,” the speaker claims, declaring herself the site of a uncanny convergence, as in the space where the two fences (the split rails and the chain link) meet: “I found a place where they converge.” When Biddinger’s speaker says, “Here, let me put your hand on the seam,” the juxtaposition of the following line (“There’s a filament inside both of us”) allows us to understand the claim in several ways. The “seam” refers to the actual meeting of the fences (or perhaps the apparent meeting of their twin tracks, in the distance) as well as the merging of the speaker and her double. Just as a vanishing point appears on the horizon in graphical perspective, in which parallel lines appear to meet, so, too, is the body capable of enacting a marvelous subversion of perspective.

Elsewhere, in the poem “A Bildungsroman,” Biddinger explores a similar concept of doubling, this time employing the artifice of camp to subvert conventional tropes of femininity. “A Bildungsroman,” Biddinger writes:

Begins with the two of us, like paper dolls
accidentally printed too close, and overlapping

in the most unseemly places. One coal-chute
black sweep for the hair. Hands missing

fingernails, but webbed together somehow,
albeit invisibly. Watch us lean in unison

over a thumbnail sketch of watermelon
loaded with fireworks.

If Biddinger’s speaker is the coming-of-age protagonist in a Bildungsroman, then her psychological and moral growth seems catalyzed by a discomfiting sexual encounter (“the two of us, like paper dolls / accidentally printed too close, and overlapping // in the most unseemly places”), the grotesque (“Hands missing // fingernails, but webbed together somehow”), and the potential for danger in unexpected places (“a thumbnail sketch of a watermelon / loaded with fireworks”). (And it’s worth noting here Biddinger’s play on the word “seam” in “unseemly” as well as the eerie resonance of “thumbnail sketch” in the context of the paper dolls missing fingernails: a device that builds a kind of persistent double vision of creation and destruction.) “Certainly we could // outdo the catastrophe,” Biddinger’s speaker declares, as if revising a schoolyard dare suitable for a quasi-apocalyptic frenzy:

                                     There was a sandstorm.
We just stood there and laughed as people

ran for their cars. We only drove each other.
Never purchased clothing that would not

fit us both if necessary. An unrelenting
sandstorm can tear pigtails off a copperhead,

the gunsmoke from a gunnysack. Ladyfingers
shimmied across the floor of the cafeteria

and all the women ripped their pantyhose
in anticipation.

Although Biddinger doesn’t attribute a cause to the dust storm (“There was a sandstorm,” her speaker notes, flatly),” the juxtaposition of the previous lines (“Certainly we could outdo the catastrophe”) suggests the possibility that the blueprint for an explosive watermelon could lead the speaker and her double to act upon their world in a similarly anarchic way—this time on a larger scale, as the debris sends people running for their cars. Whereas the violence of the disfigured paper dolls remains two-dimensional, the ability of a sandstorm to “tear the pigtails off a copperhead” or “gunsmoke from a gunnysack,” while campy, gives way to a more gruesome, three-dimensional, and increasingly perilous threat. Additionally, the “Ladyfingers” that “shimmied across the floor of the cafeteria” invite us to discover the macabre within the banal: we find that women’s fingers—torn off like the paper dolls’ fingernails or the copperhead’s pigtails—lie within the shapes of the sponge cakes animated ghoulishly by the force of the sandstorm. And not only are the shimmying Ladyfingers macabre, they’re also aggressively erotic, causing “all the women” to rip “their pantyhose / in anticipation” of their touch.

In the poem’s final couplets, Biddinger continues her menacing trope of double-vision that culminates in an extended metaphor of perception and performance:

                          We commandeered both

microphones and I sang to you the ballad
of my haunted eyelid, the flowerpot that tried

to rival you in my affections, and how all
of this ended quite badly, except for us.

Biddinger’s explicitly performative closure in “A Bildungsroman” charts the speaker’s progression from grotesque entanglement to sly burlesque. The “ballad” the speaker chooses to sing to her beloved/alter-ego is that of her “haunted eyelid,” suggesting that what her eyelid is haunted by is vision—her own sights and insights. Above the anarchic fray of monstrous paper dolls, shimmying Ladyfingers, maimed pigtails, and the homely chaos concealed in a diagram of an explosive watermelon, the speaker seizes the microphone and the voice of her own agency as she deadpans: “how all / this ended quite badly, except for us.” The many energies released in the poem’s events—the violent, the grotesque, the erotic, the performative—coalesce, finally, in the locus of the speaker’s own body. Throughout the poems in Biddinger’s O Holy Insurgency, the self is insurgent and defiantly plural, while the body is holy, resurrected through the weird eros of the Rust Belt’s oddest debris. “Every night,” Biddinger writes in the title poem, “we remake us // as our skin transubstantiates,” affirming the power of sensual experience and the body as a wildly transformative host.

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