Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2017. 83 pages. $14.95.
How can we write about ourselves without seeming like narcissists? Most poets who are enjoyable to read have found an answer to this question. Take, for instance, the new collection of prose poems I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On by Khadijah Queen (YesYes). The book is basically what it says it is: a list of interactions between the speaker of the poems and famous men, with an emphasis on sexual dynamics. In the wrong poet’s hands, this material could feel self-congratulatory. Instead, Queen deftly shifts the lens and turns the book into an interrogation of male entitlement and celebrity—and it’s captivating.
Or take another 2017 collection this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it by Keegan Lester (Slope). These poems resemble other contemporary poems in their blend of autobiographical detail set against a semi-surreal backdrop. Yet instead of the noncommittal emotional trajectory that often accompanies this kind of writing, Lester’s poems are driven by gratitude—love for his friends, and the landscape of his native West Virginia—and this hopefulness makes the book feel enviably more generous than its more nihilistic counterparts.
And then there is Karyna McGlynn, whose second book of poems, Hothouse, begins with the line: “So you want to know where I live?” The speaker proceeds to take us on a tour of her life: her fears, her childhood, her relationships, the parties she attends, her dreams. McGlynn succeeds in not seeming like a narcissist largely through her expert maneuvering of tone. She has the instincts of a stand-up comic; she’s always telling a story, making bold statements, making fun of herself, or taking some dark stone out of her pocket and handing it to you. She’s invested in these poems as social experiences, which is refreshing.
But Hothouse is also haunted by the underbelly of social experience. In poems like “I Can’t Stop Being Performative” and “The Devil Chains Me to the Microphone”—a surreal narrative in which the speaker stands alone on a stage, doing whatever humiliating task the audience asks her to do—McGlynn explores the compulsion to perform. To be liked, to be loved, and to disappoint; to fail to communicate to the outside world what’s happening in her inner world and how gender clouds that tension; and how gender seeps into notions of the difference between “art” and “entertainment.”
Read Hothouse for a humor that shares a room with Jennifer L. Knox and Patricia Lockwood. Read it for its melding of high intellect and base instinct, which results in lines like:
Wanna whisper dirt so sweet in your ear
the center of 1989 will rot and fall out, and through
that hole, an eleven-year-old me will see her True Name
on the nape of your neck and know how to breakdance.
At midnight I win “Sluttiest Costume.”
I try to explain Weimar Berlin, but during
my victory dance, ten guys named Steve
keep strangling me with my own boa.
The men who fell prey to my bizarre charms
slept in the bouncy castles of their own
This book is filled with relationships that didn’t work out or are in the process of not working out. And there’s not some redeeming arc to them. There’s not some sense of, well, that one sure was a mess, but I know true love will find me in the end! Rather, as Rebecca Hazelton aptly states in her blurb for the book: “love is a performance we can’t stop watching.” We watch it unfold here for the same reasons we always do. Because it’s cool and charming and sexy, or it’s sad and horrible and we can’t look away.
A curious ghost appears in the poem “I Can’t Stop Being Performative.” McGlynn introduces us to “my fourteen-year-old self reeking of / controlled heartbreak and watching me.” Her fourteen-year-old self watches her current adult version self in bed with a man. Her fourteen-year-old self is sitting “in the front row.” So when McGlynn claims that she can’t stop being performative, the audience she is performing for is her own past—which is way more twisted and interesting than performing for a man. “Let me smell your armpits, I say. Don’t / pretend this is weird. I’m doing it for her. . . .”
It’s honesties like these that make McGlynn a tour guide worth following. By the way, the line “Don’t / pretend this is weird” functions doubly, as an address to the lover as well as to the reader. Hothouse is a confession of many things, and one of them is weirdness. It seeks to demonstrate how our weirdness can be, if not exactly redeemed, at least fascinating. At least a way of taking down fences.
One of my favorite lines from the book is: “If you loved me you’d call this / costume a costume.” So let it be so. Karyna McGlynn has stitched versions of herself together into a cloak and danced in it until all we could see was a blend of real and imagined. It’s a costume she made out of her foibles and intelligence. It’s a costume made from the finest self-loathing—a loathing so tender, so thoughtful, it could tip into self-acceptance if you brushed against it.