“The Mouth Lacking Shame”: The Grotesque and the Glitter of Claudia Cortese’s Wasp Queen

Caroline Crew

New York, NY: Black Lawrence Press, 2016. 70 pages. $15.95.

Claudia Cortese’s debut poetry collection, Wasp Queen, excavates the construction of Lucy—a teenager, a brat, a volatile body, a monstrous surge—revealing both Lucy’s seams and the ways in which she transgresses them. Our Lucy is a living, breathing, gurlesque nightmare of a miracle. In defining the gurlesque aesthetic, Lara Glenum traces a history from burlesque’s performance of femininity through Sontag’s concept of Camp to arrive at a moment in which artists’ work “assaults the norms of acceptable female behavior by irreverently deploying gender stereotypes to subversive ends” (Glenum 2010). Though diverse in aesthetic expression, the gurlesque’s commitment to subverting gender both gleefully and grotesquely extends Judith Butler’s notion of gender’s performativity: “There is no actual self, only the performance of self” (Glenum 2010). In Wasp Queen, a taut, explosive collection, Cortese focalizes us through the almost-character of Lucy. Far from a static mask of persona, Lucy vibrates through these poems, calling out the borders of their creation only to confute them. Lucy wants “her pores to open like mouths” (49), makes menacing phone calls to cheerleaders, “tears hair-roots, sticks marbles where she pees” (46), and glues plastic demon horns to her forehead.

The grotesque and often hyperbolic subversive qualities of the gurlesque run riot in Lucy. Wasp Queen builds Lucy’s world, “her gauze house, // a little terry cloth tumor” (9) in pulsing, amorphous bodily figurations. The book’s female figures multiply—the mothers become plural, the never-named “sister” allows many sisters to be read into that figural space—in a way that both allows these notions of womanhood to swarm around the central vortex of Lucy and to keep pushing beyond single, closed bodies. Similarly, a fungal motif amasses alongside the repeated images of tumors and pustules. As in “The first mall”: “A feeling like fungus spored my insides, not pain but its stupid runt sister” (11). These fungal bodies inhabit and encapsulate not only Lucy but the female bodies that proliferate Wasp Queen, continually putting pressure on the notion of body as boundaried, bordered thing.

The border of bodies pulls too at the borders of genre. In interrogating the construction of gender through Lucy’s gurlesque rioting, Cortese’s attention also falls to the question of the text itself as a body. Just as Lucy burgeons against the confines of a body and of a “girlhood,” the poems of Wasp Queen question the genre boundaries of the poem as a delineated, closed textual body. The profusion of prose poems, their bridging titles dripping into the body of the text, coupled with short, fragmented poems that function as tendons within the larger body of the collection, continually expand and contract the expected boundaries of form. Similarly, throughout there is a repeated gesture of closing poems with a conversely opening gesture such as the em dash, as in “If wind could make holes”: “To see means that you are in some way cut, / that you are opened up—” (62). Here, this signaling outward both pushes against the notion of a poem as a closed body and emphasizes the work as an act of continuous construction.

Cortese’s deft exploration of formal possibilities also encompasses the detritus of Lucy’s world—from Mad Libs (in “Lucy Mad Lib”) to “Origin Story” and its corresponding “Answer Key for Origin Story” playing on the multiple choice answers of standardized testing and teen magazine quizzes. These borrowed forms from pop culture are indicative of Wasp Queen’s commitment to a specific cultural moment and place. Throughout, we are firmly situated in suburban Ohio and New Jersey, bombarded with Jujubes, Oreos, The Craft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, of course, the mall: a specific late ’90s kind of girlhood. What is striking about this commitment to a concrete cultural moment is the resolute rejection and critique of timelessness as a hallmark of “true” poetry. In his essay “On Timelessness,” Kwame Dawes unpacks the potential danger of this notion:

Our most common way of finding the timeless poem is to pull up all those poems from the past that we still read. We conclude that the fact that we are still reading then suggests that they may be timeless. That is, they are not constrained by time. Such poems, the thinking is, are so pure that that they manage to transcend the restrictions of culture, of historical moment, and of language, one assumes. (Dawes 2011)

Such poems, too, become designated masterpieces, conveniently packaged into the canon. This timelessness that “transcends the restrictions of culture” translates to poems that universalize their culture—and that culture, that canon is overwhelmingly straight, white, and male. Wasp Queen refuses the vanity of timelessness, opting instead for a temporality invested in reveling in and reclaiming the world of teenage girls, unashamed and unabashed that it will date. In loudly stating the Lucy’s wretched, grotesque teenagehood matters, Wasp Queen opens up the space for other “non-universal” voices to matter, too. Cortese is not concerned with transcending the borders of culture as packaged into canon’s concepts of time, but instead committed to putting pressure on the ways in which these borders are created.

The question of borders—the arbitrary insistence of demarcation—does not let up in Lucy’s world. The question bursts from Lucy herself. The persona poem often works within the metaphor of mask—the character being taken on and spoken through. This mask posits both a stark binary (between persona and poet) and ambiguity (what and whose exactly is the space between face and mask in this figuration?). Cortese’s Lucy poems position themselves within this in-between—a space Glenum argues as central in gurlesque territory: “To engage in persona is to assume there is a face beneath the mask. Gurlesque poets, on the contrary, assume there is no such thing as coherent identity. There is no actual self, only the performance of self” (Glenum 2010).

While inheriting a certain drive toward the body and rawness from the Confessional poets, the gurlesque employs the lyric I as a nexus, as a stage for “a raucously messy nest of conflicting desires and proclivities that can be costumed this way or that” (Glenum 2010). In Wasp Queen, Lucy resists the stable status of mask. Instead, the notion of self continuously bubbles within and around the central focus of Lucy. As the book opens, we are situated in a seemingly stable third-person perspective. These poems operate almost as ethnographic observational fieldnotes of Lucy, as in “Lucy lies”: “under hemlock and witch hazel, false indigo. Skin dissolves in the / fungus-dark, marrow brightens” (16). As Wasp Queen progresses with Lucy, though, this sense of stable perspective is undone. Lucy’s own voice begins to pierce through—first as a framed, conditional utterance, as in “Lucy lives in her gauze house:” “If they opened Lucy’s box, shared snicker / doodles and milkshakes, Lucy would say, I love my terry cloth house / more than my mother” (9). Further complicating this sense of the persona observed or spoken through, this lyric I, emerging as the I of Lucy, gets more tangled and joyously further and further away from coherent identity. In “What Lucy Feels Like,” the lyric I blasts open any sense of Lucy as a single self, eradicating third person, making us question who exactly is speaking from Lucy’s body:

Mid-summer sewer,
trash, rat-dung
is the wind
I mean,
I’m ugly
my cottage cheese
and bubble ankles
in one beige sock
one white. (36)

It is with this refusal to kowtow to a reduction to the singular—a singular body, a single self, a coherent identity—that Cortese’s Lucy finally leaves us. In the closing poem, “Answer Key for Origin Story,” we become  Lucy. We, too, are constructed things not held in singular, coherent bodies or borders: “Do you / prefer your imagination or mine. Do you want a girl for your private hurt—her actions your / own. Is Lucy your daughter. Is she you.” And yes, she is you.


Works Cited

Dawes, Kwame. The Poetry Foundation. 6 April 2011. 6 Nov 2016. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2011/04/on-timelessness/>.

Glenum, Lara. “Welcome to the Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics.” Jacket 40 (2010).

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