Books

Tits of Peculiar and the OCD

One of many reasons my freshman literature students hate poetry is that “it has too many meanings,” can be “whatever you want it to be.” Kids these days like absolution, definition—an answer to life’s persistence that can be found on a keyboard or in the Walmart cosmetics aisle. But (here I probably give my students too much credit) another reckoning is that, because they straddle the bridge between childhood and adulthood—wonder vs. boredom, endless desire vs. complicity—they are entirely unaware that they’re about to lose everything, brainwashed into believing life is just beginning, the big bright world supposedly spinning closer and closer. And like a fish to water, they don’t know this psychological environ is the stuff of poetry, and as such, are blind to it.

This is confusing. Here: If I had to be the reductive asshole I usually am, I would say that those sneer-faced eighteen-year-olds are poems: seeking resolution, understanding, but still oh-so-needy, desirous, frightened. Cue philosophical wax. A poem is that definition-less, doughy body with nobs for tits—one nip hot, one nip cold—one softened for the warm maternal embrace, the other hardening to the reality of a cold, dark grave. To embody this passage from start to finish—the growing old, the thinning and fattening, the regrets, so many regrets, the sexless nights that make up the darkness between stars—well, that is a poem. Quite a frightening whir.

So I get why people don’t like poems. Half the time, I hate them—hate writing them, reading them. Because the world’s already too complex. Poems, like love, hurt and hurt and hurt and then, once or twice: intoxicate, obliterate.

And so go the poems in Catherine Pierce’s second collection, The Girls of Peculiar: intoxicating, obliterating. Each one aches or thrills or both, shawling you in a universe comprised of constellations named by appetite. These painful songs illuminate the impossibility of desire fulfilled without some score of destruction, the habit of resigning to lesser wants, forgetting the Original Cosmic Desire (OCD) that, for Pierce, peaks in adolescence. There are many threads in this collection to follow—self-identity, doubt, awe—but the most penetrating poems to my ear recall a yearning so desperate and animal the whole world is implicated, sometimes destroyed:

Dear Atom Bomb,
I confess—you were my high school obsession.
You bloomed inside my chest until I howled. You shook me
with your booming zillion wattage. You were bigger
than rock and roll. I lost days to you, the way you expanded

to become more than even yourself. In Science class
movies, you puffed men like microwaved marshmallows,
raked blood from their insides, and always I could feel
your heat like a massive cloak around my shoulders.

You embarrassed me. You were too depraved for dignity,
not caring whose eyes you melted, whose innards oozed;
you balled up control in your God-huge palms
and tossed it into the stratosphere. Oh, Atom Bomb,

I miss you. These days my mind is no incandescent
blue but a narrow infrared beam spotlighting
bounded fears: cancer in a single throat; a shock
of blood on the sheets; a careless turn from

the grocery store lot into the pickup with the pit bull
in the bed. Oh, Atom Bomb, come back.  Take me away
from the twitch in my leg, the crackling lead paint,
the lurking salmonella. Sweep me up in your blinding

white certainty. Make sure once again that
I’ll live till the world’s brilliant end.

This poem is a sudden stab to the gut—menstrual, inevitable, female—annihilating all rooting thoughts, those shameless words basking in the mind, awaiting sense. To understand how the poem achieves this fierceness, we must remember that poetry is more akin to music than it is prose, reason, or story. As a teenager you might have had a relationship to music close to what I have with poems, blaring your crappy car stereo—that one exuberant song again, again—revving up to seventy, eighty miles an hour down a county road, slitting the night, wind through window slapping and stretching your face, and sometimes tears pull across your cheeks, why? Who knows. Look closely at the third stanza: “You embarrassed me. You were too depraved for dignity…” From there the momentum pulses and grows, almost mocking the famed A-bomb cloud: “melted,” “oozed,” “tossed”—the speaker’s anger climaxing here at “stratosphere.” But wait: “Oh, Atom Bomb / I miss you.” This biddy four-line stanza is a microcosm of the poem’s emotional build: primitive at the start—“embarrassed”—then angry, destructive, and finally, loving. Read it again, aloud, and you’ll see what I mean.

“Dear Atom Bomb,” speaks to the banality of fear and anticipation, what many of us fall prey to in adulthood, having accumulated just a tad too much knowledge and a surplus of brain cells with really no outlet (what goes in, must come out!) for either. Instead, the incessant little hypotheticals stack and stack—“the careless turn,” cancer looming, salmonella!?—silencing our OCD for rapture, consummation, blood-spurting passion that might kill you, but, so what?

Let us harken back to the struggling tits metaphor I tried for earlier. The mark of not just good poems but real poems, e.g. Pierce’s Girls of Peculiar, is the employment of creative or unexpected language that we hear sometimes in children—speech not yet tethered to reason. But unlike most child-speak, what resound in these songs are heartache, devastation, awe: emotions we usually weather and rejoice during the autumns of our lives. The young tits of these poems, thus, are pointed in the right directions. Here is the end of “Because I’ll Never Swim In Every Ocean”:

…If I step out the door, the infinity
of what I’ve missed will zorro me across
the face with a big L for Lazy. Sometimes
I watch finches at the feeder, their bodies small
suns, and have to grab the sill to steady myself.
Metaphorically, of course. I’m not a loon.
Look—even my awestruck is half-assed.
But I’m so tired of the small steps—
the pentatonic scale, the frequent flyer
hoarding, the one exquisite sentence
in a forest of exquisite sentences.
There is a globe welling up inside me.
Mountain ranges ridging my skin,
oceans filling my mouth. If I stay still
long enough, I could become my own world.

The beauty of the speaker’s interior world in this poem is the battle forged between Desire to Do and Desire to Be. We witness the speaker’s realization that her curiosity for the physical world is wearing thin—she has grown “tired” and “lazy,” unfulfilled by the kingdoms she once imagined as a child—lands perhaps not as indifferent to her desires as they had been in fantasy. And so she gives up, turns inward. This is an adolescent mindset—all or nothing, black or white—but it also rings of that big, unsolvable philosophic “dilemma”: freedom is oppressive. We’ve got these big, electric brains wrought with the aforementioned hypotheticals; pair these with the American gusto that anything is possible, Google Map, and… Wammo! A paralyzed civilization, intuition waning, couched, waiting. But desire does not fade—“There is a globe welling up inside me”—only expands as the gut does, sedentary, but desperately hungry.

In this way, Pierce’s poems peel back our many invisible skins—emotional insatiability, the torments of our freedoms, all those young dreams captive at the base of our skulls. It dawned on me, in a painful but wonderful way, that these human dimensions—skins—essential and pivotal to The Girls of Peculiar, are the exact same dimensions our late capitalist culture wants us to forget in our daydreaming work-a-day lives, but recall, like magic, when strolling through Walmart: that we need, need, need, and we can, damn it: one of each, I’ll take all of it, all of it!

Pierce reminds us that Want is primal, beautiful—much more than the physical desires we pander to simply to quell the larger, twisted, spiritual ones. “There are things we keep chained,” she writes, “because who would want to believe in them?” And it might be that our culture simply can’t sustain them, sate them, like poems in a requisite freshman college course: they’re too odd and open-ended. Perhaps all us couched, paralyzed souls are waiting for the end: “Here at the end of the world, let the earth melt down. Here at the end of the world, let us crumble open” (“Emergence”).

If I were teaching these poems to freshmen, I’d ask, “What do you think is Pierce’s thesis?” Some would retire forehead to desk—that familiar thunk—the rest of them just blinking—doe-eyed, chub-faced, gangle-limbed—silence smacking against the question like nuclear fission, the radiation making our hearts stamp faster, sweat glands widen. And so in a fit of panic I’d give some stuttering, incomprehensibly academic response to my own question, release them fifteen minutes early, and stand alone in the naked room behind the podium, heart rattling and giggling, not sure why I feel abandoned, why I want to click down the hall in my heels and corral them all back, kneel before them and plead, plead. Just for the sake of it—just to show the young to need, to drum on their hollow, here in front of everyone.

Elizabeth Bohnhorst's poetry has appeared in The Pinch, Camroc Press Review, Word Riot, The Austin Poetry Anthology, The Dunes Review, and elsewhere. She has a terrible short-term memory and would love advice on how to remedy this.