Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg (Eds), Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics, Saturnalia Books, $20 (paper)

Younger feminists tend to begin on the defensive. Routinely criticized for lack of political engagement, reactionary domesticity, or capitulation to girly-ness, “third wave” feminists—roughly, those emerging in the 1980s and beyond—must confront the stereotype that they are complacent and ungrateful slackers.

In their new anthology Gurlesque, poets Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg suggest that this criticism is misplaced. Those who scoff at the third wave fail to recognize the variety of ways a feminist can appear in aesthetic contexts of adornment and display, contexts that bear complex relations to norms for women in the culture at large. In other words, a feminist can be a badass in a dress. Assembling an energetic collection of work by poets and visual artists in their twenties, 30s, and early 40s, Glenum and Greenberg define a “Gurlesque” aesthetic as “a feminine, feminist incorporating of the grotesque and cruel with the spangled and dreamy.” The result, an anthology full of brash invention and linguistic verve, is evidence that third-wave feminism in the United States is, at the very least, sexually robust. In its poetic corner, younger feminism derives its gusto from an erotics of talk—sharp-tongued and quick-witted forays into sexual politics, the terms negotiated not in the boardroom but the bed.

“Gurlesque poets,” Glenum writes, “put the unabashed quest for female pleasure at the center of their poetics.” She aligns this stance with that of bell hooks, who “has repeatedly critiqued Second Wave feminists for seeing their desire for political change as a separate entity from the longings and passions that are the stuff of their everyday lives.” Glenum does not suggest that political action and the celebration of bodily experience are antithetical or mutually exclusive aims. Nor does she contend that the second and third waves need to engage in any sort of Oedipal struggle. Presumably many of these younger poets, like their forebears, get out of bed, put aside their poems, and set about to petition legislators and organize networks for change. Yet feminist poetry, Glenum implies, does its part by dwelling in the bodily and drawing attention to it. She argues this claim loosely and perhaps insufficiently, inviting protests (should the activity of poetry-making, and the forms of poetry itself, do more to accommodate a broader intellectual function, or at least engage in modes that have persuasive power regarding political issues?), but the book asks us to approach it, and relish it, for the merits of the flesh.

Gurlesque gives us the everyday in all its messy anti-glory, a quotidian procession of female bodies coming into contact with clothing, food, commerce, media, men, children, each other—all in graphic detail. Exploring “the multiple pleasures of female embodiment,” each of these poets navigates through or around (never above) a cultural hornet’s nest of associations: the female body’s vulnerability to the male gaze, the hazards of innuendo, the risks of exploitation and objectification. Putting pleasure at the center is a key tactic. Flirting with the pornographic, or the horrifying, or the crass, these poets exploit the energy of sexual effrontery wherever they find it. The aim is not to shock the elders, but to underscore a liberating tendency that only a few of the previous generation recognized, at least publicly. Lucille Clifton is offered as one exception: “There is a girl inside / She is randy as a wolf.”

Indeed, your mother has to be one hip second waver not to be fazed by a book that opens with these lines from Ariana Reines’s “Blowhole”:

Because of remembering where or what you are the ovum gasp and burst. First he spit on my asshole then start in with a middle finger and then the cock slid in no sound come out, only a maw gaping, grind hard into ground. Voluminous bounty of minutes sensate and glowing shoot out.

Suspicious though a reader might be of the “he” here, the poem does not describe violation. It portrays an ostensibly consensual sexual encounter that enfolds a metaphysics of time (“minutes sensate”) and memory (“because of remembering”) into imagery that is grounded in the experience of the erotic body.

Poems throughout the anthology focus on sexual experience in similarly matter-of-fact ways. As Chelsey Minnis puts it, “When I write a poem it’s like looking through a knothole into a velvet fuckpad.” Dramatizing the pseudo-illicit, indulging in sumptuous voyeurism and lavish kitsch, Gurlesque is less peep show than parody (and hence exposure) of our expectations when faced with scenes like these. Minnis’s “Wench,” a poem emblematic of the collection, begins mockingly: “I want to wear fluted sleeves and become like a darling person with appropriateness all around me.” It then offers this corrective:

I should be thought of as a fiend. But I am a strumpet or an abyss. Like a groove, like azure. I am a wench like azure. This is what a girl thinks when she is jumping rope.

It is rough to be a seafoam wench. like cocksucker. Like kissing someone and then spitting into their mouth

Gurlesque, then, has one hand in the grotesque (an expectorated insult, a sex act as slur), the other in the azure (the aesthetically lush), all of it envisioned from within a youthful, feminine subjectivity. Minnis, with her provocative selections, almost walks away with the book (with Reines not far behind). It is poems like “Wench” that best exemplify Greenberg’s assertion that “Clitoral (instead of seminal) to the Gurlesque is Playing with (Fucking with) the Girly.”

Knowing that the book is susceptible to dismissal as irreverence for irreverence’s sake, the editors head off many objections at the pass. They begin with the difficulty of the anthology itself, defining their project as the presentation of an observed phenomenon, “not a movement or a camp or a clique.” The resulting book “does not put itself forward as a monument or a hermetically sealed crypt,” but as “a portal” to further conversation.

Influences include Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Dickinson, ‘the original Goth Girl.’

Glenum’s introduction then theorizes a nexus of modes and stances that inform the term she and Greenberg have defined. Gurlesque draws on burlesque and camp in its use of overtly mocking, stylized performance, as well as in its parodic and subversive deployment of stereotypes. Referencing Sontag, Baudrillard, Calinescu, Bakhtin, and others, Glenum explains how Gurlesque also draws on “girly kitsch” (Daniel Tiffany: “a Luciferian swerve from cosmos to cosmetics”) and the female grotesque, with its images of hybrid bodies. None of these touchstones is presented as a thoroughgoing principle, or even as a pervasive element in a majority of the poems, but rather as a loose framework in which to understand a convergence of cultural influences. One poem by Kim Rosenfield presents a dyad that usefully sums up this theoretical base:

Decorum, gravity, and norm making

Clowning, parody, and norm breaking.

Gurlesque is performative, corroborating Judith Butler’s insistence on gender “as a corporeal style, an ‘act,’ as it were . . . a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning.” Gurlesque also eschews the confessional and the traditional use of the lyric persona. Glenum writes, “For the Gurlesque poet, the use of the lyric ‘I’ does not confess a self, but rather a raucously messy nest of conflicting desires and proclivities that can be costumed this way or that.” Glenum goes on to trace a non-exclusive genealogy of Gurlesque, finding its wide-ranging roots in Berlin Dada, the historical avant-garde, “Gertrude Stein’s insistence on female pleasure, and Djuna Barnes’ baroque eroticism.” Extra-poetic influences include V.C. Andrews, Anne Rice, Hello Kitty, the Guerrilla Girls, goth, punk, grunge, Sassy magazine, and the riot grrrls of the 1990s. Poetic influences include aspects of Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Barbara Guest, and John Berryman, and an incipient female-centric tendency going back to Emily Dickinson, “the original Goth girl.”

Commonalities among these poets allow the book to sketch, in the aggregate, a case for a feminist poetics of pleasure. Recurrent themes include dresses, domestic partners, panties, reading, nightlife, hair, break-ups, breakdowns, immigration, music, and prescription drugs. To the extent that there is a shared lexicon, many of these poets re-appropriate misogynistic slurs such as “cunt” and “slut” as slogans of camaraderie and sexual power. They do not so much incorporate the demotic as live it, and they are as prone as everyone else to the liberal use of the word “fuck,” the most popular noun, verb, and interjection in America. This vernacular base aside, most of the contributors are masters of verbal pyrotechnics. Notable among them is Catherine Wagner, for whom glamorous becomes “glamorough” and “outrageous” morphs into “power-outageous.”

Amid all their differences, the poets are linked most saliently by their pervasive use of humor and their obsessions with female genitalia. It’s about time, really, after the phallic preoccupations of several millennia. These speakers are keenly attuned to auto-socio-erotic matters, such as how one “grooms her kooch.” They are wry, forthright, and indulgently grotesque about their nether regions and what remains of them. (Brenda Coultas: “Its [sic] just an old maidenhead that I spray painted gold and glued some sequins onto.”) Along with fifteen other pieces of visual art, the book includes Lauren Kalman’s 2006 digital print Pursed and Puckered: two photographs of a mouth, merged and turned ninety degrees, so that the image of two perfectly polite facial expressions is strongly suggestive of labia and anus. It is from the gross-out moment of this disturbing congruity that these poets seem to speak forth.

If an eyebrow is raised about all the potty-mouthing-off, it is not out of prudery (sex hardly counts as shocking anymore), but out of skepticism about how writing this way can be politically empowering, even symbolically. The pursuit of pleasure—and this is the classic second-wave critique of the younger generation—is just not as important as wage equality and childcare policy, and indeed risks casting women into stereotypical sexpot roles of the past. Deborah Siegel—in her study of inter-generational feminist critique, Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild—describes the third wave’s flirtations with the pleasures and dangers of radical sexual behavior as a mode of “living comfortably with paradox”: “third-wave feminism meant that you could be a champion of the downtrodden, a critic of oppression, a dominatrix, and a wearer of hot pink lip gloss all at once.”

This aspiration is embodied, if not fulfilled, in Gurlesque. Tina Brown Celona’s “Sunday Morning Cunt Poem,” dwelling comfortably in paradox, stands as the volume’s collective, ironic ars poetica:

I wrote a book of contiguous poems then mixed them up so they were out of order. They were poems about my cunt, language, Nature, war, and all of them had a marked sense of drama. . . .

I flew higher and higher, but when I got near the sun the wax melted and I fell into a poem by Auden. It was then I wrote the poem ‘The Enormous Cock.’

For awhile I hushed. Then I started up again about my cunt. Some said it was a vicious swipe at feminism. Others said it was a vicious feminist swipe. It was the only word I knew.

In an era when The Atlantic has postulated “the end of men,” these poets have dispensed with concerns about gender equality and gone right for the jugular of a generation’s assumptions about sexual behavior, bodily presentation, and the language of the erotic self. If the editors are to be faulted, it should be for the exclusion of much poetry of queer experience, which has made vital challenges to heteronormative behavior. That said, the editors have cast a net and caught several tour de force poems that will come to represent this generation: Matthea Harvey’s excellent and hilarious “Ideas Go Only So Far,” Dorothea Lasky’s “Ten Lives in Mental Illness,” Brenda Shaughnessy’s “Arachnolescence,” and Elizabeth Treadwell’s “A Thousand Virgins Shout Fuck Off.”

Gurlesque bravura may be as much generational as it is gendered. Greenberg tells us at the start, “The Gurlesque was born between about 1960 and 1982 . . . (the years generally considered, by the way, the birth of Generation X).” These poets share their irreverence, capacity for irony, suspicion of sincerity, and ethical backbone with their male counterparts. The Gen X brand of irony is a strangely hopeful one, and this anthology could be an exhibit in Jeff Gordinier’s manifesto X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking. This optimism is apparent in Minnis’s “Preface 1”:

People say ‘nothing new’ or ‘the death of the author’ but, I am new and I am not dead.

Intellectual, anachronistic, superserious: I’m not going to start crying because ‘experimental’ and I’m not going to start crying because ‘not experimental’ . . . I just want to piss down my own leg.

The liberating force of that last image defies explanation, though my six-year-old daughter would endorse it. The fourth wave, and the fifth, will probably be even more radicalized. And they will make an even more complex embrace of the forms of desire. In that pursuit, Gurlesque will be something to look back upon with satisfaction.