I first came across Patricia Lockwood’s second book of poetry, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, through this week’s internet buzz. The buzz is everywhere: a New York Times Magazine profile, condescending New Yorker and square Slate reviews, and an article in The Toast on the unsubtle heterosexism of said all male-authored reviews. Even after reading the book twice in private, it was difficult to experience her work separate from its online reception.
Perhaps this is fitting. Lockwood is arguably most well-known for her poem “Rape Joke,” which traveled meme-like across the web last year like no poem ever has, and anticipated its own hype: “The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re asking/ for it to become the only thing people remember about you.”
Speakers in her other poems likewise perform the anonymously intimate, and often misogynistic, absurdities of digital communications. Their rhythm recalls the hyper-atrophied pacing of Twitter, on which her writing is also famous, with 42.5K+ followers reading her 9,944 tweets.
Reading her new collection approximates, on paper, the feeling of scrolling through tweets: the poems scan in a start-and-stop fashion, iterate a series of jokes, rinse and repeat. Buzz, blip, buzz, zzz. They introduce a situation, often in the title, and then elaborate its comedy. Short lines skate readers across erotically charged surfaces. This makes for a sitcom poetics featuring episodes such as “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer,” “Last of the Late Great Gorilla Suit Actors,” and “The Fake Tears of Shirley Temple.” Their scenes are often rendered cinematically, making reference to the visual particulars of setting, a person’s appearance, the light, sound.
The first sentence of this review could be a joke from one of Lockwood’s poems. There are lots of jokes in the poems about coming, and coming across things, and on things, and into things. “Is Your Country a He or a She in Your Mouth” explores the adolescent moment of sexual self-discovery through the colonial logic of discovering new land. The poem’s turn to the confessional is brought to life with innuendo:
“…Oh no, I am fourteen, I have walked
into my motherland’s bedroom, her body
is indistinguishable from the fatherland
who is “loving her” from behind, so close
their borders match up, except for a notable
Area belonging to the fatherland…”
As the poem continues to extend its metaphors, the reader gets literally tangled in the crossed vectors of identification and desire. The messiness of the speaker’s own confusion and recognition––a coming of age that ends with an onanistic coming–traps us in the poem’s own refusal to match up neatly, or parse nicely, its private pleasures. A large part of the pleasure of reading Lockwood is the pleasure that the poem takes in recognizing our own immodest pleasure.
“The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics,” who turn out to be Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, respectively, plays with the inherent self-consciousness of poetic self-fashioning. Their sensational tit-pics relay today’s impossibility of owning a private body, or a desexualized public self. Its final lines reveal our disembodied gaze haunting these fantasies of publicity:
“Above them floating their tit-pics.
And floating above their tit pics our eyes.”
But while her poetry’s strength is its persistence in carrying out the surprising intricacies of its premises to absurd ends, it is often also its own weakness. One stanza in “Tit-Pics” asks us to consider: “If teeth are like pearls, and if skin is like a pearl, and if the gates of/ heaven were twelve pearls, imagine the pearl explosion that would/ happen if someone bit their own boob in the afterlife.” To put it badly, sometimes there are too many pearls and sometimes the pearls aren’t pearls at all.
So although the situations Lockwood visualizes are anything but predictable, her execution of these premises is often less interesting than the premise itself. Many poems open with punch-lines––ending before they get started. The jokes suffer when drawn out as conceits. So too do the poems, whose other rhetorical energies get sucked into the conceptual vortex of her comic and coy reductio ad absurdum. This one-note flatness emerges formally––the sameness in length of her lines, their rhythm and sound, alternatively coy and comic moments. We are made aware of the same self-aware movement. Over and over again.
Critics have classified her work as Alt Lit, compared her poems to Status Update/Live Feed writing, and wondered about the ways in which her poetry hovers near prose. All have noted how, unlike most poets, her readership includes readers of the Internet, readers of poetry, and readers of both.
But while she expertly borrows from Internet-speak’s raucous humor and trolly contents, she rarely draws from its disjointed forms, degraded sounds, or excessive energies. The measured control of her poetic meter dulls the dirty yearnings of her speakers’ voices. The shocks of her affronts and images take on a mainstreamed form compared to, say, the way Susan Howe turns the page into a stage, Frank Bidart physically affixes his words, or the avant-garde movement Flarf takes damaged language as its given. Then again, a greater interest in corrupting the formal integrity of her libidinal language –with orthographic errors, distended lines, messier closures–would make her a different sort of poet. The risk she takes with this form of Twitter favorites/PornMD-sculpted hits occasionally feels formulaic. But the pay off, when it comes, is a lush language that tastes, as Lockwood says of the stars, “toxic and perfectly new.”
Lockwood herself understands that to encounter her work on its own terms is to always already encounter its mediation. The collection closes with “The Hypno-Domme Speaks, and Speaks and Speaks,” in which its speaker, the hyno-domme, speaks, and speaks and speaks. The hypno-domme’s self-aware commentary on the incantatory charms of her feminine voice is itself hypnotic, repetitiously lulling the reader into uneasy submission. It is easy to read into the dynamic power play of this “voice that swings brass back/ and forth” a statement about Lockwood’s own auto-critical poetics.
“When you wake you will come when you read the word
hard, or hard to understand me, or impenetrable poetry.
When you put down the book you will come when you
hear the words put down the book,
you will come when you hear.”
The book ends with this announcement of its imminent closure. We are given ambiguous permission to be released from its spell–a spell that is self-conscious, charmingly habituated, simultaneously penetrable and impenetrable, lewd and languid–but a spell nonetheless. You don’t know whether to laugh or to sigh, to say thank you or to come again.
Ava Kofman is a freelance journalist and guest contributor to Feministing.