Review of Jennifer Jackson Berry’s The Feeder (YesYes Books, 2016)

 

A Game of MASH: Taboos of Pleasure and Loss in Jennifer Jackson Berry’s The Feeder

by Rochelle Hurt

 

Do you remember MASH—that game girls played in school to predict each other’s futures? It goes like this: Grab a piece of paper and write the word MASH (an acronym for Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House) at the top of the page. Then make six categories: Husband, Job, Kids, City, Pets, Car. In each category, write down three possible options for your future, and let your friend add in a terrible fourth—what kind of house will you live in, who will your husband be; what will you do for a living; what city will you live in; how many kids will you have; what kind of pet and car? (What other questions could a girl possibly have about her future?) Now close your eyes while your friend draw lines on the page until you say “stop.” She’ll count out the lines and use this number to count through your options, crossing them out on the chosen number until only one in each category is left. Voila: a life spelled out. We never took the game seriously as a means of prophecy, but it revealed our expectations for a life defined by family and money, as well as a naïve notion that adult life is stable, unchanging, easily defined. Moreover, it revealed a fear of the future—what it holds and what it doesn’t.

I thought about this game as I read Jennifer Jackson Berry’s collection The Feeder, which interrogates received wisdom and cultural attitudes toward women’s bodies, their desires, and their gendered roles. In doing so, she often references the forms—both fun and limiting—given to girls for tracking their wants and worries: horoscopes, lists, diaries, games, myths, acronyms (remember that ADIDAS stood for “All Day I Dream About Sex?”). Fitting then, that a sense of play is at work even in Berry’s darkest poems. Consider the collection’s opening piece, “I Lost Our Baby,” which begins: “I lost our baby in between the couch cushions, / under the car seat, in the trunk.” Berry immediately rips the seal off the taboo of miscarriage with dark humor.

Miscarriage is one of the many taboo subjects central to The Feeder, which also include sexual desire, infertility, and fatness. It is often in the overlaps between these subjects that the precise nature of their taboo is most powerfully illustrated. The richest of these overlaps can be found in the collection’s title. In the poem “The Feeder Said to Me,” the feeder is a man with a sexual fetish for literally feeding women, for making “the thin woman  / chubby, the chubby woman / fat, the fat woman supersized.” We watch him feed the speaker and treat her as food to be consumed. It’s not until later in the book, when we reach “What I Said to the Feeder,” that we see the speaker claim her agency in this scenario by rejecting the feeder’s offerings: “I push out the word Now. / Not knowing if I really want to say / Now I’m leaving or / Now it’s over. // I repeat Now.” It’s a rejection of his desire to feed her “with force if necessary” (an act that essentially reduces her to a hole for filling), but it’s significant that this rejection of his desire sounds like an assertion of her own desire. It’s a demand: Now. In this pair of poems, Berry allows an easily recognizable taboo (a sexual fetish) to lead us toward a taboo less often recognized as such: female desire. This connection between sex and food taboos occurs repeatedly. For example, in “Fat Girl Confuses Food & Sex, Again,” Berry writes: “When I order a pizza, I am a sudden sexpot, / . . . he doesn’t know I’ll eat all sixteen slices, that I’ll make love / to the hard crusty dough.” Fatness and lust are both shunned topics in polite conversation, but the real taboo is a woman hungry for pleasure.

The acceptability of loss, on the other hand, seems to shift depending on the context. In “Fat Girl at Weight Watchers Meeting,” advice for dealing with weight loss sounds uncomfortably close to advice for dealing with miscarriage:

I’m supposed to tell
everyone I’m dieting
& give away pants
as they get too big.
They say if you feel bad
about your loss, go to
a grocery store, pick up a bag
of sugar, of flour, 10 lbs.—
that’s what you used
to carry around your middle.

The contrast between what kind of loss we’re supposed to show off (weight loss), and what kind we’re taught to hide (miscarriage) is evident from the first few lines, but the poem takes the comparison further, drawing an explicit analogy between liposuction (something to show off) and sex (something to hide), and even making a gesture toward a medical procedure to remove a fetus:

The doctor thrusts in & out
just under the skin
like fast sex & the sucking
in like a little girl’s gasp
when she sees a prince.

In the overlaps between sex, food, and miscarriage, “the feeder” of the collection pluralizes into not just the fetishist, but the woman feeding her desires and the fetus dependent upon her body.

The female body has a historical association with lack—lack of a penis, lack of male faculties, etc.— and the maternal body perhaps even more so—dead and ill mothers in literature abound. Lack and loss have been established as feminine ideals, in fact: quietness, meekness, humility, chastity, and smallness (the only exception to which might be pregnancy). Berry’s book questions these ideals by challenging them while inhabiting taboo experiences of loss and lack—miscarriage and infertility. Similarly, she highlights shifting standards of exposure for women’s bodies. In “I’m Showing,” for instance, she writes: “When you start a pregnancy obese, your belly // isn’t for show. What I’ll share with you / is a log of glucose readings & carbs per meal,” reminding us of the fickleness of attitudes toward female largeness, female sharing, female loss—and the emotional toll this takes on women who are asked to be both open and ashamed.

To be honest I don’t remember if my friends or I ever wrote down 0 in the number-of-kids category in MASH, and I don’t remember if I would have considered it a blessing or a curse back then—but I know the lack that it would have signified in the culture at large, and I know that I knew that even as a child. The future’s failures loomed. Like time, MASH works by process of elimination—your options crossed off and other futures lost—until your whole life is chosen for you.

In the spirit of Berry’s playful yet earnest approach to the taboos and anxieties of girlhood and womanhood, I’ve constructed a game of MASH created from her lines in The Feeder. Play at your own risk.

 

M      A      S      H

 

Husband

“my future // husband is paying all the bills”

“On Halloween, Andrew Dice Clay, / yeah, I fucked him.”

“a rubber, his palm like sandpaper across my back after our date”

“the man six years older who / grabbed my breasts, paws swinging / from a 400 lb. frame, these are too big.

 

Job

“volunteer acolyte / in a single seat hidden behind the lectern.”

“Unemployed & stealing watch / batteries for my vibrator”

“There’s not much difference between a circus & a church, just the lengths of the beards.”

“In the stall in the public restroom outside of the office, / I left clots & tissue.”

 

Kids

“There is one niece, there will be a nephew & twins.”

(Your baby is a jackfruit!)

“Our baby is onion skin, not crisp…but translucent, hard to see.”

“Don’t ask me when we’ll try again.”

City

“I lost our baby at a Good Will / drop-off site in Bloomington, Indiana.”

“I ate your balls / in Amarillo”

“You ate my heart / in Chicago.”

“December & we’re sitting / in the Pleasure Bar in Bloomfield.”

 

Vehicle

“I used to hear stories of the stellar fucks in the back of Tim’s Camaro, the chocolate interior melting under naked thighs.”

“the Porsche he said was / in the driveway”

“there was never a Porsche / in the driveway”

“No license.”

 

Pet

“First session we brought the puppy, / weren’t supposed to.”

“Some ant species eat honeydew: sugary waste excreted / from sap-eating insects.”

“Pigs have thirty-minute orgasms”

“But don’t swat the wasp. / Let it happen. Let the sting happen."

 


Rochelle Hurt is the author of In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street, 2016), which won the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City (White Pine, 2014), a novella in prose poems. The recipient of awards and fellowships from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Poetry International, Vermont Studio Center, Jentel, and Yaddo, she is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Slippery Rock University.

Summer Reading


We love nonhierarchical lists here at The Bind, and we hope you do, too. We're taking a little break from reviewing in order to catch up on our reading, so this week we're presenting you with a nonhierarchical summer reading list. Here are some of the books by women and nonbinary authors (in all genres) that our staff members have been enjoying this summer.
 

José Angel Araguz

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford
Louder Than Hearts by Zeina Hashem Beck
There Should Be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza
Bad Anatomy by Hannah Cohen 


Allison Pitinii Davis

Love & a Loaded Gun by Emily Rose Cole
Recyclopedia by Harryette Mullen
Bed of Impatiens by Katie Hartsock


Rochelle Hurt

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women by Siri Hustvedt
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss
Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link


Marlin M. Jenkins

Salvage by Cynthia Dewi Oka
There Will Still Be The Body by Zaphra Stupple
Set to Music a Wildfire by Ruth Awad


Trevor Ketner

Unmark by Montreux Rotholtz
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon


Julia Koets

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Sunshine State: Essays by Sarah Gerard


Lisa Summe

Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward


Sara Watson

The Trees The Trees by Heather Christle
Milk by Dorothea Lasky
Age of Glass by Anna Marie Hong
Grief is the Only Thing that Flies by Laura Wetherington
System of Hideouts by Heather McNaugher
You Good Thing by Dara Wier

 


Check out these books if you haven't yet, and we'll be back in two weeks with a fresh review!

 

Review of Christine Hamm's Notes on Wolves and Ruin (Ghostbird Press, 2017)

 

Christine Hamm's Notes on Wolves and Ruin

review by Sarah Sarai

Wolves have been tracking us through the cosmic nightmare since fear, childhood and villages appeared on riverbanks and in forests. As both living creatures and archetypes of menace, they terrify yet make accessible an animal strength. In the thirty-one prose poems of Christine Hamm’s Notes on Wolves and Ruin, wolves and their observers speak, and every poem responds. To achieve this back-and-forth, Hamm has placed an excerpt from the literature of wolves on each page along with her complementary poem which serves as gloss, next step, main course. The wolf-excerpts are drawn from a multitude of sources, John Landis, Louis Morneau, Charlotte Otten’s A Lycanthropy Reader, David Wojnarowicz, the Idaho Fish and Game department among them.

To start out, a narrator’s father is paired, as if by a sommelier of literary ordeal, with a fine and fruity quotation from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. We are introduced to the familiar threat in transition from one aspect of fury to another: “His vesture was changed into hair, his limbs became crooked; / A wolf – he retains yet large trace of his ancient expression / his countenance rabid, the picture of fury.” And what lies beneath is Hamm’s poem with a girl-child who is threatened by her father. Those books we read as children, illustrations we stared at as children, those wolves ready to thrust forward and devour—they accompany the imagination behind this pairing:

The wolves meet my eyes as I sink, scent of chlorine, coconut oil/animal urine. And here again, my dad is teaching me what happens when I try to rescue people. The wolves’ ears forward, nostrils stretched and expanded; my father with his hand on top of my head. “This is what happens if you try to save the drowning” and I,I,I,I,I am tasting the water as it burns the back of my throat. He is pushing down and I am five, in a navy and yellow striped two-piece.

The poem is visceral. The father, archetype and more than archetype, is fearsome authority up-close. Easy enough to imagine the choke, feel helpless. This poem places a reader in the known territory of bad-childhood-land where compassion in children is seen as problematic and dangerous. Sure, a wolf needs to teach its young to be careful; but this way? This ripped-from-the-headlines-of-vile-parenting opening is also an effective set-up for a narrator personifying, as as the book’s title suggests, ruined innocence.

Reader and reviewer can identify with fear and suspect—yet not worry themselves—that this is autobiography, art being the alchemist’s formula that transmutes what has been lived to what lives in imagination. Although I’d bet the poet’s “former therapist” (in a later poem) did say, “There is no room for love in the therapeutic hour.” It’s such a perfectly unforgettable, un-therapeutic bit of real-life therapy—a great catch, one might say. 

From a snippet from Kiki Smith talking about the Louvre in an interview: “I just wanted to make animals…And then I made all these wolves…” From the corresponding poem from Hamm:

She wouldn’t let me see you as you were dying. She said you were tired, or you were sleeping, or you were … I talk to the wolves about you, show them your picture on my phone – the one from the party where you look so ethereal and green, the one where you’re sick but don’t know it yet.

The connection between Kiki Smith and the poet’s persona connects wolves with a primal understanding of grief. In many poems, the poet battles fear with the candy cane swords of our culture – things the color pink and cell phones, but also links with more things more universal – a spouse, womanhood, trauma. Hamm has published three other books and recently produced an anthology, Like a Fat Gold Watch: Meditations on Sylvia Plath and Living. The influence of Plath’s rawness echoes through Notes on Wolves, but softly, in the background—an influence which perhaps permitted Hamm egress to her protected interior. Or there is a mirror effect. Notes on Wolves and Ruin is a trapeze act sailing between writers, glowing, like wolves’ eyes, into the dark.


Sarah Sarai is the author of Geographies of Soul and Taffeta (Indolent Books) and The Future Is Happy (BlazeVOX). She has published over twenty short stories in fine journals including Fairy Tale Review, Cleaver, and Connotation Press. A graduate of the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program, she lives in New York and works as a freelance editor.

Review of Tarfia Faizullah’s Registers of Illuminated Villages (Graywolf, 2018)


“Flaunting of this Flesh": A Review of Tarfia Faizullah’s Registers of Illuminated Villages

by David Nilsen

 

Tarfia Faizullah’s new collection from Graywolf Press adapts its title from its first poem, “Register of Eliminated Villages.” The eponymous register was referenced by Kanan Makiya in a 2002 episode of Frontline and referred to a hand-written book that recorded 397 Kurdish villages in northern Iraq that had been eliminated at that time. From this wide-lens frontispiece, one might assume Registers of Illuminated Villages to be a broad, sweeping look at the violence of the Iraq war, or war in general, or xenophobic violence the world over. The book’s purview is much more personal than this, however, looking at the violence both physical and emotional that has shaped the speaker's life and the individual lives around her.

The various definitions of “register” are referenced and employed throughout the book—written lists, changes in pitch, sought-for records of memory. In the book’s opening poem, Faizullah moves from the unspeakable tragedy of those Kurdish exterminations to the small portrait of her parents in bed, her father seeking a written sign of her future.

                                A father reaches

for the Qur’an, thumbs through
                      page after illuminated page,
runs his finger beneath
                      each line of verse, looks everywhere

for the promise of my name.

In “100 Bells,” Faizullah records in rapid staccato a litany of violations and losses endured, though by whom they have been endured isn’t clear. In writing since the first publication of the poem, Faizullah has been careful not to clarify which of these tragedies are autobiographical. Ultimately, it’s not important; these are things that happen in this world, the worst images of human loss spread across two pages:

            My sister died. He raped me. They beat me. I fell
to the floor. I didn’t. I knew children,
their smallness. Her corpse. My fingernails.

This task of recording is maintained throughout Registers, but by book’s end, a different sort of register is acknowledged. In the final poem, “Fable of the Firstborn,” Faizullah concludes a personal origin story with lines that speak to another meaning of “register” while referencing a different type of record altogether: the chapters and verses of the Qur’an:

Isn’t that why you’re here? In the end,
there’s only one way to begin
an origin story: at the beginning. I know
a good one: a monster named Joy-
in-the-Margins learns the nature of light
by revising the dark into song with every
register of her seven tongues.
Ready? Let’s begin. Verse 0. Surah 1.

Throughout Registers, Faizullah explores the theme of the body as corruptible: the nameless dead from those villages mentioned early on; her sister’s childhood death, referenced repeatedly; her own horrific injury suffered in a childhood accident. The polarized spiritual interpretations of the body—as enlightened vessel of beauty, as Gnostic source of evil—are eroded away in this context, and the body remains simply the body, the gateway to human experience, but neither celestial chariot nor shameful shackle. As she writes in “Sex or Sleep or Silk,”

I am the flaunting
of this flesh that eats,
fucks, bathes, waits—
I’m done cataloging
loss.

Violence is done against the body, but that is no more the body’s fault than grief is the spirit’s fault. The body is a conduit, and it is corruptible, breakable, and temporary, but it is all we have. Faizullah acknowledges this in “Consider the Hands Once Smaller,” which opens:

It is like this. The night is lonely
until it isn’t. You bite your tongue
after eating orange rubbed with chili
before washing for a kiss
from a man whose questions
unearth the softness in you.
We share with each other the names
Of our dying.

She finishes the poem with these beautiful words that come with a bitter bite, respite and resentment intertwined:

I don’t know why we don’t know our own holiness,
but once you were a little girl, and so was I.

That melancholic backward gaze is perhaps the central emotional tone of Register, and she describes it perfectly in “The Hidden Register of Hunger”:

searching for the memory
of the first ancient feeling
we ever had.

There is regret and fatigue and grief draped across those words, but they are still standing on the page, and she is still here to speak them. Despite the register of loss she testifies to in this collection, Faizullah still has a voice. As she writes in “IV and Make-Up Homework” after describing the agony of a childhood shoulder injury and subsequent treatments, “Mornings begin anyway.” We keep waking up. We keep breathing with these corruptible bodies. After enough of those mornings, Joy-in-the-Margins might just emerge.


David Nilsen is a freelance writer living in Ohio. He is a National Book Critics Circle member, and his literary reviews and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Gulf Coast, The Millions, The Georgia Review, and numerous other respected publications. You can find more of his writing at davidnilsenwriter.com.

Review of Cait Weiss Orcutt’s VALLEYSPEAK (Zone 3 Press, 2017)

 

Mapping the Valley: A Review of Cait Weiss Orcutt’s VALLEYSPEAK

by Allison Pitinii Davis


A psychogeography of 1990s “San Pornando,” a family story told through noir-logic and aftershock—Cait Weiss Orcutt’s VALLEYSPEAK (Zone 3 Press) excavates the San Fernando Valley using its Valspeak. This insider’s interrogation of place deconstructs the Valley using the Valley’s own tactics. In these formally-innovative poems, the invasiveness of a cum-shot becomes a tool of social examination. The poems bring us too-close to a place as only a speaker who grew up “in the valley under porn / stars” can. The interactive map accompanying this review allows us to consider this “under porn / stars” geographically—the speaker’s home is in Encino, which is south of the adult film industry in Chatsworth. The locations on the map represent settings in the poems and clicking on each location marker opens an excerpt about the place. Zooming in and out and toggling from street-view to satellite-view emphasizes the constructed nature of place—street names mapped onto geography, a culture mapped onto a region.

The map allows us to visualize the Valley as a place and a conceit informing the book thematically and formally. The geography of valleys reappears symbolically and anatomically—porn stars ask “Have you ever / banged your way // up & out / a valley?” while the speaker warns “Girls, mind / the valley, // its cunts.” Eventually, in response to processing her mother’s difficult life, the speaker starts “valleying”—“I fold inwards. // I fold inwards." In a place where the porn industry presents the private as public—the inside as outside—the speaker’s interiority reminds us that surfaces are constructs, acts, art. The body and the body of the text are virtuosic forms that can morph for effect. “Spring in Genesta,” “Hallows,” and “Razed” are sonnets and the odes (to the glitz, to the one glove, to the papasan) are prose poems. Words slither into each other: “stigma, stigmata,” “Denali, / denial.” In some poems, lines roll metrically across the page as smooth as “Lipstick rolls across linoleum,” while in other poems, caesuras carve valleys within the lines. 

Reading the book while referencing the map allows us to trace the characters’ whereabouts as they navigate divorce, suicide, addiction, and puberty as well as the events that shaped 1990s L.A.—the porn industry, the Northridge earthquake, Rodney King’s murder. Mapping the speaker’s explorations of the area’s racial and economic divides emphasizes how humans have cruelly divided contiguous land based on our differences. As the speaker guides us, Virgil-like, down the Valley, we meet the characters inhabiting the region. Mom is a charitable “Beauty Descendant” battling addiction, Dad is “a Nice—if Lapsed—Jew,” and Podge is the little sister who “finds a crop top / like some people find Jesus.” Gladys the housekeeper “wants no part of gringa madness," and Dad’s friend Mr. Florin “buys young girls from Thailand.” One “half-Jew girlfriend” will be “raped / by one no-face no-home no-race- / we-know-man in the bushes” while one “half- // Filipino-half- / Czech girlfriend will whisper / she probably liked it.” As the book navigates the sexual encounters of the speaker’s friends and family, the porn stars of Chatsworth, and the prostitutes of Sunset Strip, we learn that the Valley is a place where “A: my call, // but B or C: / I take it where they say / I take it” and where “Even clothed, it is unsafe to be anything / but iron." The women in the region, as in all regions, have methods to creatively survive their culture. In this collection, they become experts at posing and manipulating the observer’s gaze: “All… / women know / they’re naked, // & why / it pays.” When the speaker declares “I know my world, how to guard it,” readers are reminded that our collective gaze, too, is a threat—that the lens through which we interpret or judge the speaker’s notorious home is invasive.

While many poems in the collection describe infamous L.A. locations, others describe the family home in Encino. The poems depicting the sisters at home are representative of the explicit and hidden ways women support each other throughout the book. When “Podge learns history is a pack of lies,” the speaker teaches her how to navigate it: “I tell her // noir is everywhere. Every plot’s a cover-up.” In the final poem, the sisters are in their yard playing “Femme Fatale, Noir” like other sisters might play house. In the game, the sisters practice the skills they imagine they’ll need to survive: Podge “tucks // invisible guns in invisible cleavage” while the speaker industriously pulls bark off of a tree and announces: “This is the place we will bury / our husbands.” Implicit in the poem and the collection is that there is integrity in no-holds-barred survival. When the “women in my family age to plastic,” the plastic takes on the dignity of armor. When the speaker tries on her dead mother’s dress, she declares: “Black Dahlia, Mom. Even murdered, / we survive. Because who tells the stories, otherwise?” In mapping these new stories onto one of America’s most mythologized cities, VALLEYSPEAK is a vital example of how to ethically approach and represent a region.


Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017), a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award’s Berru Award, and Poppy Seeds (Kent State University Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. She holds fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Severinghaus Beck Fund for Study at Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Her poetry has appeared in Best American Poetry 2016, The New Republic, Crazyhorse, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She is a PhD student at The University of Tennessee.