Review of Nikki Wallschlaeger's Crawlspace (Bloof Books, 2017)

Glitzy Subversion in Nikki Wallschlaeger’s Crawlspace 

by Rochelle Hurt

Crawlspace Shopping List (all italics represent quotes from Wallschlaeger’s book)

1. pie holes filled with magnificence
2. spiral ham (Everyone has a spiral ham fetish)
3. a rococo compass
4. the iconic ‘50s / inspired Coca-Cola kitchen set
5. rocking chair of rose water cyanide
6. PT cruisers that nobody drives
7. gewgaw bag of my money and marbles
8. Fresh Klonopin ribbons for my daughters
9. A protest sign hidden safely in Hattie’s famous / frown
10. a loaded / handgun (you can buy them in the intestine / department)
11. a silted crockpot of philosopher / dung
12. the antebellum purling / dog tags of myself
13. logos / of commercial femininity
14. My joy, privately owned (What is the difference between / a house and a mall really?)

Nikki Wallschaleger’s 2017 collection Crawlspace is full of knickknacks, trinkets, and gewgaws—the glittery disposable products of late capitalism that both perpetuate and distract from hegemonic violence. The list of quotes I've compiled above reflects some the ways that consumer culture shapes and antagonizes private lives in the book. 

The misuse and abuse of bodies is one visible consequence of this intersection between the personal and the commercial. One of my favorite poems in Crawlspace, Sonnet (7), illustrates the relationship between commercial excess and oppression of otherized bodies through dazzling and disorienting language. Wallschlaeger writes:

Father, there’s a ruin in our bibelot.
I light apple cigarettes when I look at the
collection of misogynoir gimcrack you left
behind. The FBI hosts symposiums and
they’ve claimed the work of disco house
Holton St. border from the black holocaust
museum their evil metered laughter. Girl
they just keep joking about us.

The address to “Father” in the first line links the decadence of capitalism (“a ruin in our bibelot”) to patriarchy, a duo that has manufactured centuries of casual misogyny and racism in the name of entertainment, convenience, aspiration, and wealth. Meanwhile, we can get any kind of cigarette we want—a slow death dressed as consumer choice. In capitalist fashion, the bedazzled syntax of the next sentence doesn’t really mask the violence it contains, but it does provide an appealing container for it—a museum or a disco house maybe. (How much difference does it make when you’re in the gift shop?) The patriarchal and white supremacist violence that manifests as physical force used against Black women (domestic violence, police brutality, sexual assault) cannot be separated from the capitalist violence of consumerism (anti-Black media imagery and beauty products, decorative cultural appropriation, the oversexualization of women of color). The former is enabled by the latter; the latter is a distraction from the former. At the end of the poem, in relatively pared-down language, Wallschlaeger writes: “The way you took away my safety is fine,” and then, in the final couplet: “I’ve accepted that / I’m a black vagina.” The use of the body as decoration results in the reduction of people to their most vulnerable and commodifiable parts.

All of the poems in Crawlspace are labeled as sonnets, and the sonnet form here is at once flexible and rigid. Wallschlaeger forgoes the rhyme scheme and strict meter of traditional sonnets, but often maintains the rhetorical structures, including turns like the one in the couplet quoted above. She also sticks to fourteen lines, though some sonnets are extended into multiple fourteen-line segments. Some sonnets have lines much longer than the traditional form, while others have very short lines—but all of the sonnets use the form as a means of restriction, a move that’s underscored by Wallschlaeger’s uncomfortable enjambment in poems like Sonnet (7) above. All the flexibility of line length, stanza structure, metrical patterns, and varied lineation exists only within the container of the sonnet form, which functions for Wallschlaeger as a means of capitalist control. She writes that the poems in the book come from “a series of sonnets that I’ve placed into small buildings, but since the bank owns the buildings that I move in, I am only paying mortgage.” In this light, the slight variations within the form, which by the end of the collection feels so dominant as to seem hegemonic, begin to look like survival mechanisms—or even, as Wallschlaeger sees them, subversions, “micro-victories against hegemony.”

The association of the sonnet with love and romance then serves as a reminder of the ways in which hegemonic forces seep into everything—and how capitalism allows this to happen. “What is the difference between / a house and a mall really?” Wallschlaeger asks. Romantic and familial relationships, self-image, race and gender dynamics, sexuality, cooking, cars, furniture—it’s all produced or appropriated by this system. Even protest is “hidden safely in Hattie’s famous / frown” (or maybe Kendall Jenner’s famous smile). This is why Wallschaleger’s excessive linguistic patterns work so well—the piling up of concrete nouns, compounds, and adjectival phrases; the ecstatic and confrontational music; the repetition and listing to the point of exhaustion. We are meant to feel overwhelmed and exhausted—as exhausted, maybe, as Wallschlaeger’s speaker does: “I’ve been exhausted my entire life // I hate telling you / how I really feel.” By the four-part Sonnet (50), the speaker’s language has become so infused with the capitalist promise of improvement and its accompanying racist double standards that it is convulsive:

                                    I am
mad mad. A bad bad girl who
can never be sad when white
people are good. Only white
wives are good women even
when they’re bad wives but
when good women are sad
good men don’t listen to
them either however our
shared sadness at being bad
girls or good women does not
live in the same neighborhood

you think we need to have to
transmogrify into good women
good wives with good men good
educations good children good
communities good poems good
girlfriend good food good books
good hair noses cufflinks good

The poem doesn’t end so much as jump over the ledge it’s been approaching this whole time: “say I am not good JESUS will save me /sterilizations executions intoxications / sunless moonless nameless homeless.”

Many of the poems toward the end of the collection address physical violence directly. In Sonnet (54), for example, Wallschlaeger writes of Michael Brown’s death, the use of his death in the name of art and entertainment, and the subsequent erasure of the state violence that caused his death, which in turn makes space for more violence: “he is still being killed in a diversity / of ways we are killed in a diversity of ways / I am killed in a diversity of ways & now / newspapers have started to write poems.” The relentless “diversity” of violence here echoes both the empty neoliberal calls for “diversity” as a flimsy solution to racial inequality and the relentless “diversity” of products and choices offered by late capitalism in the book’s previous poems. The echo is by design—a reminder that these are interdependent mechanisms of systemic oppression and none is extricable from the other.

And yet, we shop. We buy. We watch CNN. We drink Pepsi. We light apple cigarettes inside our mortgaged sonnet houses because what else? Perhaps this is why the book’s excess is not merely tiring. All the trinkets and shiny stuff of this book make it pleasing, irresistible, exciting, tantalizing, an effect that is complicated—but not reduced—by the links the book makes between consumption and violence. The appeal of Wallschlaeger's language is that it is both pleasing and troubling, at once glitzy and subversive.

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.