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.