Posts Tagged ‘Karyna McGlynn’

Guaranteed to Blow Your Mind: Karyna McGlynn’s “I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl”

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Karyna McGlynnThe epithet “eagerly anticipated” where poetry is concerned is often assigned but almost never true.  With Karyna McGlynn’s major-press debut I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande, winner of the 2008 Kathryn A. Morton Prize) it was, at least in my case.  McGlynn’s 2008 chapbook Alabama Steve was the only collection by a poet of my generation that I genuinely could not put down (if you’re having trouble imagining how that could possibly be the case with poetry, read it for yourself).  Where IHtGBt1994&KaG is concerned, Alabama Steve devotees expecting another volume of sex-drugs-and-pop-culture wisecracking from McGlynn will be disappointed—at least, in the same sense that Beatles fans expecting another album of radio-friendly power pop were “disappointed” by Rubber Soul.

In other words, everything you liked about McGlynn’s indie stuff is still here, plus.  The “plus” is, as implied by the title, a murder mystery of sorts: although not every poem “advances the plot” per se, the book is a narrative, at least in the way that Borges’s Garden of Forking Paths was a narrative.  McGlynn has more than one self here: a childhood version, and an adult version that, whether by growing backwards Merlin-style or time traveling Terminator-style, is hanging around to watch the former and, eventually, kill her—just as, one concludes, we all effectively “kill” the child we once were by growing up.  The first poem begins:

I wake up somewhere in Ohio.  Or, that’s how it smells—

There’s a phone in my hand.  I’m thirty years old.
No, the phone is thirty years old.  Its memory’s been erased.

I’m naked but for one of those hollowed scarves.
It keeps peeling off like a seedpod.

I’m afraid my sense will fall out,
get lost in the snow and make more of me.

The suddenly appearing somewhere else in time naked may be a deliberate Terminator nod, and if so it’s brave and hilarious, but since McGlynn’s pop references are far more subsumed here than they were in Alabama Steve, we can’t be sure.  And it’s hardly the last time we won’t be sure about something.  There is that section of a horror movie about a quarter ways in, where things have stopped being conspicuously normal but have not yet become horrifying—the stretch where close-ups of everyday objects linger too long while music starts and stops and then starts again more quietly.  McGlynn effectively establishes a textual version of this early on (even appropriating horror-film symbols, as in “A Red Tricycle in the Belly of the Pool,” one of the standout poems), and sustains it agonizingly well.  Hitchcock’s definition of suspense was, duh, you suspend something, and does she ever.  The ominousness is ominous of even more ominousness.  This being contemporary poetry, and in a book where futzing with chronology is half the point, there is not a payoff exactly—we go from something’s gonna jump out right to something has evidently already jumped out, and just what the hell jumped out and when and who it got is a matter for subsequent readings (which will occur, which is after all the bottom line).

Sometime in the Night a Naked Man Passes

the foot of my bed in a beekeeper’s mask
con permiso, he says, they like to lay eggs in my face
where are you going, I say
the women in my life, he says, stroking the bedpost
who let you in, I say
I watch for expressions in his belly, his cock
both curve out, back in, his even breathing
a bee enters my open window & lands on his thumb
I’m sorry, he says, I was just leaving
where were you going, I say
to finish what they started, he says

As in Alabama Steve, McGlynn is still being rained on by culture both pop and poetic.  But while Steve’s shout-outs were rapid-fire and comic-chaotic, like one of those Dylan songs about a goofy dream, IHtGBt1994&KaG is all about the tease.  In the above, the reader is doubly shocked by both the scene and by McGlynn’s ballsy borrowing of Plath’s nefarious beekeeper.  She knows she’s earned him, and keeps him around for the duration of the brief poem, neither she nor he doing much of anything.  It’s poems like this, incidentally, of which there are many (i.e., equally good and equally creepy), that have prompted other critics to interpret IHtGBt1994&KaG as an obliquely confessional book about abuse or molestation or whatever.  As many contemporary readers of poetry are so obsessed with victimhood that they think the leaves are being molested when the wind blows, this is not surprising—but I disagree.  The book is a psychosexual chiller, certainly, and McGlynn is starring, but also directing—she’s Hitchcock just as much as she’s his imperiled icy blonde, if not more so.  The abuse theorists are seeing less than half the picture.  IHtGBt1994&KaG is a whole horror movie in the head—because growing up is one—and as the head in question is McGlynn’s, she naturally plays every part: the doomed slut, the virginal Final Girl, the red herrings, and the killer h/im/er/self.

The trappings of girlhood are omnipresent and ironicized, in a very Liz-Phair-ish sort of way.  But as this is horror (Liz Scare?), said trappings are those of the girlhood occult: mirrors, Ouija, light-as-a-feather-stiff-as-a-board.  It’s a Slumber Party Massacre with only one guest.

But it’s not like this is some Joycean puzzle where you have to keep scrupulous track of symbols etc. to get anything out of the book.  There are plenty of radio-friendly standalones, e.g., how can you not love a book with this poem in it?:

“Would You Like Me to Walk Your Baby?”

I said to the couple on the airplane.
Don’t worry; I won’t drop him.  I’m a dancer;
I never drop anything.  Besides, I’m good with babies;
………………………………..I have big breasts and big eyes.
He’s just having a little altitude earache.  I’ll bounce him
on my huge breasts and sing something underneath my breath.
We’ll just take a little stroll down the aisle;
let you two get some shut-eye.
Sure, it’s narrow, but so am I.
………………………………..I have no hips to speak of.
Give me your baby, I said with my widening smile,
my enormous breasts, and my pointy pointy shoes.

Conversely, there are poems here that one must figure out how to read—as in literally, on the page, figure out how to read: in two columns, then three, then cross-hatched, tending to get more fragmented as the book progresses (as the, what, tear in the space-time continuum gets bigger?).  Some critics will be tempted to say that this is “vaginal” or some junk.  Whatevs.  Theory aside, these poems effectively heighten the trippy alienation at well-timed moments in the book’s progress.

They Shared Her on a Chicken White Sheet

and called her erin
winter……………………………who once was a soprano II
but moved to Minneapolis instead……………….in spite
…………………………………………….of her ankle tattoo
made a sound like filigree in fresh
powder…………………………..when they ratcheted her up
to their level and one boy said………………….you see this?
…………………………………………….and the other said
can it dance?  what with her whorl
of black…………………………..egg hair she’s ductile as a shoat
no sleigh of hoarfrost on the swiss…………….sloped roof
…………………………………………….and the sweetest
thing she wasn’t full
of parting shot…………………..and at least they still had her
pom socks to look forward to……………………that’s one thing
……………………………………………..about swing dancers

This is a formally experimental poem, and one of the best in the book.  It reads like Anne Sexton in a blender.  But it bears mentioning that, this one aside, the experimental poems in IHtGBt1994&KaG are less good than the less experimental ones—by which I simply mean that, in most cases, if I were showing the book to someone unfamiliar with McGlynn and they opened it to one of the chopped-up poems, I’d grab the book and say “No, not that one.”  But certainly, IHtGBt1994&KaG would not be IHtGBt1994&KaG without them, just as, say, The Unforgettable Fire would not be The Unforgettable Fire without the jams that swirl around the radio songs.  Karyna McGlynn has written a book of poems that is to be taken from start to finish like a concept album, and this is as impressive as it is risky.  Without all the opaque mindfucks, the book would be a less impressive achievement as a whole—but, on the other hand, it might contain even more individual poems that I really, really like.  But it was McGlynn’s call, and she made it.

On a similar note, the best poems in IHtGBt1994&KaG—“Amanda Hopper’s House,” “‘Would You Like Me to Walk Your Baby?’,” “They Shared Her on a Chicken White Sheet,” “We Both Dyed With Feria Starlet, I Couldn’t Dispossess a Girl,” “I Show Up Twelve Years Late For Curfew”—happen to be the ones that have the least to do with the overarching plot about achronological self-murder.  They explore the same emotional territory, but beyond that are simply excellent poems that happen to be in this book.  (This is not a flaw, just a technique—most of the songs on Sgt. Pepper don’t have anything identifiable to do with Sgt. Pepper, but who cares?)  At least, as far as I could tell.  For all I know, the fourth time around I’ll finally realize that these poems give away giant clues (or something).   In any case, I mention this in order to implore McGlynn to remember that, as hard as she can make blurbers cream themselves by experimenting, what she does best is write excellent stand-alone poems that are more-or-less comprehensible.  As many of my ten favorite Karyna McGlynn poems are in Alabama Steve as in IHtGBt1994&KaG, and any critic who doesn’t tell her the same is either afraid to say so, or has not read Alabama Steve, or is just a shithead.

This will continue to be an issue for McGlynn.  Having had some experience in the Slam scene in addition to her formidable academic resumé, and clearly someone who enjoys writing enjoyable poems, she has chops as a cackling pro-domme of pop, which at least to my way of thinking is a compliment.  But she is climbing the university ladder fast, and will face increased pressure (especially, sad to say, as an attractive woman) to distance herself from the pop fireworks and produce more work that will endear her to the Deludez & Fucktardi crowd.  She is said to be at work on a book-length poem for her follow-up, and I sincerely hope it is a fun book-length poem, as I feel it would be a mistake for a book by Karyna McGlynn not to be at least a little bit fun.  Too many poets who produced rockin’ first books in the late ‘90s and early ’00s bowed under academic pressure and crapped out subsequent volumes of passionless nonsense, and it would be a legitimate tragedy if McGlynn fell into the same darkness.  Especially since, if she sticks to her guns, she will likely wind up credited as one of the poets chiefly responsible for finally bringing the Academic Age to a most welcome end.

I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl is a deft and twisted little book about death, and it will reap academic accolades for its formal innovations, and anyone who has any sense about poetry will like it very much—but its author must not abandon the elements that made her indie stuff so dynamically alive.  As she has just plainly shown us, Karyna McGlynn has no trouble producing books that will please nonacademics and (reasonable) academics alike—but so far, her poems have always had to choose who to please more.  Someday she will produce a book where not only the book, but every poem in the book pleases both equally.  And that book will be one of the defining poetry collections of our generation.