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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review of For Girls (& Others) by Laura Carter

[Since the original blog this appeared no longer exists, we have replaced the link with the text of the review.]

THURSDAY, MARCH 18, 2010
Shanna Compton
For Girls (& Others)
Bloof Books, 2007

The Preface to Shanna Compton's mysterious, sometime flarfy, and always intriguing book of poems from 2007, For Girls (& Others), is taken directly from another book with the same name, Mrs. E. R. Shepherd's For Girls: A Special Physiology, from 1882. The preface, uncannily flarfy for an 1882 manual, is as follows, at least in part:
The author of this book lays no claim to originality of subject-matter. She has nothing new to say. She does, however, claim originality upon one ground, that of making selections from the writings and teachings of others, and from observation and experience; that of culling here and there knowledge, facts, motives, ideas, and grouping them into practical form.

There is something about Compton's work (those of you who have read Down Spooky may seem common threads of interest) that this introduction pins down, and the poems she includes in this collection are delightful. She also tells us in the notes that many are borrowed poems, found poems, flarf-like, or pure flarfy intelligence. And what do we learn? Well, the book is separated into two sections, "For Girls" and "Comedy of Manners," and the poems contained in both sections are darkly humorous and (as I originally thought when reading the book) present a radical presentation of, well, what goes by the name of "the negative," and can oddly enough apply to either Keatsian negative capability or to a critique of ideology (take your pick) that negates the material presented by mirroring it, by tarrying in its underbelly. Much as flarf does, yes.

And so we have lines like these from "Opening Address," the book's beginning:
We shall now begin
the study of girls
upon whom the universe
bestows fullness
in all the right places. (1-5)

The fullness of the girls in question lets us know that (as we poets perhaps already know) that Compton's narrator is not quite still a girl herself, so what is the negation of this fullness? We get the sense throughout the poems that Compton is picking fun at girls, as in the following poem, which I'll present in its entirety:
Pruning of the Shrubby

Think of growing the funny little things
in your own garden from seed
Find & love an unpretentious patch

A pinkish variety is known
as the maiden's blush

If your aim is ornamental,
ostentatious but without poison,
she may be slipped
until she is tall & decorative

Likewise a gift of old growth
in water or sand
she may be coaxed to give off
the heady scent of roses

A balm with hairy leaves
Yellow, variegated
Nutmeg or apple-scented
Large, dark green, velvety
A true fingerbowl geranium

Her feathery foliage
spreads rapidly

She is very white & woolly

Better known as sweet asylum

This poem is subtly critical of such white, woolly, churchiness as the girl might embody. It also subtly picks fun at the ornamental while not mincing words, while making sure that the stanzas lead up to the ultimate assessement: "sweet asylum." For what, we may ask, is the world of a girl without the inevitable conclusion: she must become a woman, as a Comptonian feminism would have it. And continuing to prune away until there is no excess left, to use a gardening metaphor, would perhaps break the girl of her finest furies and perhaps plausibly strengths. We get the sense throughout the book that Compton is holding out a sort of warning to girls, but also a comic relief that puts the picture of one's life into perspective. The next poem, on the opposite page, aptly called "The Bloody Intellect," gives a similar perspective in the last stanza, as follows: "So public a face, hers, / it hardly belongs. / A camera. All poses. All lies." (14-16) Here we understand that the idea that a pose is essential to a woman's becoming is perhaps an outdated psychoanalytical conception of what feminism is all about (borrowed perhaps from some of Lacan's ironic positions?). This poem is brilliantly imaginative and suggestive, and here I quote the third stanza:
Beginning with white
is to erase the body,
blank the self
to receive the costumes it consumes. (7-10)

There's a sense in which an a priori positioning is rightly refused and replaced with an insistence that one begins from what is, in fact, actually there. In many ways, this poem is a little critique of an idealistic intellect that would preclude the possibility of coming to terms with the physical and sensual world in which we reside: the real. Does one begin with a blank, or is there not already a world or a set of chemical and biological predispositions to consider, much less flesh?

I could continue by quoting more of these gems, but I'll only end with the following: Compton's book deftly shows the errors of girlhood, the incessant questionings and idealisms that preclude the world. And in that sense, she provides a negative mirror to the "Snow White" myth (the word "white" appears a good deal in this book). For what are we, as women, without material positions and real worlds? This book is an empowering testimony to what can happen when these things are given up and a material (or at least more pragmatic) conception of the world is embraced. And hence, their timeliness. And hence, their relevance.

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