Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Natural History Rape Museum reviewed by Joyelle McSweeney*

Natural History Rape Museum
Danielle Pafunda
Review by Joyelle McSweeney

Danielle Pafunda’s fifth book shows her at the top of her hilarious, furious game. One must reach for the oldest stories to describe the particular clawed, fanged, winged, and always female bodies of these texts: fury, harpy, Medusa, Baba Yaga, the killer sphinx at her least composed moments. Pafunda’s poetry is always a spiky sonic treat, punching a tracheostomy in the throat of lyric convention so that the noise of erased, extinguished, and strangled women can come out. Yet  for all their uncanny, violent verbal fluency, each of her volumes feels not so much voiced as somehow pressed through a body, through the particular body of the text. Her always alert language spurts through the pores, orifices and wounds of these poems.
This new volume finds Pafunda full of trick moves and self-snaring complications, like a cutter-girl-Houdini or a lady knife thrower with her self roped to the target.  Lyrics are pierced with lacerating text boxes, or compressed into tableaux and forced to host italicized narration. The book presents an antagonist—a male-pronouned figure referred to as "the fuckwad." The fuckwad or other man appears in these poems and donates a certain aggravating grain, in response to which a she figure produces an iridescent mucoid substance, a sticky, toxic emulsion that hardens into the pearl of the poetry. See example A:
Example A, from Danielle Pafunda's Natural History Rape Museum

In this rankly attractive and illustrative tissue sample, the gross lustre of Pafunda’s strategy is apparent.  The "punky loam vista" with its hidden color, pink, calls up the uterine/gestational imagery which the book is pleased to host.  The grit of the textbox with its life-sentence of conjugal servitude also encapsulates the gestational process—the man’s exorcism of his "fink" will produce a baby, an "it" that "wails" unless the derailment of miscarriage (also a theme in this book) can veto this logic. The presence of the alien text box causes the language to dense up around it, the mother-of-pearl that is Pafunda’s fecund word horde lavishing the grit with synesthesia, sound that is also a mouthed, gritty texture, esses and chaw-chaws and gushes of sonority. The effect is both luscious and cosseting, like the pet names (sunshine, sweetheart) which convert to sexually vulnerable positions and epithets (supine, peep cheater) in the second half of the couplet. The couplet here is a kind of snare.

An irony of Pafunda’s body of work, including the poems in this volume, is that the response-production of antigens and nacre is so intense that "poor" fuckwad hardly stands a chance. The poems are allergic to fuckwad, but they need him to stage the emergency response that is the poem. Once he sets the poem in motion with his irritating comments or action, the poem hardly needs him at all, and if he re-enters the poems it seems to be on the poem’s own terms. See example B: 
Example B, from Danielle Pafunda's Natural History Rape Musem

In this excerpt, the fuckwad certainly gets things in motion, "placing"our lady "in the room with the knife." Remembering that stanza is Italian for room, we can imagine this stanza as the carceral/theatrical room in which we may now admire Pafunda’s resourceful knifework. The spectacularly inventive diction is burlesque and acrobatic, violent, yes, but the violence seems to indicate a kind of contraction in the muscle of the syntax, pushing the female pronouns along. This time the text box seems to be less the irritant that produces the poem than an out-of-body observation about the poem itself, a traumatic extra-space, self-consciousness that rises up and looks down. 
Pafunda’s books continually and valiantly return to the scenes of gendered crimes, to the rape, the violation both historical and personal, the trauma of birth and of miscarriage and of objectification (the book begins, “When they called me vagina.”) which women are somehow expected to swallow down and survive.  At the same time, each new book instants a furled and fishy banner under which an entirely nonvirgin, mutant nonqueen rides into battle.  This queen must be doomed, as she must always take her lance (and lancet) back up, and never finish off fuckwad. But her ingenuity, her intensity, her brilliant, decaying armament is so radiant that each new volume by Pafunda seems to  configure a new strategy of survival—however dubious such a goal as survival might be under current and foreeable conditions.  In which case, as another queen-slash-fuckwad once so gamely blazoned: Viva Hate. 

*originally appeared in the Poetry Project Newsletter No. 239 (April/May 2014)

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