by Kate Durbin
New York, NY: Akashic Books, 2009. ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-88-0 $15.95
Reviewed by Lisa A. Flowers
Statues of Women All the Same: Kate Durbin's The Ravenous Audience
I am unbalanced—but I am not mad with snow.
I am mad the way young girls are mad,
with an offering, an offering...
Anne Sexton, The Breast
Once myths and stories have been established and digested into history, what constitutes their excretions, and at what point and by virtue of what process does history run its course and "finish" into metaphorical colonic expulsion? These, among other ingeniously surreal propositions, are main themes of Kate Durbin's The Ravenous Audience, a feminist revisionist study of identities enfolded in a matriarchal Russian doll (or perhaps a patriarchal one in drag) out of which Catherine Breillat, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Magdalene, Clara Bow, Eve, and other feminine figures/archetypes through the ages clamber over and out of one another in various states of "undress/redress." Employing equal parts cinema and visual art, Ravenous is not merely a vision expressing itself through the medium of poetry, but a kind of multimedia coming of age project set in rooms as lurid and Technicolor as a Ray Caesar girl's boudoir...hairpieces, sequins, and various garish cosmetics scattered on a dressing table next to Anatomy Of Hell's bloodied tampon in a water glass; pink furred princess telephones (unlike Plath's iconic black one) very much attached at the Tree Of Knowledge's root.
"There is only one woman...with many faces," wrote Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation Of Christ, and with this Durbin would seem to agree, pointing out, as she does, that, in the most literal sense of woman's physiology, "blood must gush and milk must flow at high cost for life to go on." But Ravenous is no long-suffering Ma Joad; on the contrary, as its back cover proclaims, it "refuses to rescue the 'misunderstood bitches' of our cultural past." Durbin's women (like her Norma Jeane Baker in the nine-page Our Marilyn(s): Interview) are to a large extent conscious and aggressive shapers of themselves, shrewdly weighing the aesthetic and practical possibilities of their own power....kind of like Simone De Beauvoir with the business sense of Helen Gurley Brown.
There are, as there must be in any feminist deconstruction, indirect references to certain male figures traditionally aligned with women's studies. Durbin's refashioning of fairy tales and myths owes a debt to the work of Ted Hughes, but in a way that's imaginatively deliberate (it's no accident that the Plathian/Poem For A Birthday-esque Fishy Loaves and the Hughesian Hagar's Headstones appear symbolically/chronologically here, their pages literally back to back). Gretel and the Witch rewrites the myth of the Grimm heroine as loving sister and ally in imagery that evokes Miss Havisham's crumbling, powder-dry wedding cake:
When her stomach starts to shriek
Like the dark cats that tread the trees
The girl stares at the dry cake seductively
Hunger turns to cannibalistic pay-dirt as Gretel,
Mouth stuffed with empty calories
Turns one sugar-amped, ambitious eye to her brother's behind
As he bends over the gingerbread railing
At poem's end Hansel is scattered across the grass like so many chicken bones at a picnic as his sibling sleeps
Sprawled on the crystallized lawn: profound slumber of satiation.
Who is this small skeleton beside
Bees tenderly sucking the skull's final juices?
This gleeful subverted pop-up Candyland is one of the book's most delightfully gastronomic poems, with images as edible-through-the-eyes as the mouth watering pastries in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (super limited editions of Ravenous might have been sold out of Borders/Barnes & Noble pastry display cases, sporting covers made of actual candy, with teeth marks as insignia). In this very un-grim variation on Grimm, then, monstrosity is refused and tragedy therefore averted....a successful attempt, perhaps, at what Ravenous heroine Catherine Breillat may or may not have failed to do at the end of her controversial Fat Girl. The work of Breillat is key here because it winds like arteries or rivers into the sea of the book; eight of Ravenous' poems are written for and named after the controversial auteur's films. Some of the most effective of these, like A Real Young Girl and 36 Fillette, are either hodgepodges of dialogue taken from the films or compiled lists of images in them. Perfect Love, one of the most powerful pieces in this sequence (and one of the book's best poems, hands down) achieves its nauseating effectiveness by simply recounting, in a perfunctory and even ostensibly listless tone, what happened in the movie:
He had blond hair and soft hands.
He was a victim, too.
Everybody said so.
He stabbed her in the chest fifty six times.
When you're done appreciating Durbin's superb indictment of I'm-this-way-because-I'm-also-a victim "logic" (in how many variations have those first two lines been used by abusers to rationalize their actions?) you can relax, make some popcorn, and turn the lights down insofar as your ability to read in the semi-dark will allow: Ravenous features appearances from everyone from In The Realm Of The Senses' Sada and her chicken-egg-in-a-vulva to the family in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema to a Clara Bow silent film literally flooding into the theater, like a reservoir breaking out of Purple Rose Of Cairo. Little Red's Ride features images that could have come straight out of the films of Walerian Borowczyk:
Spring-stink, the world heaves with lust.
Mother sniffs sex from the kitchen window
Woodsmen stripping trees,
Housewives mounting stallions
Not a world for little girls, she says,
Turning and smiling
(We are not sure Mother has any)
On the difficulty of conceiving the human Marilyn Monroe through her epic grandeur:
This is our cue, our infinity in the white light,
But we are paralyzed by this glossy cherry, so near on the branch
I love this because it (subconsciously? At any rate, in the spirit of the rest of the book) also evokes Eve, paralyzed by the proximity of the serpent. Of course, as the aforementioned Our Marilyn(s) points out, Monroe was to a greater or lesser extent as complicit in creating this dilemma/dichotomy as her audience was, but make no mistake about it: Durbin is dead serious about exposing the tragedy of real victimization; and of this she can write heartbreakingly, unforgettably, as in the centerpiece (and masterpiece) of Ravenous, the 15 part epic New Creature, where numbing, near-unreadable horror & hypnotic narrative ability combine in a tour de force of devastatingly effective power that deserves to be excerpted at length:
In the barn's orange blush she is bending to milk the cow when her father takes her from behind.
Not to scream. Not to turn her head. It is the first while on her period.
An iron poker, prodding her aching tunnel.
He cums quickly, crying out like an angry child. The cow's milk spreads like ghost fingers across the barn floor. She thinks of his juices mixing with hers, making a pink, sickly ooze that will stain.
His scream in her ear. He's seen his bloody prick.
Five knuckles to her neck. Her clothes torn.
Woman's blood is venom,
her father whispers in her ear. Nightmare. Cause, since the Garden, for banishment. You
knew—you poisoned me anyway.
I give you 'til sunup. Then I release the dogs.
She flees into the forest.
She is naked.
When she is too tired to lift her feet, she stops to feed on berries, which glow wine in starlight. She drinks from a midnight pool. Her reflection startles her—red hair surrounding pale face like a Christmas wreath, nipples rigid and pink as the noses of barn mice.
She falls asleep, one hand dipped in silvery water.
Ripples go out from the tips of her fingers, where tiny fish come to nibble.
The moment she stops walking upright, falling spider-like
to the loam. Creeping forward on all fours, body coated in soil—
an animal, with the animals.
No longer does she see her reflection as she laps as a deer
from pools of fetid water in the forest's heart.
Fevered dreams. Conjuring light on the barn floor as she bows once again beneath the cow.
Then the blaze explodes. Her father pushes back inside, taken
by his own blind, brute fire
This is activism as high art, victim advocacy with a vengeance...sparked, as Durbin points out in the book's appendix, by something as beautiful as Czech artist Antonin Hudecek's 1901 painting Psyche. Amelia Earhart: Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator's Boot, a long poem originally published as a chapbook by Dancing Girl Press, takes the pilot's final, vanished flight as its theme, working from a theory that Earhart & her flying partner, Fred Noonan, actually survived a crash landing into the Atlantic and managed to remain alive on an atoll for over 2 weeks before finally starving to death and/or dying from exposure. Employing a diary-like narrative, it is an ultimately very moving chronicle that spans tender moments of Earhart's daily life with her beloved husband:
The way the light glances off G's hair as he goes out the back door
To her final weeks in the Atlantic:
F is dead. I woke to find his mouth cracked, a trail of white foam trickling out. I considered how his flesh could sustain me, and pressed my dry tongue to his arm. He tasted of salt and dirt, but it's no use. My appetite has gone.
Shoving the body into the sea for the sharks, I felt my bones surrender.
One (blank) page later, like a white-out version of Tristram Shandy's black page:
Is no longer my name. Belonging to a ghost.
...But, in spite of their sophistication and frequently emotionally difficult subject matter, the poems in Ravenous read easily. Durbin's willingness to step out of the way of her own agenda behooves her unique gift. The poems, albeit watched under a careful and disciplined eye, are allowed to do as they like and have a life of their own, and, like any independent entities, they tend to thrive in that freedom and reward their maker/enabler with the best of themselves. Altogether, Ravenous, like the title of the Robert Frost poem, is a "subverted flower," a kind of hypothetical do-over that provides a beautifully bizarre, sumptuously unsentimental vision of what might have happened, in a butterfly effect, if the daughters of Eve had had the opportunity to, as in Execrate:
"Return, to the Garden
In the year Zero
Naked, in awe
Covered in blood and feces..."
...The subsequent excretions of time and myth digested and returned to them in the form of the fruit from which all excretions spring.
Lisa A. Flowers is a freelance writer, vocalist, poet, and film critic. Raised in Los Angeles and Portland, OR, she is the founder and editor of Vulgar Marsala Press. Her poetry has appeared in The Cortland Review, elimae, and other magazines and online journals. Her poetry collection diatomhero is forthcoming in June of 2010. She currently resides in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Visit her on the web here or here.