Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Ann E. Michael
Totem-like animals, superstitions, and carnival rides populate the dreamy lives of young women in Catherine Pierce’s second collection from Saturnalia Books, The Girls of Peculiar. While it wasn’t the first thing that struck me when reading the poems, what intrigues me most about this book is how well the structure works; although the poems are individually clever or sad or sharply nostalgic, Pierce connects them skillfully into an almost novelistic whole. And yet this is not a narrative series—far from it. Poems that initially appear to be memoir turn into speculation or fantasy. Stories we expect to hear about adolescent girls shift into lyrical commentary on the expectations themselves or turn to quite specific self-reflections on the part of the speaker. Then, too, the speaker may end up being auditor as well: explorations and inquiries into self-identity occur often, as in the poems “Dear Self I Might Have Been” and “Poem from the Girls We Were.” It may be this discourse among the selves that keeps Pierce’s collection feeling—paradoxically, I suppose—so unified and well-structured. The 46 poems, divided into three sections, address a female psyche whose situation in the world is decidedly contemporary and also psychologically timeless.
The language the poet uses emphasizes the child-like longing. Pierce inserts very short sentences frequently into the largely enjambed lines of her poems, and it is partly through this technique that she can achieve a marvelous clarity even when recounting imaginative fantasies that might easily tip into the gothic or surreal. Instead, the daydreams are recognizable to anyone who reads fiction as an escape from the looming adult world. The references that pin these poems to the late 20th and early 21st centuries include television shows, an educational computer game (“Oregon Trail”), carnival rides like the Zipper and the Graviton, and the ever-present specter of the atom bomb. Yet there are allusions to much more traditional evocations of childhood, such as the animal presences (jellyfish, dogs and cats, horses, ocelots and wolves) and the accoutrements of fairly tales, such as mirrors and apples, amulets, superstition, and quite a lot of poison.
The realm of childhood and the female experience of adolescence make for beautiful and slightly threatening fantasies. The reader begins to recognize that, for the peculiar girls of Pierce’s work, who it is they are takes some time to learn. The process of becoming (adult? female? whole?) has no easy set of rules they can follow, and there’s precious little to trust. In a poem that directly addresses the anxiety and confusion “the girl” faces, a guidance counselor observes:
Finally, the counselor decides upon “the iron clapper/in a wind chime” but advises the girl she’ll “have to create the wind yourself.” My high school guidance counselor was not much more help, so I found this poem funny and sad.