01 April 2013

The Girls of Peculiar by Catherine Pierce



The Girls of Peculiar

Catherine Pierce

Saturnalia Books, 2012

Perfect bound, 78 pages

ISBN 978-0-9833686-2-5

Purchase Link 

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 human situations of social identity, self-doubt, and questions of purpose and place arise constantly in these poems. The book’s momentum operates largely on desires of many kinds, which fuel the majority of the pieces—desires that range from wanting a pet to wanting love, sex, escape, children, career, and meaning. All the Big Stuff teens begin to wonder about and older people reflect upon and, perhaps, regret. The poem “A Catalog of My Wants from Age 16 to the Present” might make a good subtitle for the collection; the speaker of these poems, as well as the “she” and the “you” who appear in them long “[t]o collapse/with all drama and no ego. To find any perfect/mouth.” The desires are often unattainable but always believable. In “How It Ends: Three Cities,” a three-part prose poem, “A paralytic woman rises, walks to the freezer, scoops out mouthful after mouthful of Rocky Road;” children float out of an open window, “called by air;” and dead pets emerge whole and healthy from their graves, shaking off the dirt, from a trundling guinea pig to the protagonist’s beloved golden retriever. This deeply child-like wish for the return of the lost beloved leaves its mark on many of the poems in this book.

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:   



The test suggests an aptitude for solitary work.
Have you considered a career as a computer

programmer? Flower arranger? Planetarium
operator? No? What about zebrawood cultivation?

…Here’s the list

of promising careers. Muskrat we’ll cross out.
Blue spruce on a half-acre? Nest-fleeing cardinal?

Maybe? Let’s mark it…
 

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.

The fact that there was no place for a young woman with an aptitude for solitude to express her creative intelligence still stings a bit. And Pierce knows it. That is one reason The Girls of Peculiar does such a wonderful job of informing its readers about the complex business of, as Gregory Orr put it, “becoming a self in the world.” There are no answers posited in this collection, no rhetoric, no false wisdom. We have to live our way into understanding, Pierce’s girls remind us, and each life is full of its own turnings and choices.





Ann E. Michael is a poet, essayist, and educator whose most recent poetry collection is Water-Rites (2012). She lives in eastern PA where she is Writing Coordinator at DeSales University. Her website: www.annemichael.com. 

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