Laura Madeline Wiseman
San Francisco Bay Press
Paperback, 100 pages
Reviewed by Susana Case
There’s fun in these irreverent poems, but also a serious look at gender and sexuality. What has sprung in this debut full-length collection (though Wiseman has published many chapbooks) is an imaginary penis that follows the voiced character everywhere. It inserts itself into her everyday life, a sort of imaginary friend, though not of the usual playmate variety of childhood. A female voice is assumed for the poems’ speaker, though it’s not necessarily so, and perhaps the speaker’s gender is left deliberately vague.
Imaginary friends typically have complex personalities, as does Wiseman’s imaginary cock (her terminology.) They are a foil for the revelation of perceptions and anxieties, providing comfort and companionship in times of stress, as, in Sprung, at an office potluck in “Against Socializing.” What makes Wiseman’s imaginary cock-world different from other paracosms is that, in hers, everything except her cock has a resemblance to agreed-upon realities. Well, maybe not everything. There IS that elevator beside her entertainment unit that takes her to the thirteenth floor in “Dreams of Cock.”
“Imagine.” Wiseman exhorts. But what is real and what is imagined? “The imaginative world is the only real world after all” she writes in “Testimonials,” a collage of quotations. And it upends the reader’s sense of reality when, in “My Imaginary Cock Weeps for Sybil,” the imaginary cock, crying, needs to be comforted by being told about the film, “It’s not real.” The cock becomes personified, a companion both entertaining and irritating, as in real life, and possibly even a vampire, transporting the reader far beyond real life.
It is the cock that provides the linkage between reality and fantasy, a charming romantic figure in a way: “My cock whispers promises to melt a heart” Wiseman writes in “Practice,” one of a series of poems in Part 1 set in a school band. This is also a game cock that can open windows, wear a bulletproof vest, play a clarinet, drive a car, even play Santa, as well as a truculent cock, refusing to put on the band’s official tee shirt:
Ten more bars of Jailhouse Rock and then we stop.
Two hundred eyes bow as the director’s trumpet
clarifies our clumsy tongue in a silver squeal.
My cock stages a coup and opens Peter Gunn.
The cock of Sprung is a changeable one, moving easily from band to board meeting. In the prose poem, “Playdate:”
…An ivy league building is named after my imaginary
cock. My imaginary cock owns a villa, a three thousand
square foot apartment in Chelsea, a time share in the Keys,
and a corporate jet. My imaginary cock rests on a cushion of
benjamins. When my imaginary cock is spotted at a party, a
hush fills the room.
Persistency is another feature of this cock, as manifested most acutely in “In the Field,” a list poem, one of many in which it speaks, promising: “…You can’t count on any of that, / but you can count on me.”
Wiseman enthusiastically makes use of form, as in “Real or Imaginary,” in which “cock” provides one line ending for her sestina, along with “oleander,” “mountain,” “wildfires,” “silence,” and “burn,” surely a quirky combination. Double-entendre is also playfully used throughout in her consideration of the various meanings of “cock,” as in “Cock Fights,” “Chanticleer,” and “Rooster Tail U.S.” She skillfully makes hay of cock-related sounds as well. Here’s just a sampling from “Rooster Tail U.S:”
In Phoenix we pet a jock’s cockatiel that mocks
a smoker’s cough and balks at front door knocks.
in Tucson with cockade caps cocked, we cruise
the block of cops who’ve caught con men.
At the Grand Canyon we spot a hawk, stalk a flock,
pocket limestone rocks, and walk a pure cocker spaniel.
We sock away cockleshells under a dock in San Diego.
In Tehachapi we’re shocked by the cockcrow….
When the poet’s imaginary cock disappears after they both watch Teeth, a movie about a raped teenager with a vagina full of teeth, the reader feels a sense of loss, as does Wiseman in her list of “What stinks” in “On Absence:”
The Des Moines River in the morning.
Hog manure, the factory on Interstate 80.
An empty house. My imaginary cock gone.
It’s back—temporarily—toward the end in “Dreams of Cock” where Wiseman includes a David Perkins epigraph that concludes, “The difference imagining makes is between life and living death.” In this penultimate poem in five parts, a prose poem, on the thirteenth floor:
…My cock jabs
my hip until I stand. I rub the spot that’s definitely going to
bruise. My cock blows me a kiss and jumps. There is no
sound of air. No sound of landing.
Then, in the last poem of Sprung, her imaginary cock is back for its final time, packing for England. It’s here, finally, that she lets her cock go. The reader, too, does not want the clever romp to end.
“Bad Date,” Wiseman’s spoofing of The Vagina Monologues, asks (in the voice of the cock) “Why are there no imaginary cock monologues? Why?” Wiseman has taken care of that oversight by masterfully giving her imaginary cock both voice and emotive personality in Sprung. For readers with an interest in fantasy, sexuality, and/or the cultural dynamics of masculinity and femininity, this book should not be overlooked.
Susana Case lives in New York.