(An International Journal of Poetry)
ISSN 2249 –2178
Volume-2 JUNE -2012 Number-1
A poetry larger than the devil
by Felix Nicolau, Ph. D., “Hyperion” University, Bucharest
A poetry larger than the devil
Energetic and self-conscious, Kate Ferris’s poetry is pitiless towards the reader. One the one hand, the writer psychoanalyses her childhood phantasms and, on the other hand, builds parallels to archetypes and cultural hallmarks. The force of her artistic vision and creativity originates in the rich cultural background, backed up by a bold, uncompromising imagination. The result is a compelling art which delves into the meanders of a traumatized mind. The ugliest face of the evil is aggressive, maniacal sexuality. In order to defend themselves, the most delicate beings have to expand their dimensions. Such an expansion can be understood as intellectual and emotional development, not a merely physical one. Apprehended in this way, art wages an indefatigable war to the sloppy, but also violent reality.
Key-words: psychoanalysis, devil, narratology, gender, archetype, androgyny, mainstream, postmodernism, transcendentalism, fairytale.
“Have hold and hear, actively repeat at all” (Gertrude Stein, If I Told Him. A Completed Portrait of Picasso)
Irreverent to the pusillanimous tradition or to the lofty mainstream, Katie Ferris’s poetry in BoysGirls dives in the most profound sexual differences and traumas. The diving switches to soaring when she reaches the strata of archetypes, where demons outnumber angels.
Ferris surprisingly manages to weld the sophisticated personality of an academic with the wild inspiration of a savage. Only scanning the volume’s table of contents one gets thrilled and looks around the room for dictionaries and encyclopaedias. Brace up: girls, mise en abîme, the girl who grew, the politics of metamorphosis, her mother’s mother was a machete, cyclops, the devil’s face, how to tame a lion, and hierarchy of freaks. Then we have riddles about boys: the boy with one wing, the inventor of invented things, a brief interlude for seduction, doldrums, and the invention of love.
But the sexes will be reunited in androgynical way at the end of the story. Because the poetess starts her discourse diegetically-wise, breaking the frame of narratological conventions in a postmodern way. We are not to read either spell-bound, exhilarated, or in cold blood: “There are ways of telling a story, they say, so that it comes alive. In the quaint way of stories. Meaning we may be mesmerized” (Ferris 9). If Verlaine advised us to strangle eloquence (“prends l’eloquence et tords-lui son cou”), Katie Ferris threatens our pleasure-indulging reading, the idle hours of slumbering fantasies: “my madwoman’s hand, neatly manicured with a certain fragile glowing in my too-white skin, will reach out to take you, dear reader, by the throat. I can feel you swallowing. It’s a natural reflex to having your oesophagus squeezed” (idem). So the first authorial step is to theoretically harass the readers in order to destroy their reading for pleasure, an undignified way of dealing with poetry: “What is it you hope to accomplish by reading this book? You were hoping to escape unscathed? You’re used to sitting back and eavesdropping, playing the voyeur on the lives of others. But between these covers you will participate, whether you desire it or not. You might think about this before you turn the page. You might turn the page.//This is the new literature” (ibidem 10). At a second perusal, we calm down: it is not about being assailed, but stimulated to get in the ring. The new literature means interactive imagination, very close to hyperliterature. Bulging emotions and Corazon-wrenching are ridiculed after half a century of consumerist soap-operas. We could take this lofty, pitiless opening as a political approach: “sometimes not delivering on a reader’s expectations can be the most political act of all” (Phillips 52). Poetry is the most demanding drilling practice of the mind or of the soul, even both of them, sometimes.
Now who had the guts to turn the page may find that rewarding: the lioness reshapes into a mermaid: “Let me entertain you! I’m only here to make you smile, never to think, never to think” (ibidem 11). Let yourselves be tightly tied to the mast. Do not grin stupidly! Otherwise you will be thrown over board in no time! Everything must be taken with a pinch of salt, even the courteous captatio benevolentiae, more specific to Bollywood than to Hollywood: “Beautiful. You are beautiful. Do not fear, dear reader. We will not attempt to throw you down from your throne. We are all aware (shh! shh!) that we are here to please” (idem).
The Girls side of the book, decorated with Barbie-like fairytale creatures, starts with another technicality, respectively a mise en abîme. It seems that the legend of the sirens intertwined with the manneristic myth of the mirror as an alluring multiplication of the world are the fittest ways of approaching postmodern femininity: “People are forever falling for the girl with a mirror for a face” (ibidem 17). We can hardly suspect the authoress of misogyny, because she only debates upon the edgy side of the infinite as black hole. Shallowness reflecting and somehow devouring entities! External beauty has its lack of substance betrayed by the frontal meeting with another external beauty: “Have you ever looked into a mirror with another mirror? Nothing reflected back into nothing. An infinity of nothing” (ibidem 18). Under such circumstances beauty is only a simulacrum, as Jean Baudrillard put it. Language itself contribute to the radical illusion, because it “never signifies what it means” (Baudrillard 70).
Now there is a second stage of this episode, the girl who grew, obviously placed under the umbrella of Alice in Wonderland: “my toes and fingers thick as the trunks of elephants, my eyes rusted almost shut with pondweed and petrified eyelashes” ( Ferris 21). The inflated organism could be an allegory for inner development. Infinity becomes real, as it starves for knowledge: history books and crystals. When her “head kissed the ceiling”, the first threshold of understanding was reached. The more she engulfs, the more acute gets the starvation: “After many years, she was twenty stories tall, but/no taller, and nine years old, but no older” (ibidem 22).
In spite of being theoretical, the writer wonderfully manages to maintain the tone of a sage spinning the yarn of a story. This is almost an impossible bet to win owing to the fact that narratology is buttressed by an intellectual language bordering on anthropology, politics and history. “The more the poem accepts its affinities to the wider cultural text, the freer and more unique it seems” (Miller 38). We are reminded of the “regimes of fear”, which “end in pain” and of an ever-lasting duty: “it is no pain to be forgotten” (Ferris 25).
It is in this direction that the next chapter-poem, the politics of metamorphosis, uncovers the relation between politics and fairytale. As E. M. Forster recommended, “only connect” is the best approach, but the most demanding one, too, especially that multiculturalism failed in its utopian project.
Her mother’s mother was a machete rings the bell of a song in our skulls. And this is the marvellous characteristic of this poetry: the fact that it may be read simultaneously as a narratological experiment issued from a creative writing workshop or as a dynamic and sonorous series of slogans. The whole epical poem is a complex song: “But the grandmother/doesn’t die, and doesn’t die, and doesn’t die/until she does” (ibidem 32). Structurally, the text is a fabric of repetitions and parallelisms, a blend of cultural references and contemporary criticism of diverse fetishisms and illusions. The pattern in the carpet becomes clearer and clearer due to the fact that the emphasis falls “on the signifier climbed down from the tree and rhizomatically infused the grassy horizon” (Rasula 209)
The vital musicality gets more devious in Cyclops, where inner rhymes prevail and push the profound meaning on a second plan: “She loves to hear them/say her name, loves the circular sound of Cy-clops,/psyclops, eyeclops, like a horse galloping over their tongues” (Ferris 34). More than once I had the impression that I was listening to riffs from a rock-opera, for instance Tommy, by The Who.
The charm of such an epical-narratological-philosophical poem resides in its kinship with the fairytale; and every authentic fairytale displays the clash between good and evil. With the mention that evil is always mitigated or applied a thick layer of make-up. Now, here is a little bit different case, as the evil is not screened. It is called names: “The girl has been learning how to shit on/the devil’s face” (ibidem 37). Across the whole book, besides playfulness and intellectual challenge or defiance, persists an intense sensation of terror. The terror permeates the game and the malefic flood is reflected in some of the drawings accompanying the texts. Every illustration portrays at least one woman and the more the reader advances inside the volume, the gloomier and more symbolic the drawings become. Up to the point where the girls look like some twisted dolls tortured by medieval devils. Finally, the evil is revealed as the devil and the psychiatric foray gets tuned. It is like all this inferno functions as a scaffold put up “in order to keep at bay the sirens of sense-making with their dangerous promise of semantic finality” (Rasula 98)
Part of the demonized art surges from childhood’s traumatic experiences: “She is constipated, seized up, she anticipates the look of disgust on the face of the masturbating man” (Ferris 40). The poetess skilfully overlaps perverted sexuality with religion. It is in these terms that her poetry is a continuous and gruesome revelation: “the devil looks at her with the familiar look of a man about to come” (idem). How can one mix narratology with the scathing critique of consumerist society and, in the end, with exorcisms? This happens only because in Kate Ferris’s vision poetry works as panacea and demythization, but also as incentive, push. All in all, it is about pricks and kicks: “the girl has been taking 25 mg of hydroxyine, an anti-anxiety medication, to deal wit her difficulties shitting on the Devil’s face” (idem).
Baudrillard, Jean, The Vital Illusion, 2000, Columbia University Press, USA.
Ferris, Katie, BoysGirls, 2011, USA, Michigan, Marick Press.
Miller, Stephen Paul in Harold Bloom, Ed., 2010. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Contemporary Poets. New Edition. “Periodizing Ashbery and His Influence” (pp. 31-45). Bloom’s Literary Criticism, Infobase Publishing. New York.
Phillips, Jerry, general editor, Contemporary American Literature (1945-present), Infobase publishing, New York, U.S.A., 2006.
Rasula, Jed. 2004. Syncopations. The Stress of Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry. The University of Alabama Press. U.S.A.