This Review was original published on Fourth & Sycamore.
I want to sit down for coffee with Patricia Lockwood. No, that’s not true. I want to throw back a few shots of whiskey with Patricia Lockwood, though her linguistic inhibitions don’t really need any help in lowering. Reading Lockwood’s newest volume of poetry, 2014’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals from Penguin (811.6 Lockwood), feels like a close enough approximation to listening to the poet tipsily lilting a few bawdy but cuttingly clever bar songs from across the booth. These poems were meant to be read aloud, and online testimony confirms her readings are wickedly fun affairs.
The titles of the poems in Homelandsexuals are poetry in themselves and serve as paper-and-ink clickbait on the table of contents – List of Cross-Dressing Soldiers, The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer, Last of the Great Gorilla Suit Actors. Her poem about Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, a swirling reflection on literary influence, sensationalism, and privacy in the selfie age, is titled The Mother and Father of American Tit-Pics. Because of course it is. Also, Dickinson is the father and Whitman the mother there, just so we’re clear.
Between her absurdist, ironically prurient poetry, her riveting live readings, and her popular and hilariously perverse Twitter feed, Patricia Lockwood reads like what would happen if David Lynch and Sarah Silverman had a love child who grew up reading Sylvia Plath and watching Kids in the Hall. Her poems, a potent mix of sex jokes and cutting social observation, read like pornography for the world’s (or Portland’s) lonely literary dreamers. Lockwood’s poetry is the deleted search history of the lovelorn MFA student.
If you haven’t read her two books of poetry (Homelandsexuals and 2012’s Balloon Pop Outlaw Black), you may have read at least one of her poems without realizing it. In 2013 she released the piece Rape Joke online and it went viral, garnering somewhere around 100,000 likes on Facebook and getting passed around on every major social networking site. Poetry is not exactly a literary medium given to going viral, but Lockwood’s poem hit a nerve.
(trigger warning for rape and sexual assault)
In the piece she tells the story of a rape she suffered in her late teen years and the following struggle of processing and recovering from the trauma. In the process of telling her story she poignantly looks at how we talk about (and don’t talk about) rape in the first place. Debate over whether there is ever an appropriate place in comedy for jokes about rape and sexual assault has been a hot topic over the last few years, especially in the wake of some high profile comedians demonstrating exactly the wrong way to make such jokes, if indeed the right way exists at all. In Rape Joke Lockwood somehow manages to weave wit and, yes, even humor into the telling of her own assault story, as evidenced in even the opening lines (page 40):
The rape joke is that you were nineteen years old.
The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.
The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.
and later in the poem:
The rape joke is sometimes he would tell you you were going on a date and then take you over to his best friend Peewee’s house and make you watch wrestling while they all got high.
The rape joke is that his best friend was named Peewee.
Almost any segment of the five page poem could be pulled out as an example of the pain, poignance, insight, and (uncomfortable as it may be) humor that Lockwood blends within the piece. In a fascinating interview Lockwood gave for the New York Times, the poet had this to say about her choice to write about the topic of rape the way she did in this piece: “The real final line of ‘Rape Joke’ is this. You don’t ever have to write about it. But if you do, you can write about it any way you want.”
Patricia Lockwood is a poet to watch, not only because she’s original and weird and very, very good, but because she’s fun. Too many of the poetry books on our library shelves gather dust instead of feeding the minds and sating the hearts of readers, especially young readers. Poetry has unfortunately gained a reputation among non-academic readers for being dry, difficult, and intimidating. When I was discovering myself as a writer in my teen years it was through poetry, because poetry has the power to be both a gateway into the world of literary expression and also a way of feeling known, less alone. Patricia Lockwood shows it can also make us laugh and smirk without being frivolous and without sacrificing depth and complexity.
As Lockwood said in the above interview, “‘The idea about readers being too lazy to read poetry — they just need an in,’ she said, ‘a voice they can trust.’” My hope is Lockwood will be that voice for many new readers of poetry. After all, what other poet is going to give you a title like Nessie Wants to Watch Herself Doing It?