Dubious Lexicon: A Review of Four-Legged Girl by Diane Seuss

This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.

fourI typically read one or two books for review a week, so reading time is always at a premium; some books, however, force me to linger. The amount of time a volume of poetry requires of me isn’t necessarily an indication the book is dense or complicated or opaque or even good or bad; some just provide more rabbit trails than others, and it is good to wander. I feel like I’ve been shoving the pit of Four-Legged Girl around with my nose for weeks like my cat when she’s unsure if she’s able and allowed to bite into the morsel in front of her, or unsure if she’s ready to in either case. Actually, I don’t think she gives a damn if she’s allowed.

The title of Seuss’s book, and the subject of its title poem, is Myrtle Corbin, a woman who lived from 1868 to 1928. She was born not only with four legs, but two pelvises and, as Seuss points out in this fascinating essay on her muse, two reproductive systems, including two vaginas, both of which she birthed children from. Corbin spent years in the sideshows of multiple circuses, and eventually married and had children. Seuss seems compelled by this image of a woman who was denied what many would consider beauty, but delved deep nonetheless into love and its hurts and joys, who claimed agency over those things that could be crafted as weapons against her, who posed for pictures with four knees bared to the camera.

Four-Legged Girl is divided into five sections that roughly partition Seuss’s life chronologically, beginning in childhood and marching into her current middle age. I wondered as I read if these five sections did not also retroactively overlay with the five stages of grief–the denial we are afforded in childhood, the wild anger of our teen and early adult years, the bargaining compromises as we come to terms with reality in our late twenties and early thirties, the depression of what is before us and what is behind us as we eye middle age on the horizon, and the acceptance of reaching it, in possession of saggy skin and regrets and lessons learned and, hopefully, something approaching comfort with all of them. I am very possibly projecting that onto the book; I’m not sure it’s there, though I think it is available to the reader in reflection if we choose to see it. It is a tool for reading, another angle to dig meaning from the book.

The largest chunk of the book’s seventy-three pages is the first section, childhood, for isn’t that always the richest field we harvest from, for both good and bad? This section is wistful at points, yes, but far from nostalgic. Childhood is not a wonderland, though it contains wonders. Seuss describes hers thus:

Hope was a vinegar-colored halo that formed around our heads.
It came and went, like fighting and fireflies.
– page 8

Often the sweet imagery of childhood is thrown sickly at us from the elbow, as when she references her father, who died of cancer while she was young – He’d walk in the rain like his tumors were made / of sugar (page 13).  Seuss removes herself from nostalgia with one simple phrase while describing a violet – not so much an image / of tenderness as an image of a memory of tenderness (page 19). In adulthood, when we have been cut enough times to know that being cut is a thing to expect if we have skin, we can do a few different things with childhood. We can turn it into escape, hold it in a snow globe and remember it as the time when things were simpler and gentler. Or we can realize the world hasn’t changed in the time we’ve been alive, and the hurts were there all around us even before we recognized them, and we can reframe our own childhood not as a garden of innocence but as the same wild place we live in now; it’s our ability to see and name and know and tell that has changed. Childhood is not an image of tenderness itself; it is an image of what we once held as tenderness, and what was offered to us as tenderness, or what is widely projected as tenderness. What it actually was for each of us differs. It might have had a lot of good in it or a lot of bad or more than likely a lot of both. Nostalgia is a just a second, thicker skin. Feeling safe is not the same as feeling.

Seuss gives us her early adulthood with all its smoke and needles and blood and sex and immunity and despair and costume-jewelry hope. It was a thing she lived, presented here without nostalgia but without rancor, just like the rest of Four-Legged Girl. This lost young adulthood is not rejected, shot through though it is with desperation and misery. I was no one, / a punk in a sea of punks, hooked to a doomed junkie as she tells us in one poem from this section, and on the page before:

We…intended nothing
in those days, unintended our way into desire,
pregnancy, addiction, Hep C, art, oceans, punk, and later, death
– page 29

Toward the end of these young adult years Seuss gives us a few lines that seem to encapsulate so much in the middle portion of the book, a loser’s hymn of middle-fingered identity staking:

Some of us claw our way to the bottom,
transcend downward. There at the hub
of the drain, we swirl.
– page 31

The word hub is oft-recited in these poems of childhood and young adulthood, and it’s a curious one to return to in this setting. Over and over the image is referenced, with and without the actual word–the post of an umbrella, the center of a drain, the eye of a flower, the charismatic figure. To a young life uncentered, a center will be found somewhere. One tilts into the gravity of lovers, dealers, abusers, friends, spins around the fulcrums of beauty, art, grief, religion, is expelled by centrifugal force when the energy at the orbital center of any of these things is exhausted or consumed. From the aerial viewpoint of retrospect you could almost see it as a dance if it had only involved less scarring.

It is in this section devoted to her early adulthood we best sample the dueling/harmonizing settings of the book – the urban wasteland of her young adulthood and the feral rural environment of her childhood and late adulthood. In referencing these two settings throughout it is remarkable how little clash and contrast they create. Unkempt and dirty and dangerous and free are largely the same where you find them, whether in a roach-addled apartment or the primordial backyards of rural summers. The imagery of the two blend seamlessly in Seuss’s verses here.

The final sections of the book look backward as much as they look around, the present largely defined by the past. There is the lovely grief that tinges so many of these verses–My junkie was loyal to some things, / disloyal to others. His loyalty to the needle was admirable (page 52)–but there is also a curious reflection on the loss of sexual desire in her later years, and how this seeming loss is in fact a gift, a respite. Multiple poems touch on this, and on the way desire’s absence allows a quiet place for reflection. Her memories of desire and its fruition are mostly grim, and consciously so. She discusses a small wishing well she played with as a girl, and says:

I emptied my little wishing well of its emptiness
by filling it with desire. A sorry replacement, really.

and continues a bit later:

Desire, sad to say, is sludgy with dead leaves,
fish-rot, twaddle.
– page 48

Toward the end of the book, when she has walked through the ashes of past desire and reflects on the years lived in its sway, we find the poem that possibly best summarizes Seuss’s life as presented in this book. Laundromat hit by tornado gives us a series of grim pictures–individuals who have died:

The bride died. The girl in love
with milkweed pods and god
died laundering her sunbonnet.

This continues until we come to this wind-whipped conclusion:

Hussy died watching
her husband-stealing clothes spiral
in the dryer. I strode shoeless

from the rubble with my wicker
hamper of folded clothes
having survived the twister

of my foolishness, the funnel
cloud of my warped desire.
– page 54

I have to wonder as I read through this laundry list of the deceased if every one of them is Seuss. Did she die with every error, every hurt, every grief? Is every loss a death, and we are resurrected time and again to make another go of it? The imagery in those final lines once again takes us back to the image of spinning around a center point, and in this case they are layered–the spiraling dryer and the rampaging tornado, drudgery nested inside devastation. Surprisingly, neither the poem nor Four-Legged Girl are depressing for all this. They are a four-legged girl staring into the camera, curls falling on her forehead and four knees displayed above striped socks. You see what you want to see in that case. You can see loss or you can see life. Diane Seuss sees both in this stunning new collection.

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