-Reviewed by Éireann Lorsung–
Cathleen Allyn Conway’s chapbook Static Cling begins with a quotation from The Mistress Manual about the presumed universality of the demand for ‘Girls’ to be ‘nice’ and of the effect on those ‘Girls’ of that ‘nice’ness. In full, the quotation reads, “Whatever your personal situation, you were raised in a culture that demands Girls be nice. Female Dominance isn’t nice. Fun, yes. Fulfilling, absolutely. But not nice.” What, precisely, ‘nice’ means is not elucidated; we can assume from context, however, that it is what ‘fun’ and ‘fulfilling’ are not. A preventative: the demand to be ‘nice’ rules out, here, ‘fun’ and ‘fulfilment’.
But this language—the generality of it, its assumption of what ‘nice’ is, what ‘fun’ is, what ‘fulfilling’ is, the location of these things on each side of a fairly rigid boundary—is so expected as to fall into the trap of clichéd winking about sex and liberation and what makes up each. In the end, this distinction engenders a more, not less, limited sense of the possible: this is good/liberating/fun; that is ‘nice’/repressive/not fun. Rather than continue, in a deconstructive sort of movement, to show the way that both terms depend on one another, complicating and contributing to the human experience of sex and relation, the quotation rests in its assumption. Unfortunately, most of the poems in this chapbook do likewise.
It’s not that this reviewer would argue on behalf of the bored bourgeois bride and groom in “Wedding Registry”, who sleep “on 800-count Egyptian cotton/Queen-size sheets in flannel grey and virgin white”, who attend Shakespeare in the Park and “empty Tupperware of Jamie Oliver antipasti”. Indeed, the critique of these poems is one for which many readers will likely feel sympathy: a critique of needless and meaningless acquisition, of adherence to tradition without thought (as in “Smoke”), of the misuse of power (“Femme Fatale”). No, I would plead on behalf of a more rich and complex presentation of the human beings and their situations on these pages.
Insofar as the poems remain in a single mode—the mode of separation, of uncomplication—I am left without a sense that the images of humiliation (Welch’s jam “plopped all over his bedspread” in “This Romeo”; “He snatches the whip […]/No, no! You’re doing it wrong!” in “Femme Fatale”) and transgression (“I can root through your linens/criticise your placemat patterns” in “Wedding Registry”) are more than reactionary posturing, or that the worlds imagined in “Pillow Dictionary”, where lovers lie among page proofs, writing on one another in red ink, are more than fancy. There is no sense of the desired becoming real on the page; it is a fantasy-by-numbers, where the choices are humiliation or proscribed transgression, a consequence of the tyranny of ‘niceness’, perhaps. In one instance, the speaker defuses her own desire: the opening ‘What if’ of “Motel Interlude” leads only to the revelation that the lovers do not act on their fantasies (including one of the few points in the chapbook where the female speaker is, at least in her imagination, an active participant in sex) but “just [talk] about it”. Is it the requirement to be ‘nice’ that doesn’t allow the speaker to demand an hour in the cheap hotel with its vibrating bed? Does she really want it? Is there anything else to want? Is wanting something else too ‘nice’, with the attendant sense of somehow not being—what? Fun enough? Fulfilling enough? The women in the poems do not seem fulfilled; they are passively receiving BBS messages about clichéd sex (“This Romeo”), they are “not what you ordered” (but what does she, what do they order?; from “Orange County”), they have a voice that “quavers” and hands that shake even when they pick up “the spit-slicked/cat-o’-nine tails to snap” (“Femme Fatale”) and even then their (male) submissive corrects them visciously. Someone else is doing their French homework for them, is pulling them onto laps; the lips the women want to kiss are “retreating from [their] opening mouth[s]” (all from “The Professor’s Son”).
There are two moments in the chapbook at which we are presented with a particularly active speaker. One is Inanna, in “Inanna in Illinois”, who “tramps” and searches, and who “rose from the Underworld,/sucked you into her squall, weeping rain”, with “blood in her mouth”. But Inanna is a disappointment of fantasy; the poem is addressed to someone who desires “a sozzled goddess,/rolling up in a chariot Camaro, stinking of cheap/beer and cheaper cigarettes”. In “Smoke”, the speaker has beaten Prometheus to the building of a fire, where she will burn “two twigs forming a steeple”. If only the human speakers could be as capable and complex and ferocious (even as fiercely disappointing) as these supernatural, mythological ones.
That said, Conway’s poems are at their best when they acknowledge the complexity of relationships and of the humans who undertake them. The inconclusive, elusive exchange in “The Butcher, The Baker”—where the tenderness of a man who painted his ex-fiancée’s toenails, who “painted/the tip of her smallest toe because/she cut the nail so short it would bleed” is matched by the woman’s holding “his tongue in her mouth, moist/and warm, waiting for it to rise”—does not push its reader one way or another; the people and the poem hang there, allowed to be as their situation requires. The speaker’s desire in “The Ghost Position” to “make him who I wanted him to be”, to “mold him,/chew papier-mâché from his letters […]/give him back his language” is not unviolent but does reflect the difficulty present in life and in loving others, and the relation between love, desire, and violence. (The poem also contains what is for me the most striking image in the collection—comprising most of the last stanza: “I put a slip of paper/with my name on it into his mouth/the holy word”.) If all the poems interrogated this question, this relation, more intently, the collection would be very interesting indeed, and very ‘fulfilling’.