Believe the Hype: Mother was a Tragic Girl by Sandra Simonds

by on Mar.01, 2013


Have you heard the hype about Sandra Simonds’s Mother was a Tragic Girl? It’s tragic, to be sure, and it’s tragedies are tragedies of domesticity, of history, of animal hybridity, of motherhood, of childbirth, of the body and its flexibilities and deteriorations, and CVS. As I write about this book, I don’t want to read it closely. I want to hold it at a distance, to see how it’s shaped, how it makes things happen: this is a book that on the one hand insists upon the dignity of poetry while on the other hand it seems dedicated to writing poems about the impossibility of writing poetry, like “The Battle of Horseshoe Bend”:

I was going to write a poem about giving birth/about meconium, vernix/the cubic zirconium/scattered on the floor tiles of the hospital room./It would have been about false/windows that face false/walls, about/the tiny hamburger I ate afterward/—the mustard too yellow and sweet—the flushed/cheek of labor, ho hard it is/to piss afterwards…

This is, says the narrator, a “poem that erases itself as it is written,” and “that will never exist.” But it exists, and in existing it suggests, communally, that for the poem to be a poem it “would have had to murder the landowner/in the name of personal property.”

Mother is a Tragic Girl is a book in which the nipples of a stray wife “leak titanium,” where squirrels die from drinking water laced with antidepressants. The natural world is poisoned by psychiatry, and DNA is woven from lasers in the jungle; this is a book where characters must decide whether to piss or to write poems.

I’m not reviewing this book. I’m just hyping it, and there are two poems in particular that I want to employ in my hyping: The first is called “DuckRabbit.” It begins:

“This is the story of my grandfather Benjamin Levy/who survived Auschwitz. He wrote his biography on/a torn label of a can of con-/densed milk.”

We then get to read the actual biography of the grandfather, which of course has to be fairly short given that it’s written on a can of milk. It begins with the line:

“Background works at sawing off my right foot” and ends with the line “I’ve been working/on my tunnel/vision morphing portals lined with dried corn.”

The rest of the poem takes us through various ‘interpretations’ of the biography performed by the grandfather’s wife and grandson, “a corrections officer in Macon, Georgia,” who ‘interpret’ or ‘translate’ or ‘decode’ the poem by discussing the mall that is being built across the street from Auschwitz wherein he imagines a scene in which “two monkeys are/chained to the floor of this attic/with evolutionary thoughts running/beneath their craniums.”  In other words, they interpret/decode by writing their own poems in response.

I’ve been thinking about this poem for a few days now. Thinking about it in relation to, among others, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness which is narrated by a crazed, exiled writer fleeing dictatorial country A only to find work in dictatorial country B as an editor of a Truth Commission document. But his editorial work is compromised by his unethical insistence on reading the testimonies of the tortured as poetry. He quotes the lines of the tortured testimonies at parties, and uses them in acts of shameless seduction. His insistence on finding poetry in the testimonies of the tortured is a primary symptom of his madness.

“DuckRabbit,” (which is of course a completely different hybrid-animal than Senselessness, but perhaps a similar hybrid animal to Kafka’s “curious animal, half-kitten, half lamb,” – from “A crossbreed/A sport”) perhaps begins with the testimony {biography} as an act of poetry to be decoded as new acts of poetry by the wife and grandson that are synthesized into a third act of poetry, by the author, Simonds. The can of condensed milk in the context of Auschwitz {satirically?} evokes to this reader Paul Celan’s “Black milk of daybreak,” and the condensation of the milk forms a proportionally sized canvas for the condensation of the biography, and with enough sugar to keep it from biting. Is this a “holocaust” poem? Does the author want us to read it as a holocaust poem? What is a holocaust poem that prevents the reader from seriously engaging with the holocaust? What is a holocaust poem that is more interested in the ‘interpretations’ of the poem than of the poem itself? What is a holocaust poem that seems to suggest that the best way to respond to a holocaust poem is to continuously write more poems that mock the possibility of writing holocaust poems? What is a holocaust poem that does not allow one to sink into the gravity of the holocaust? What is history to this poem?

“Can you believe that’s his whole life story,” the poem asks. “Can you believe that’s the other side of history?” Well, on the one hand of course we can’t, and on the other hand, since it’s all we are left with, since the life in the poem is reduced to merely this—the scraps on the can and their re-translations—then, yes, I suppose, that’s all we have. A bizarre, provocative sensibility to be sure, whose entanglements seem purposefully crafted to ensnare the reader in her response.

(“I feed it on milk,” writes Kafka of his half-kitten, half-lamb, “that seems to suit it best. In long draughts it sucks the milk in through its fanglike teeth. Naturally it is a great source of entertainment for children. Sunday morning is the visiting hour. I sit with the little beast on my knees, and the children of the whole neighborhood stand around me.”)

There are lots of other poems I really like in Sandra Simonds’ Mother was a Tragic Girl. One in particular is called “Yoga.” It’s got an “I” in it who falls in love, who eats waffles, who looks at stars and trees, and who comments on the “plastic vaginas” of her yoga instructors, whose artificial beauty has the effect of lowering the self esteem of the yoga students. It ends:

“I resent beautiful women who are flexible/and talk about Deepak Chopra/like they’re fucking him./I resent other things too./I resent it when people tell me to/”be like the Buddha.”/Hey, fuck you./I’ll be like the Buddha if I want to.”

Believe the hype: Mother was a Tragic Girl!











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