June 20, 2012KR OnlineReview

If the Past Is a Ghost Town: On Catherine Pierce’s The Girls of Peculiar

Ardmore, PA: Saturnalia Books, 2012. 80 pages. $14.00.

The Girls of PeculiarThe “girls of peculiar” in Catherine Pierce’s eponymous second collection of poems hail from a variety of strange and mythic places: the spooky recesses of personal history (a recurring purple-haired high school self), the cliques of adolescence (“the delinquent girls,” “the geek girls,” “the drama girls”), the realm of fairy tale (the wicked daughter, the children lost in the woods), the pages of literature (Heidi, Caddy, Nancy Drew), the province of iconography (Eve, the Virgin Mary), the apocrypha of old wives, and—perhaps most unusually—the dimensions of imagined “alternate” selves who lip-synch and swagger from the past and future alike. As Pierce writes in “A Catalogue of My Wants from Age 16 to the Present,” her speaker has desired—and still desires—a kind of portal into possibilities: “For my street to dead-end in a ghost town.”

If the past is a ghost town, then Pierce resurrects and revises its inhabitants with a kind of self-mocking humor and theatricality more akin to the aesthetic tendencies of the Gurlesque poets than the Confessional writers. The manifold selves ventriloquized in The Girls of Peculiar hallucinate from their high school desks and perform the teenie-bopper voodoo of magazines like YM (such as “the trick of lemons”), often shape-shifting between the ironic masks of camp and the grotesque. In the first few stanzas of the poem “Fire Blight,” whose title refers to a plant disease in which fruits appear as if scorched by flames, Pierce writes:

You’re sixteen. You carry a camera—a real one,
you’re learning words like aperture and F-stop.
You’re sixteen. You’ve stopped brushing your hair,
and would like someone to ask why you’ve stopped
brushing your hair. You’re thinking of dyeing
the tangles plum. You’re thinking of. You’re sixteen.

Last year you weighed more. This year you’re as tall
as you’ll get, and there’s a boy whose eyes are poisoned
marbles. You’ve photographed him again and again
but you can’t get the poison right. You’re sixteen.
You say this again and again but you can’t believe it.
In Bio, your friend shows you her bruised stomach.

We didn’t use a condom, she whispers, so I was careful.
You blink. Down the rabbit hole.

The teenage photographer in “Fire Blight,” a kind of punk rock Snow White or public school Alice, repeats the phrase, “You’re sixteen,” which is at times a self-affirming mantra (“You’re sixteen. You’ve stopped brushing your hair”) and elsewhere a chaotic syntactical/metaphysical rupture (“You’re thinking of. You’re sixteen.”). Pierce suggests that being a teenage girl is its own peculiar curse as her campy fairy-tale imagery takes a turn for the grotesque, the biology teacher droning “about splitting the atom”:

                                                                you imagine
your imperfect young skin melting and feel a tenderness
for yourself that surprises you. Slides of destruction
flash on the cinderblock wall. A girl missing her face.

A fetus in a jar. An entire orchard stripped and blackened.
Once, your grandfather’s apple tree had sickened and died.
The grass littered with apples, shining brown and wrongly.
A fairytale curse, you’d thought.

Like the images flashing across the classroom wall, the memory of the grandfather’s fire-blighted apples surfaces in a time and place where, amid the mutability of adolescent daydreaming, the sixteen-year-old girl reads all information—fairy tales, plant diseases, atomic history—as self-implicating. She appropriates these alternative narratives—fantastical and scientific—to construct her own role as she attempts to define herself against the “poison-eyed” boy’s nefarious intentions:

He wants you to be a dropped fruit, a twisted vine.

But you’re not ill. You’re not twisted. You’re sixteen.
You’re fire-clean. You’re purified. You know when
to shut up and look. Who could snap the shutter
on the missing-face girl? Who could stand
in the half-light of the floating fetus and document?
Someone impervious. Someone already in flames.

Unlike Plath’s self-aggrandizing speaker in “Fever 103°” who declares herself “too pure for you or anyone” and who rises to paradise after experiencing a hallucinatory purgatorial flame, Pierce’s “fire-clean” sixteen-year-old girl makes no such mythic ascension. Instead, Pierce dwells in the purgatorial blight that is adolescence, weaving together the poem’s complex metaphorical strands—the scorched apples, the fairy-tale boy-villain whose eyes remind us of Snow White’s tainted fruit, the teenage artist, the eerie light of scientific specimens and atomic explosions. We discover, by the end of Pierce’s ars poetica, that to be an artist, it takes “Someone impervious. Someone already in flames.”

In another poem, “For This You Have No Reason,” Pierce similarly blends the realms of science, myth, and magic:

In Sacramento, a Virgin Mary has begun spilling
blood from its stone eyes. Articles offer theories:

a prank, a rusting mineral. There is no explanation,
I say over and over, my heart tensed like a fist. Once,

at Chez la Mer, I watched a magician turn silver coins
into yellow fin tuna while diners oohed. When the room

shuddered with calls for the big reveal, I ducked
outside, humming to cover the sound of the secret.

What Pierce’s speaker desires, we discover, isn’t explanations, but “facts” that resonate with magic: “the dog gone for a decade makes / its way to Arizona and find its family still pining,” and a wooden Christ “grows hair, and is groomed every year before Easter.” Even the speaker finding “playing cards facedown // on sidewalks, and each the jack of hearts” has a place in her catalogue of delightful inexplicabilities: “Here, each face said, // for this you have no reason.” At the end of the poem, Pierce writes:

Let these strangenesses be like the impossible lizard’s
tail: gone forever, because how could it be otherwise,

and then reappearing, iridescent and blood-warmed,
because how could it be otherwise?

The “impossible lizard’s / tail” of “For This You Have No Reason” is an apt governing metaphor for The Girls of Peculiar in which a range of slippery self-representations appear to populate the pages of Pierce’s ghost town as if summoned from the speaker’s vanished past, “iridescent and blood-warmed.” If Peculiar is a place, as Pierce suggests in her sly allegory, “A Short Biography of the American People by City,” then it’s no wonder so many folks “long for the girls of Peculiar.” It’s a place, we discover, one assembles from the imagination—that “haunted factory”—the way, in one poem, a fifth grade girl constructs her gun-slinging pioneer self in the 1970s computer game, The Oregon Trail: “Meanwhile, you level your rifle. / Meanwhile, you ford the river. The whole / green country is yours. You’re almost there.”

Anna Journey is the author of the poetry collections Vulgar Remedies (Louisiana State University Press, 2013) and If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), which was selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California. Her website is http://annajourney.com.