KR Reviews

Anne Barngrover’s Brazen Creature: Southern Masculinities & the Violence of Spectacle

Akron, OH: The University of Akron Press, 2018. 72 pages. $15.95.

In his recent article, William Michael Dickey notes that the “ability to punish via the gaze” is quite powerful, especially as it is “internalized by individuals who correct and police their own actions so as not to be seen as criminal or chastised by others.” Indeed, the simple act of looking performs and dramatizes these imbalances of power, indicating who can see and be seen without violating the order of things. These tacit rules are inevitably internalized, and we live with them more in our solitude than in our moments of resistance. As a result, the nascent thought—that almost unconscious impulse toward connection, conversation, and community—is cut short before it has even been fully articulated.

Anne Barngrover’s debut collection Brazen Creature navigates these questions of power, self-censorship, and surveillance with a refreshing candor, while fully doing justice to the complexity of this line of inquiry. Presented as a book-length sequence of linked persona-driven pieces, the poems in this stunning collection examine a type of spectatorship particular to the American South, that sprawling expanse of “poison ivy,” “muscle and fog.” Within the context of Barngrover’s regional poetics, an ongoing awareness of being looked upon not only polices, but also, isolates. She elaborates in “Hallucinate the House, Hallucinate the Woods,”

. . . I wake to a bomb
               going off inside my own head and the ghosts of flashlights

glow against the windowpanes of my brain—a parasomnia
               so fare doctors won’t bother to record. I feel like a wasp

nest nailed to a door . . .

Here the female speaker subtly suggests through her choice of imagery—the “wasp nest nailed to a door,” the shut “windowpanes,” the bomb confined to the inside of her “own head”—the loneliness inherent in being an object of the gaze. Not only is she threatened with scrutiny and erasure—that moment when “there are no stars”—but she is paralyzed by her ongoing awareness of tacit judgment, that “ghost of a flashlight” that finds its way into the innermost rooms of her house. At the same time, solitude becomes a communal endeavor, as the speaker functions as a captive to the neighborhood even in the absence of any other voices, “words,” or “sounds.”

As the book unfolds, Barngrover’s speakers consider the gaze as the product of a community, arising from a complicated matrix of men, women, and non-binary subjects laying claim to visibility within a cultural landscape that threatens to erase some part of them. Frequently offering sketches of characters who populate the Southern towns that the book traverses, Barngrover’s writing is perhaps most impressive when it delves into the trauma and precariousness of Southern masculinity. Unlike the speaker of “Hallucinate the House, Hallucinate the Woods,” who finds herself hostage to the gaze, these men struggle to hold on to the visibility that has always, irrefutably, been theirs. She explains in “He Hates What I Do,”

. . . He’d had

a married woman once (a very poor girl)
then his boss, two students (they were sort-of former).

He’d won a steak dinner

                       (a gentleman’s agreement)

for which housemate would be the first to fuck
their landlord’s brown-skinned daughter,

he bragged to me as he threw a dart
against a door . . .

Here Barngrover presents the male gaze as a precursor to conquest, a foreshadowing of gendered imperialism. Each woman who is beheld by the man in this poem—whether the “sort-of former” students, the “married woman,” or the female “boss”—is proffered, in this somewhat disturbing litany, as evidence of his successful performance of masculinity for female onlookers. Indeed, his romantic conquests become a kind of masculine spectacle, which is presented to the speaker of this poem to no effect. As the piece unfolds, we are made to see that he speaks against the threat of erasure and a postmodern cultural landscape in which “darts” and “steak dinners” no longer make a man.

For both the men and women who populate this theoretically astute and thought-provoking book, there is an undeniable cruelty implicit in the gaze. This violence could best be described as an unrelenting psychic intrusion, a mediating presence that ultimately shapes one’s way of being in the world. Indeed the cruelty of the gaze arises from one’s lack of choice, as Barngrover reminds us that we are born into the spectacle that unfolds endlessly before us.

Her work is especially striking when the women she portrays appropriate and reconstitute the politics of the gaze, reframing this unwanted mediation as a source of empowerment. She writes, for example, in “Finding Out the Lie One Year Later,”

He wants a chimney cowl, a curved stone. And I’d be a liar
tonight if I didn’t wonder: before fireworks were shaped like
             flowers,
if one woman ever thought to make them weapons, and how.

Here Barngrover’s female speaker is surrounded by the trappings of conventional femininity: a domestic scene complete with “a chimney cowl,” “flowers,” and so on. Yet she is no longer captive to the gaze, its implicit rules and politics, or the ongoing threat of judgment from the community she inhabits. Needless to say, she recognizes herself as spectacle, all “fireworks” and flame, but the violence that has been done to her has been turned outward, fully and convincingly “weaponised.”

This ferocity proves to be contagious as the book unfolds. She writes in “The Encounter”:

I was not fearful,
though she growled at me as I passed by, brazen
creature who refused to shrink back into the thrum
of new evening, into the wild from which she’d come . . .

Here, and in other poems in this intriguing volume, readers will discover that they are called upon to locate themselves in Barngrover’s narrative of power and spectatorship. Through a multifaceted and compassionate construction of narrative, we recognize ourselves in both the “brazen creature” and the “wild” that surrounds her. Indeed, we realize our own complicity, and our own victimization, and find ourselves better equipped to navigate the “new evening” that surrounds us.

Kristina Marie Darling
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of thirty-two books, including Look to Your Left: The Poetics of Spectacle (Akron Poetry Series, forthcoming in 2020) and Veronica in Cyberspace: Notes on Love + Light (Eyewear Publishing, forthcoming in 2019). Her work has been recognized with awards from Yaddo, the American Academy in Rome, the Whiting Foundation, and the Academy of American Poets. Kristina currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press and Tupelo Quarterly, an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Review of Books, a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly, and a freelance book critic at The New York Times Book Review.