Milk & Filth
(The University of Arizona Press, 2013)
Carmen Giménez Smith’s fourth full-length book of poems, Milk & Filth, explicitly positions itself as part of the third-wave feminist project commonly called “The Gurlesque,” and my reading of her book is, in part, a reading of that broader project. For unfamiliar readers, I’ll note that the Gurlesque is a capacious theory of feminist artistic production and reception, most notably articulated by poets Arielle Greenberg, Lara Glenum, Johannes Göransson, and Joyelle McSweeney, that reckons with and embraces apparent contradictions at work in the construction of 21st-century female identity. One is tempted to propose Miley Cyrus as the Gurlesque’s most hyperbolic, current mass-culture manifestation. As a shortcut to explaining the paradoxes and possibilities the Gurlesque seeks to exploit, she’s not a bad example. Her current hyper-sexualized, hyper-cute performative persona is cultivated (by her, I hope) to assert ownership over an already ultra-objectified female image: at once the cuddly/creepy precocious Disney product and also the post-Gaga performance-artist-product/sex-symbol-product. Miley’s cluster of seemingly irreconcilable performative (and political?) ambitions surely represents a brash willingness to mingle fallen and elevated feminine (and artistic) tropes promiscuously as a means to destabilizing any sense of their mutual exclusivity. So does the Gurlesque.
As Glenum has astutely noted, it is “very difficult for female poets to speak of their embodied experience without being misread as positioning themselves as erotic objects.” Performing a hypersexualized persona doesn’t make a one a sexpot. Still, if all identity is actually performance, as the Gurlesque and its camp and kitsch progenitors indicate, then positioning oneself as erotic object is one of the many “disjunctions in identity” that “are not to be worked through or resolved but savored and tapped for their cultural power.” Herein lies much of the challenge to approaching the Gurlesque with a critical eye. It is radically ambivalent about stable positions, including positions (pro- or contra-) held on the idea of stable positions. This is the shifting ground Giménez Smith seeks to occupy and also dance across.
In “Parts of an Autobiography,” she suggests that her audience is “private, but a true person. She is real flesh but a stranger to me.” This gave me pause, and after I read it, I took some time to reconsider my performance position as reader. Might I not better suit myself to the experience if I performed my reading not as a he but as a she? If so, and if possible, what would that entail? Some kind of subjective evacuation, certainly. Influenced as it is by theories of alterity, abjection, and performance, the Gurlesque seems to want to trend towards a kind of utopia of objectivity, where human selves might be evacuated of the pernicious, subjective desires which inevitably impede our capacity to accept and love otherness. I tried to read Milk & Filth as a woman, and I hoped I’d be able to produce a revealing review as a result, but I didn’t get very far. I’m a dude, and my feminine reading persona more often than not felt forced.
If I am Giménez Smith’s audience, I concluded I am at best an “it” for most of the experience. But being an “it” can nevertheless be a form of drag, one that gets us closer to appreciating an other in her fullness. I happen to be reading around in Yeats’s A Vision lately, and he puts it quite nicely, “Being wholly objective and subjective respectively, are not human embodiments, as human life is impossible without the strife between the tinctures.” Something like the strife between the tinctures propels Milk & Filth. Part of the pleasure and fun in this kind of work is the vertigo it strives to sustain, vertigo that often lands one in unpleasant, abject places. The poems in Milk & Filth are silly, angry, sweet, beautiful, and ugly. They are staunchly political, disarmingly personal, and childishly flippant, often all at once: “Classic fiction / is colossal ruse, the site of Ponzi / fraud. Please note how much it costs / to be muse: the toll of influence, / cases and cases of Dom Pérignon, / full-body depilation and the most / lavish immortality unguents online.” They speak of embodied experience in a way that could be misread as positioning the speaker as an erotic object, but they also undercut this possibility with presentations of the maternal body as exhausted and traumatized: “I split open like a melon / I bled and shat.”
Whereas the Gurlesque typically eschews the confessional mode, Giménez Smith takes a complicated approach. On the one hand, she claims “Confessional implies shame, whereas a scar is the trace of violence and it’s always connected to a narrative about the body and it is more than confession, perhaps emblem.” And while, in a poem entitled “(Fragments from the Confessions),” she jabs at both Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and John Berryman’s Dream Songs, she nevertheless offers what feel like extremely candid and “authentic” epigrammatic self-explorations in “Parts of an Autobiography.” To wit, in the same poem she admits, “I am not averse to working on myself in my art.”
Milk & Filth also addresses the penumbra of racial, ethnic, and class critique Feminism has faced since its second wave—a critique the Gurlesque has sought to neutralize from the outset. “Gurlesque poetry,” Greenberg observed even as she was coining the term, “opens up possibilities for gender, but I would hope, as it criss-crosses other terrains, it does not ignore the economic, racial, sexual and other factors that complicate the experiences of womanhood.” Here, the variability of the Gurlesque mode affords Giménez Smith tools that a more purely anti-essentialist approach would not. Not exactly Yeats’s tinctures, perhaps, but not too far from them, poststructuralist linguistic maneuver is woven with identity politics, as in the vexed “[Malinché],” the second poem in the collection. Here the speaker is the eponymous Latina traitor-woman, translator and courtesan to conquistador, Hernán Cortés; “She figures / this a better vocation / than the other thing, the desert chingadera.”
In all, Milk & Filth is a genuinely experimental book and one with ambitions that are somehow modest and immense. More than a mere posture or modish pretense, its performance of the Gurlesque establishes the conditions for its success as poetry—and I mean this in a fairly traditional sense, cf. Keatsian beauty and truth. Furthermore, Milk & Filth carries the Gurlesque mode forward, as well. In her book’s deep down antinomies, Giménez Smith finds new evidence that, for all its performative élan, the Gurlesque sits on a well of necessity that won’t soon run dry.