Thursday, September 27, 2012

“Lunatic Speaks”

Where do we find meaning in poetry? In the language itself, of course, apart from any expository denotation we might garner from declarative statements found within the lines. Meaning erupts from the poem, the poetic line, the image—even from a given word—in a kaleidoscopic & vatic fashion—clear in the moment, but then vanishing from the prosy, declarative world like Emily Dickinson’s snake, whose “notice sudden is.”

Indeed, these eruptions of meaning are both about the language itself & about identity—about identity as the writer constructs her meaning on the page—that is, the computer screen, where words are pixelated & even potentially pixilated; about identity as the fictional construct of poet appears to us on the page; about identity as we in our fictional construct as reader enter the poem like Alice going down the rabbit hole into a linguistic world of distorted, & hence magnified identity & transmogrified meaning.

These eruptions are to be found in profusion in a powerful first book of poetry by Caroline Hagood titled Lunatic Speaks. Caroline is a poet I’ve followed with interest since I first got to know her thru her splendid (& sadly no longer extant) blog Culture Sandwich; but more importantly for our purposes here today, someone you really should become familiar with as a poet, because I truly anticipate wonderful things from her!

Lunatic Speaks—not “The Lunatic Speaks” or “A Lunatic Speaks”: even in the book’s title (& in the title poem) we find these linguistic transformations; the noun becomes adjectival, the verb, a noun. Lunatic Speaks is a thing in itself, a type of speech, but changed. What is “lunatic”? Someone or something ruled by the moon, in terms of etymology—as the writer is a nocturnal creature, not only in the sense of writing by night, but in dreams—because for Caroline Hagood, in dreams begins responsibilities to herself as creator, & to herself as keeper of her own soul:

All I can do is take night’s madness and put it in a blender,
let the choppers go at it, silver with rage and other panics,

until it rains the mind slop I drain into Tupperware daily:
baby doll heads flickering in the ether, wind tunnels,

smashed piggybanks, pigeon juice and ceiling wax,
tufts of rat fur and Chinese finger traps, the last unicorn

carved up and served to tourists”
             “My Inner David Lynch Movie”

I quote this at length because this passage reveals a good deal about Caroline Hagood’s poetic gifts & her poetics: visceral, not reluctant to turn savage, wishing to hurl the most disparate aspects of her experience into a vortex in order to re-shape them, even if it means mangling—as she writes in “The Day I Became a Computer,” “to rip open the aperture of words”—not hesitant to be “hysterically” funny with the full etymological oomph accorded to that adjective; in her quest for identity, not ashamed of frankly exploring the body, as in the “The Voyage In,” which in terms of narrative describes the poet (at her doctor’s request) examining her genitalia in a mirror:

What you see won’t share
the grammar of beauty,

but it will be more provocative
than the smell of the city breathing

& in the end, this “other nocturnal thing” captivates the viewer &, the poet tells us, “you will be mesmerized/so hopelessly in love,/you’ll half expect it to speak.”

Yes, in the world of Lunatic Speaks, the body is given a voice; a frank voice, as the body is by necessarily frank in itself; & this frankness “becomes” the poet (in more than one sense of the word), whether she’s stating, “I want to talk bowel movements,/walk straight up to the next well-bred woman I see,/ask her if she’s been regular lately,” or if she’s discussing first menstruation in “Becoming a Woman’—which, by the way, in typical Hagood fashion doesn’t occur at first menstruation, but is instead tied into a transmogrified penis envy tied to thinking of her father shaving; which is then tied into both notions of shaving as castration & the fact that when many boys begin shaving as a passage to manhood, they have no real need to do so other than some patriarchal urge:

To conquer rugged skin terrain like bathroom cowboys,
to later be able to plant and fell the trees of the world,
leaving behind only so much stubble.

This frankness informs Caroline’s strong surrealist streak as well, as when she explores “my own body, backstroking/through organs and blubber and miles of nerves.”

But to our amazement, what she discovers within the viscera itself “is a little Blue Jay/building miniature cities and Andy Warhol/with a ukulele.” (“Andy Warhol with a Ukulele.”)

Lunatic Speaks is the language of a woman, as the woman’s own body follows lunar patterns, but also by virtue of the fact that this type of frank talk about both bodily & internal identity would have marked a woman as a “lunatic,” “the madwoman in the attic,” at earlier times in our culture. Even now, Caroline Hagood tells us, this ability to allow a woman her “full voice” (again, both in the sense of complete & in the sense of full volume) is an exceptional thing—it in fact, has to do with “the marriage of true minds,” as she examines in “The Truth About Marriage”:

It is breathing him in the night,
the body surprised at being seen,
the belly not sucked in, muscles unflexed,

private places hanging soft like a long braid.
It is showing him the screaming pieces you usually hide.
Marriage is a man who asks you to be louder.

So the body is the identity—the place where the voice & dreams reside, & the visceral truth of this is captured in Caroline’s visceral language. Even in the contemplatively erotic “Word Pornography,” in which the poet gazes passionately at her husband’s bare elbow as he sleeps. The bare elbow is “maybe even holy somehow,” but also:

        You so often sleep
In long sleeves—it’s cruel, really. We women
are insatiable, too, so this peek of meat

makes me both pervert and disciple.

The elbow, this synecdoche for the beloved husband, is holy & is meat, even like “the raw hamburger meat I used to sneak,/shake salt on, imagine to be what men tasted like,” as Caroline writes in the book’s remarkable opening poem, “Rewriting Red.”

The body, thru its physical transmogrifications, is also home to all future & past selves—&, as Caroline explores in “On Jury Duty and Motherhood” also the home of the other, as the child that could potentially grow there. But what does that mean for the poet?

I know that the beginnings of something big are in me

and continue to grow as I breathe, cross streets,
and talk softly to friends in diners—but it’s not a baby.
It’s a filing cabinet of images, a lens

on a world at once real and imagined.

There are so many wonderful moments in this collection—Caroline’s exploration of “the life
of objects” in “Spoon Lover,” her examination of a writer’s relationship with technology in “The Day I Became a Computer,” & the moments of identity between her current selves—poet, wife, office worker—& her girlhood, as well as with the older self she sees not only in the white hairs she discovers that she pulls out “bashfully at first, and then with startling violence,” but also in the way she forms identity with other female relatives, & especially her mother in “All About My Mother.”

Although this is her first book of poetry, Caroline Hagood has been widely published not only in literary journals, but also as a writer on film, literature & culture for Salon, The Guardian, Huffington Post, & The Economist. You can also read an interview from 2011 with Caroline here on Robert Frost’s BanjoLunatic Speaks was published thru FutureCycle Press, & is available thru Amazon & Barnes & Noble. I highly recommend this work. 

I want to close with some words from Caroline Hagood, because they sum up her poetry much more succinctly than I can. These are the final six lines of “Rewriting Red”:

The only way to rewrite red is to take it apart:
strip back the casing of the monster of history,
reduce it once again to its smallest pieces,
and then speak to them. Do not turn away
when the shucked mess gapes at you,
asks for its skin back. Speak.


  1. Yours is one of those too few blogs I know I can always count on to find inspiration and good writing and thinking ..thanks

    1. Why, thank you so much, Stoic-wes! Very much appreciated.

  2. I never thought I'd read something like this about my own work. Thank you!

    1. Caroline, it's a joy to write about your work because it's so rich! I'm glad that you liked the review : )

  3. A very nice review about a talented writer. I agree, she's one to keep reading. I look forward to reading more from her. (And I miss her blog, too.)


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