Gurlesque is an anthology of contemporary poetry by women that subverts cultural concepts of heteronormative sexuality. Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum, the collection’s editors, maintain that the anthology rose out of an observation of growing tendencies toward certain representations of the female body and female identity that Greenberg coined “Gurlesque.” These representations tend, as the name suggests, towards the grotesque, the carnivalesque, the burlesque. The first two of these three “esques” take as their modus operandi distortion and exaggeration (sometimes hybridization), to the ostensible end of subverting expectations (though exactly what these expectations are, it is hard for me to say, as they must vary from person to person, culture to culture). The burlesque operates similarly, though in a way more overtly concentrated on gender issues, and with the added dimension of performance. Glenum, in her introduction, refers her idea of the burlesque back to 19th century shows in which “female performers…literally usurped male power by taking on male roles onstage…ultimately emphaiz[ing] the constructed nature of both genders, calling into question accepted gender roles themselves.”

So, to put it rather simply, what the Gurlesque attempts is the radical questioning of what it means to be a woman, or a girl, and a man or a boy for that matter, and to do so in a way that explodes cultural convention (1).

Lara Glenum writes that the anthology is “intended as a portal, as the beginning of a conversations whose end remains unseen.” In this spirit, I want to voice some questions I have about the Gurlesque. I would like to say, in advance, that I have no interest in a valuative critique of these poems (2); my interest is in the Gurlesque as an idea, an attitude, an aesthetic. I would like to think through whether or not the anthology succeeds on its own terms (are the editors clear enough about their terms?), as well as some of the potential problems of the Gurlesque’s way of conceiving the female body and identity.

The Body, The Abject: Arielle Greenberg, in her introduction, cites Kristeva’s idea of the “body as a site of horror.” The idea she refers to here is abjection, that which is “cast out” or “jettisoned” from the dominant symbolic order; for Kristeva, the mother’s body was a site of abjection, as could be anything the body rejects (poison) or society rejects (garbage, or the female body, or cultural minorities). It might be interesting to discuss the Gurlesque treatment of the body in light of Kristeva’s ideas, though Greenberg drops the reference quickly without critically bearing out the thought. This strikes me as a shame, because the Gurlesque, it would seem (3), seeks to shed light on the abject, to let those who would feel abjected give expression to the feeling of that state (4).

Thus, for reasons connected to theories of abjection, Greenberg embraces a language of horror in the Gurlesque, which presents the body distorted, violent and violated, pissed-off and powerful. It is what Greenberg calls “a feminine, feminist incorporating of the grotesque and cruel with the spangled and dreamy.” I can see why the grotesque would be a marker of the abject, but not the cruel. Does the dominant symbolic order reject the cruel? (And here, what is the dominant symbolic order? American culture? Popular Andro-American culture? Well, this certainly does not reject the cruel. Gyno-American culture? What is that, exactly?). It might be true that women have long rejected cruelty from dominant female culture (or at least has often expressed it less physically), but is this really a bad thing? Is the appropriation of the worst qualities of those (women and men) who have subjugated women for centuries upon centuries really feminist? Or wise?

Ariana Reines, in a poem that begins and ends in sexual violence, writes, “Liquid shoot into her skull and leak out her eye hole/ Thick book like his fat head when I sit on it and fart.” The language here is clearly fragmented and unapologetically violent (it’s an “eye hole” instead of an “eye socket”&#8212this isn’t anatomical, it’s emotional, as “hole” connotes emptiness, void, and of course, the vagina). It is ostensibly intended to shock and disgust, and while it may not do the former (what shocks us nowadays?), it might trigger the latter. My question is, why, and to what end? What is disgusting? Is it the body? Or is it the violated and violating body? The poem itself suggests the latter. More to the point, it performs the latter.

Glenum writes that if the burlesque “is always about the body on display (i.e. the gendered surface of the body), the grotesque engages the body as biological organism.” This strikes me as only marginally true: the body as biological organism is just configuration of atoms into tissue (a friend of mine who is a neurologist told me once, as we flipped through photographs of extreme skin diseases, that there is nothing of the body that she finds disgusting, only healthily or unhealthily functioning). The grotesque, then, distorts the body as biological organism (which is a kind of engagement, yes; but the word “engage” is imprecise to the aims of the grotesque). The anthology contains photographs, for example, of an oyster shell cradling teeth and tongue – and it’s not the tongue or teeth that makes it grotesque&#8212it’s the fact that the tongue and teeth are not in a human mouth. But “grotesque” does not just denote distortion; there is almost an emotional or valuative register of the word. As if we should shudder. But what if we don’t (5)? It strikes me that the body is only a site of horror if we find it horrible (6).

The bodies in Gurlesque never quite manifest as grotesque to me, in the way that feels emotional or valuative, but they do appear, at times, disfigured (7). Take an except from “Fleshscape” by Nada Gordon:

To make a cape
of flesh, take
the labia minora
between the thumb
and forefinger, s-t-r-e-t-c-h
downwards and back
over the buttocks, then
upward along the ribcage,
curling them over

The vision of the body here is one that is malleable, undoes its own shape and makes a “cape” out of labia (a vaginal superhero?). What would constitute this as a grotesque gesture is its distortion of the natural, which of course has been a historically problematic notion, since notions of naturalness, particularly with the body, have been used to pigeonhole or violently exclude far too many people for far too long. But there’s something about the anatomical language of “labia minora” or the instructional tone of the poem that seems to sidestep the grotesque (although I acknowledge that were this scene rendered visually, without language, it might feel more grotesque).

The Gurlesque’s appropriation of ideas like the grotesque or carnivalesque suggests a penchant for defamiliarization, particularly in relation to the body. If we follow Kristeva’s idea of the abject, we are reminded that “abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize its kin; nothing is familiar;” so if the female body exists in an abjected state, then there seem to be two options: the body is alienated from the “I” that wears it, or the body is alienated from other bodies. I certainly do not discount the very real experience of feeling that the body is somehow alien from us, grotesque or somehow constantly performed without our willingness to perform it. But at the same time, I can’t help but feel that all of this alienation is somehow, at its roots, psychological illusion. Bodies are not alienated from one another: they breathe the same air, they share an astonishing amount of DNA, they rely on one another for survival. Nor is the body alienated from the mind (except in rare neurological disorders); the two are in constant communication, at least until the death of the brain.

The tragedy of trauma, to which the female body is unfortunately too often subjected, is that it creates psychological fissures that lead to these feelings of alienation. Lacan, or even Kristeva, might argue that we all experience this trauma the moment we are ejected from the mother’s body: my question is, how helpful is this Lacanian framework? Are there other ways of conceiving the body that do not always already assume trauma and alienation?

Identity: At the forefront of the Gurlesque is a mish-mash of conflicting identities: virgin, whore, mother, soldier, punk, bimbo, intellectual. We are all familiar with the stereotypical tropes of female identity; here, the subversion of these stereotypical, heteronormative tropes is undertaken by excluding nothing. A woman can wear a tutu and combat boots, lipstick and chains, be mother and sadomasochist and poet all at once. Brenda Shaughnessy writes, for example, “there is an argument for the dull-chic, the dirty olive and the Cindarelly,” positing a vision for femininity that is at once delicate and magical (Cindarelly) and cosmopolitan (“the dull chic”) and perhaps even militant (“the dirty olive”) and somehow all superficial (all of these images refer us more or less to costume – a not unimportant point).

Or as Catherine Wagner writes in “All Bar One,”

nigh am so sick of doubting
myself an thinking I am bad
nigh bore myself
anyway trying to be like the udders…

First, let’s face it, the pun on “udders” is kind of hilarious, especially as the image itself conjures sacks of milk, as if to say, I don’t want to be like the other mothers (read “udder” in “mother” as well as “other”), I don’t want to be a cow, I don’t want to have my identity as a woman handed to me. There is something genuinely funny and even almost touching about these lines. At their core is an assertion of identity: to say I do not want to be what you want me to be is to begin to shape one’s identity in an autonomous way.

But then, Glenum notes that these poems are not like those of second generation feminist poets, insofar as they are not “persona poems;” the persona poem, she argues, assumes “there is a face beneath the mask,” while the poets of Gurlesque “assume there is no such thing as coherent identity. There is no actual self, only the performance of self.” So then, there is no attempt at shaping an autonomous identity, only the performance of shaping an autonomous identity. We could also observe here that identity itself is a kind of performance, though it may be useful to distinguish between identity, which is constructed and often superficial, and self, which seems to have more to do with the kind of psychological glue that unifies the concepts of mind and body, and perhaps soul, if you swing that way.

I understand that the lyric “I” can perform many things beyond the poet’s conception of his or her self. But when we say that there “is no actual self,” do we mean in the poem, or there is no self writing the poem? And if there is no self, then there cannot be a violation of that self’s autonomy. Are we again thinking ourselves into justification of the dehumanization that grieves us? How do we argue against the dehumanization of the female that these poets seem to rightly reject, but assume there’s no human to oppress? I don’t write this glibly: I really want to know.

There’s an argument to be made that the performance of self exists purely to question assumptions that being human requires a concept of self (I think we do, according to the definition offered above). But I also wonder, after we’ve questioned and questioned and critiqued and critiqued notions of self and gender and identity, then what do we do? And maybe we have not exhausted ourselves in these questions quite yet – but at a certain point, don’t we have to look up and say, “Okay, we deconstructed all of that nonsense. What now?”

I think Gurlesque offers itself as, among other things, an occasion to ask questions worth asking; in this way, as Lara Glenum suggests, it is the beginning of a conversation – with some funny or surprising poems in the mix as well, some more or less interesting, as will be the case for any anthology. I don’t believe, however, as Arielle Greenberg remarks somewhat wryly, that these poems “are just words.” I think these poems are evidence of and reaction to a culture that still cannot conceive of what a woman is, and so creates neat narratives and costumes for her and hopes that she’ll buy it.

I’m not sure the Gurlesque, as an idea, attitude, or aesthetic, successfully throws off the mantle of old thought or cultural patterns; I’m not sure either embracing or rejecting the girly, the hard-core, the violent and/or feebly passive poles of possible female action or identity is quite as radical a response as the situation requires. I think it’s possible to discover what we are in a way that our culture, perhaps any culture, has never imagined.

I think we can be new.

(1) The collection has been critiqued for excluding queer experience; other critics have also pointed out that the anthology’s representation of cultural experience tends to be limited to American experience. Both of these critiques strike me as reasonable.

(2) I don’t quite think it’s fair to use these poems to defend a term they didn’t write with in mind, nor seemingly had any interest in, though it is helpful to cite them as elucidating certain aspects of what the Gurlesque attempts to do. And, of course, this is one of the difficulties of this anthology; it frames poems that might otherwise have framed themselves differently.

(3) One of the challenges of this book is really understanding the editors’ framing of the concept of Gurlesque, particularly in Greenberg’s introduction. Ideas were sometimes dropped like a point on a map with no arrow. It does seem that there is still quite a bit of thinking to be done around the Gurlesque.

(4) Interestingly, the Gurlesque, which by its nature is performative, assumes abjection as a kind of costume, something you can put on, something you can appropriate. If you can put perform this abjection (as part of the burlesque or carnivalesque), what are the repercussions of this?

(5) Kristeva’s idea of the abject relies on a visceral experience of revulsion. But what happens if there is no experience of revulsion? Is there no abject? In Kristeva’s example, a corpse is the “utmost in abjection.” But what if, as Cicero and the Stoics suggest, we accept the corpse as a marker of a death that we do not fear? Does the corpse then cease to become abject? Is abjection contingent upon certain emotional responses from the “I”?

(6) In other words, the grotesque relies on a subjective experience of horror; and like the abject, if there is no register of this experience, there is no grotesque.

(7) I actually had a very hard time finding poems that seemed to clearly employ or even play with ideas like the grotesque, carnivalesque, or burlesque (though there might have been a little riot grrrl in there somewhere…). There’s some sex, there’s some profanity, and there’s some body, but not necessarily in ways that I would categorize as any of these “esques.” The first poem I cited, “Blowhole,” was a rare, more or less clear example.