I am not a mother. I have friends who are, and I marvel at them. I marvel—not just at their ability to nurture and care for another completely helpless lifeform, nor how they reconfigure their social relationships, sense of self, way of being, etc…. I marvel at the way their bodies’ biological processes transform to accommodate another life, how the mechanics and magic of biology collide in reproduction.
But to marvel suggests that this is all rather neat and sweet. Even my use of the word “mechanics” implies a clean precision. My friends who have carried and borne children assure me that there is nastiness involved. To be a mother is to re-learn the experience of having a body. They have been baptized by the vomit, sputum, pus, blood, and hosts of other secretions produced by their flesh—and by caring so intimately for another—into making peace with their corporeal, elemental, messy reality. And the mother body is not only a mother body. It has its own desires. It persists.
Danielle Pafunda’s latest collection, Manhater, sears us with her exploration of this base, potentially reproductive body. Composed in three sections privileging syntactically coherent sentences often broken into stanzaic measures, Manhater opens with a series exploring “Mommy V” in order to dig into the monstrous modalities of abject feminine-ish subjectivities. Her pieces move with a lyric intensity across larger narrative-inflected structures that in toto create a gestural sense of setting, character, and action. Manhater’s heroines spring from a dense knot of (frustrated) physical desires and legibility. They live in their bodies, which at turns betray and rule them, or, at the very least, conspire to dictate how they are perceived.
In Pafunda’s insistence on the grotesque through strongly gendered frameworks for consideration, her work will invariably get read as another foray into the Gurlesque. Pafunda strokes at and strums gender constructions, exposing the mossy dungeon that holds this consensual social structure up. Manhater also delights in biological excess, waste, and darker affects like ugliness and a delightful sort of spite. It is her particular play with the grotesque that, in my mind, moves excitingly towards something like a zombie poetics. The Gurlesque as an aesthetic has had its vocal critics who approach it almost solely from a gender framework. Many of its practitioners have also insisted on this lens. But by doing so, I think that we are missing out on how the Gurlesque’s strident and overarching insistence on corporeality extends beyond one axis of cultural consideration. It’s hungrier than we think.
And what is a zombie? The dead/not dead, the body brought to its alarming biological conclusion, yet one that perniciously continues. Mobilized by desire, it terrifies because it cannot be satisfied; it embodies a voraciousness that has transformed into negations. It’s a gaping wound, a walking threat, powerfully full in its vacancy. Gender is encoded into the body, but it is precisely that—an encoding. Through her use of the grotesque, Pafunda invites us to recognize how these social rhetorics seek to pin down or limit the flesh, which stubbornly remains.
Near a rotted stump,
I rotted for you.
I moved like swill.
(“The Desire Spectrum is Dead to Me Now” 51)
The body decays but it also continues to desire. It rots for you, and it “can’t have an orgasm / large enough to solve my problems” (46).
The “women” of Manhater dwell in and persist in their corporeality. They are functional zombies in their alterity, abjection, the messiness of their bodies and the white-burn of their longing—sexual and otherwise. And as “women,” Pafunda’s book asks, aren’t they already non-human, more-than, and other? Pafunda does away with an Irigaray-an notion of doubling and fullness in feminine alterity, opting for a black metal gothic that conjures up ancient ancestors like Grendel’s mother.
Manhater is book-ended by two larger poems in series, each one longer than ten sections. “Mommy V” and “The Desire Spectrum is Dead to Me Now” are particularly interesting to read in conversation with each other; “Mommy V” is written in third person while “Desire Spectrum” is in the lyric first. Both poems feature women in relation to their desires and partner(s). By moving from the third person to the first, Pafunda presents these women as inscrutable objects before moving to outline an interior subjectivity. Both vantages revel in the grotesque. “Mommy V” begins, “Mommy must eat. Must with her long-handled spoon / dig a meal’s worth out of this barren fuckscape” (11). In this opening couplet, Pafunda presents Mommy V through her desires—the imperative “must”—and the great difficulty of achieving any satisfaction in the “fuckscape” where she dwells. She’s described with a zoological simplicity that reinforces how Mommy is at home in her fecundity and escapes our full comprehension.
The heart in Mommy’s chest chiggers.
She’s alive with vermin, venison, pests.
She catches a beetle in her mouth, holds it
cool, silent between her teeth. Alert. (15)
Mommy V’s mommy-ness is central to her, but also incidental. She doesn’t “mother” in any culturally conventional sense of the word, but in a strictly biological sense. She factually springs forth life.
I see zombies in Pafunda’s book, but perhaps I should amend this to speak more generally of the undead. Vampires are just dressier zombies, anyway. That said, there’s nothing B-film-ish about Pafunda’s undead. They are darkling strange, on the other side of recognition. Mommy V certainly has some vampiric qualities: “She’s looking for a likely bleed, a gush suck” (12). Part animal and all appetite, she stands “each hoof weighted, as tho’ against the storm,” just outside any neat category of understanding. Even her age varies depending on her mood.
Mommy V can pass for eight, eighteen, crone. When she’s hungry, she goes forty. She goes mousetail and saddlebag. No one looks. But when she’s bored, she goes young. Ten, twelve. (25)
The bottom line: do not mess with this mommy. This mommy is one tough body, a bitch moved by her gut, by a sex drive that loves to climax but hates sex.
Where Mommy V was silent, elemental, and impervious to our scrutiny, the “I” of “The Desire Spectrum is Dead to Me Now” is verbose, posturing, and deliciously spiteful “[b]ecause it’s spring you dumb fuck” (60). “Which of these do you want in your mouth?” the poem begins, followed by a list of sadistic sex toys: “Petroleum hack cake, wire hanger, / rusted piston, or silicone stopgap?” (43). Generally addressed to “ex-lovers” whom the heroine has beef with, she is not above a little sardonic self-reflectiveness—″What did I think? My hole was magic?” (44). Her aim, though, isn’t just to chastise or rant against these ex-lovers, but to exorcise them from her being.
I have a problem. It’s rodent.
It’s a problem with whiskers.
It’s lice-ridden. The problem is lice
and I’m picking them off each thread.
I’m lining them up on the burner
to turn the dial to seven. (46)
These various ex-lovers are pernicious, though. They “gave me a disease like lyme disease / which you put in my thigh with your straw” (48). And despite her best efforts, she persists in a frustrating codependency with them.
I didn’t actually give you the money.
You took it out of my pity-pocket,
my netted-over last chance.
I was hungry, and in need of transport,.
I purchased a carpet that led to other things.
Down a dark hall,
Around a forehead splitting cornice.
Where a fungus spilled from my skin.
And that’s how we were nearly wed. (63)
I keep using the pronoun “she,” but it’s never absolutely apparent that the “I” of this poem has a fixed gendered body. Though the speaker mentions various feminizing qualities, such as “my breast,” and displays a general cock-hungriness or willingness to “open my legs to accommodate,” the speaker also insists “I was never a girl” (57). What does become apparent, regardless the gender of the speaker, is that she emerges in tandem with the exes—they are mutually constitutive. What would she be without them? She emerges out of her efforts to negate them—out of the debased positions she finds herself in relation to them and thanks to them…but she also created them:
Here are some things
I did to make you, ex-lover.
I scraped the frog’s moist skull
until its white wiggle came severed,
sweet and plain and baby-shaped
swung from my chemical tweezer.
I wore slick stuff panties.
I dressed like a haint. I mean
I dressed like a hare. My dress
like an animal in the road
whipping between my legs. (57)
Here, the speaker conjures the lovers into being out of two sorcerous performances: excavating a frog’s skull and playing femme.
The middle section of the book makes use of two running tropes—plates and disease. Almost each poem’s title begins with the phrase “In This Plate,” which brings to mind photographs or images presented in turn-of-the-century medical studies and anthropological surveys. Pafunda’s poaching of medical terms such as diagnosis, illness, and “traumadome,” invites us to recall the long history of the female body as a site of mystery, scrutiny, diagnosis and disorder. The speaker’s illness is presented in tandem with her debasement, which she colludes in.
I drink Windex
my mother serves to me.
I eat apocalypse steak,
I have a bitch seizure.
Of course my rhinestone collar
keeps me from swallowing my tongue. (34)
Her mother serves up these poisons, suggesting a hereditary or, at the very least, culturally-enforced problematic practice. This incarnation of a mother brings to mind a different sort of Oedipal relation. Here, the mother poisons her progeny… perhaps considered a potential sexual rival? No motives are offered. I wonder if to “mother,” according to this poem, isn’t to inaugurate the younger body into the prisonhouse of womanhood as culturally writ. Regardless, the speaker is ostensibly powerless to escape this inheritance. She chooses to “drink” and “eat.” Her rhinestone collar prevents her from being murdered outright, propping her up in this cycle of gorgeous grotesquery.
It’s in those moments of recognizing her speaker’s collusion that Pafunda’s work highlights a key aspect of their design. As much as these poems rail against the structures that have shaped their speakers, their power comes from fully inhabiting that debasement, however uncomfortable or torturous it may be. In that, we can see the full promise of the grotesque at work: it sparkles with masochistic pleasure, reveling in a dark carnival paid for by the powers it detests. But what, I have to wonder, is that midnight circus birthing?