Chimerical, Elemental, and Magical: The Girls of Peculiar by Catherine Pierce

The Girls of Peculiar

The Girls of Peculiar
BY Catherine Pierce
(Saturnalia Books, 2012)

Catherine Pierce’s second poetry collection, The Girls of Peculiar, exists like a luminous time capsule. What the book captures is not just one girl’s childhood and adolescence (when the world so powerfully impinges on her consciousness), it also chronicles a particular time, the mid-to late seventies, and a particular generation growing up in North America.

This is the time of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Spiro T. Agnew, and Miss America pageants, a time when the ravages of the atom bomb still wavered on filmstrips in junior high school. In the poem “The Women from the 70’s Are Beautiful,” the speaker recalls the images of models with “their eyes always wheel-large and dark,” “the hair somehow long and big at once / and draped like sealskin over their shoulders,” and projects on them a radical self-sufficiency. “[T]hey don’t need you at all,” (p. 30) the poem concludes. The promise of future and possible selves and the distance from our lost girlhood form a strong crosscurrent in the book.

Pierce uses two poems in the first section to make her themes clear. In “Poem to the Girls We Were,” the speaker romanticizes the painful and vivid sensations of first menstruation, first sex, and all the shame and fear that seem minor to the adult:

…Give us back
our fears. You doze inside them,
wrap yourselves in them like sable.
Yes, they’re plush, and The Future
is a century away, …

— p. 1

In “Poem From the Girls We Were,” the speaker explodes the myth of nostalgia. Pierce movingly captures both the real pain of that time as well as the quaking sense of alienation that held the past self in its grip:

This is every house on your block
lit from within, each bedroom window
shining with safety and you outside
in the icing dusk, knowing nothing
will ever warm you….
The Future? This is The Future
If you were here, you’d know that.

— p. 19

Within the crosshatch of her work, Pierce has shaded in the very human condition of never really living in the present at all. And yet, these poems remind us of all the power and possibility in our girlhood. Like an imagistic adaptation of Women Who Run with the Wolves, Pierce meditates on packs of young girls that refuse to be anything but themselves. In the quartet of poems, “The Delinquent Girls” (p. 2), “The Quiet Girls”(p. 6), “The Geek Girls” (p. 12), and “The Drama Girls” (p. 18), the “we” voices begin by defining themselves by what they are not: the quiet girls were never wolves, the geek girls were never robins, the delinquent girls were never stones, and the drama girls were never lakes. These poems ring with a subversive and transformative energy: by taking the negatives assigned to them, the collective of girlhood turns their socially-inscribed flaws into strengths.“The Drama Girls” concludes:

…These days ache. We send our voices out
into air, and air eats them. We are meant to be thrown
stones. Where is the mirrored sky for us to shatter?

— p. 18

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