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

The girls are chimerical, elemental, and magical.

One of my favorite poems in the book is “Fire Blight” (pp. 25-26), the speaker’s moving document of life at sixteen. The speaker’s adolescence is haunted by the very real images of Hiroshima, a “poisonous” young boyfriend, and a friend’s encounter with rough sex; she reads it all in the dying light of fairy tales:

Once, your grandfather’s apple tree had sickened and died.
The grass littered with apples, shining brown and wrongly.
A fairytale curse, you’d thought. You think it now.
The poison-eyed boy ruins everything with words.
He wants you to be a dropped fruit, a twisted vine.

— p. 26

Magic and superstition, so enriching to the imagination of the girl before adolescence, ironically morph into the very real anxieties of the grown woman at the heart of poems like “Hare-Lip” (pp. 43-44), “The Sleeping Creature House” (p. 48), and “Everything an Amulet or an Omen” (pp. 51-52). In the galloping couplets of “Hare-Lip,” the speaker worries so much about her unborn child that after refusing coffee, alcohol, mascara, high-heeled boots, and to drive her own car, she is isolated at home, and can only look up to the moon, “so I blink and blink until its twisted face is perfect” (p. 44).

In the poem’s closing image, it becomes clear how a rich diet of fantastical reading (“Let’s Live in the Books of My Childhood” is about Nancy Drew) and myths about women have left the speaker with the unsatisfied hunger for perfection. Because of these themes, Pierce’s book is poignant and important reading for women and men. Some of Pierce’s titles show us the gulf between the dreamy possibilities of our youth and our real lives where we may think we fall short. “Dear Self I Might Have Been” (pp. 14-15), “She Gets Drunk and Talks Too Much at Her High School Reunion” (p. 11), “Before the Reunion (Her Lament)” (p. 49), and “Postcards from her Alternate Lives” (p. 64) tease us with what we wanted, what we thought we wanted, and the present as it exists, in all its messiness.

“The 70’s Aren’t Coming Back” (p. 59), with its time-stamped details like Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” the O’Jays, and a game show host with “large, cheerful teeth,” guarding “Door Number Three,” ends with the sound of movie sax solos drifting through the vents of a suburban house where the speaker can’t sleep. “You rode its waves into longing, / where you live now, where you’ll live forever.” Though the details change with every generation, such longing is the true magic of our aging, when we can see ourselves freshly, and can appreciate the detritus of our times.

The last poem in the collection, “Somewhere in the Heap of Minutes” (pp. 77-78), is truly a time machine, re-imagined as a carnival ride:

Sometimes the minutes add up to an old song
and radio crackle. …

they add up to spinning and shrieks and the girls

on the Zipper. Always they add up to a plea for more,
a hand closing around nothing, then opening again.

— p. 78

A last physical gesture — a grasping that occurs at the beginning of life, and at the end — makes the collection timeless: a strong, roiling evocation of living life with all the senses tuned to the peculiar. Pierce’s collection shows us that a strange and unusual vision may be powerful, and may isolate the girl, but make an artist of the woman.

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