Gargle the Bloodnectar
By Christopher Higgs.
With the recent publication of Simon Critchley’s provocative Brooklyn Rail article, ‘Absolutely-Too-Much,’ which aggressively denounces the “capture and commodification circuits” of contemporary art in favour of what he calls “a new art of monstrosity,” it strikes me as particularly timely and relevant to revisit Kate Durbin’s debut poetry collection The Ravenous Audience, published by Akashic Books in 2009. In his essay, Critchley argues, “the heart of any artistic response to the present should perhaps be the cultivation of the monstrous and its concomitant affect, namely disgust.” From my perspective, Durbin’s monstrous book courts disgust so elegantly it provides an especially salient response to the present.
First, the form. Four sections, framed at each end by ‘An Unremarkable Dream’ wherein children and wolves intermingle, each section equally framed quite masterfully, the first thing I notice about The Ravenous Audience is the strength of its structure. From its opening to closing pages, a macro-form. Within each of the four sections, a micro-form. Like Matryoshka dolls: structures nestled into structures. A labyrinth wherein a Minotaur presumably waits.
‘Scene I: Garden Plot.’ Framed by the act of reading, learning and unlearning.
Blood, shit, piss.
A very young girl explores her sexuality. Against critics who might blanket charge American culture with advocating the premature sexualisation of children, The Ravenous Audience opens with startling acuity the complex and illogical connections between a young girl and her body. Not unlike a juxtaposition of Lolita and Toddlers and Tiaras, a fuller picture of the relationship between children and sexuality is terribly messy. Or, as Freud put it in his famous 1905 study ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’, “Children are born with sexual urges, which undergo a complicated development before they attain the familiar adult form.” In our culture, child sexuality is a taboo subject. While Durbin’s text certainly flirts with this taboo and evokes discomfort — when, for instance, a young girl drops her spoon while at the dinner table and bends to pick it up next to her father’s foot, “…she hesitates near the opening of her dress….a spoon in her cunt.” — the text never seems wanton; instead, I am reminded of the uncomfortable but calculated feelings evoked by Todd Solondz’s films Welcome to the Dollhouse or Happiness. I am reminded of Henry Darger’s paintings of the Vivian Girls. Unsettling, yes. Provocative, certainly. But also absolutely necessary, because without these moments of confrontation our limits go unexplored and perhaps more importantly unexamined. Just as Critchley suggests, “The disgust that we feel might not simply repulse or repel us. It might also wake us up.”
The most succinct encapsulation of the other recurrent themes in this section, beyond children and sexuality, appears on page thirty-three:
Abraham stands above Isaac, knife slicing sky. The wolf waits
in the woods. Sleeping Beauty reaches for the spindle. Snow
White/Eve eats the apple. Icarus flies straight into the sun. And the
God/man Jesus, still reeking of death, rolls away the grave stone.
Old Testament, New Testament, fairy tales, Greek mythology, parental relations, the sky, the woods, the sun, the gravestone undone. All of these issues and concepts circulate in such a way as to demonstrate our culture’s vast network of epistemic underpinnings, reminding us we are both producers and product.
The work of filmmaker Catherine Breillat — often cited for its explicit depictions of sexuality and violence — also plays a significant role in this first section. Specifically: A Real Young Girl, Fat Girl, and 36 fillette. Further, across the entire book, Breillat’s work weaves itself into the fabric of The Ravenous Audience in striking ways. From Perfect Love, Brief Crossing, Sex is Comedy, Romance, and Anatomy of Hell, Durbin allows radical French cinema and culture to infiltrate our American idyll. Perhaps it’s noteworthy to mention that many renowned male film critics, including Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert, panned Breillet’s work for its extreme sexuality. Not surprising. Often men are threatened by women who control their own sexuality, rather than subserviently obeying gender traditions that inscribe their role to masculine parameters. From the outset of The Ravenous Audience, this threat looms. The curious young girl takes control of her sexuality, if only experimentally, and in so doing seizes a power that men have spent the greater part of seven thousand years trying to control. Thus we see just how dangerous Durbin’s book can be as an instructional map for an intelligent and passionate bodily encounter with the world aimed at a feminist reconfiguration of sexual dynamics.
‘Scene II: Water Bodies.’ Framed by Breillat’s Perfect Love and Romance, films released in 1996 and 1999 respectively. Those were my undergraduate college years, my time in film school, thus making it difficult to resist make connections between the text and my memories. Instead of Breillat, at that time I gorged on Tarantino and Rodriguez. A dizzyingly masculine diet of violence and privilege. But what if I had been watching Breillat instead? Makes me wonder who I would’ve become, prompting me to realise one effective way to read Durbin’s book is to consider the possibility that the historical distance we have from the late nineties can offer us a way of rethinking our version of the world by challenging us to inspect the growth and mutation of our personal subjectivities.
The text begins to loosen formally much more in this section. The poem ‘Doll Dress’ plays a game akin to Mallarmé’s ‘A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance,’ by parsing words across the pages, creating a different type of word breath. A different appearance.
A poem about the silent-era movie star Clara Bow, in addition to the mounting influence of Breillat, and two long poems about Marilyn Monroe in this section creates the sense that cinema is the new religion, without ever saying so explicitly. Worship is on display. Not to mention, the foregrounding of women here and throughout the text conveys a strong and much-needed revaluation of gender dynamics. But in terms of the text’s limitations, it would seem that Durbin plays within heteronormative parameters, a move that resists becoming queer and thus limits whatever revaluation is evoked, for better or worse, to those received categories.
‘Scene III: Flight.’ A self-contained section focused on Amelia Earhart, published previously as a limited edition chapbook from Dancing Girl Press. Light, ink, red, sky, red, flight, red, takeoff, light, sea, air, islands, reef, radio, plane, radio, red, clouds, cave, water, rock, night, shade, silence, red, salt & dirt, loss, Amelia Earhart, home.
‘Scene IV: Trail of Crumbs.’ The final section. Framed by ‘Execrate’ (the poem from which my title originates) and ‘Statues of Women’. I get the sense the former begat the later; the way sameness is loathed in the final poem, where each and every line begins “WOMAN” followed by a tab-length space that conjures emptiness, a moat separating WOMAN from activity, WOMAN from space, WOMAN from identity.
The final section returns to the formal experimentation of the second section. The poem ‘Write Her Theatre’ appears vertically, requiring the book to be turned sideways. The poem ‘Live Bear’ stacks a column of words on the right-hand side of the page. The poem ‘Bearlife’ spaces three words in three columns each with three entries. Section four is also in conversation with section two in terms of the mirroring of poems directed at women in 1950s Vogue magazine advertisements. Fashion and film and women and animals all comingle with the abject in full force on every page. Not surprisingly, I hear Durbin’s book harken to Julia Kristeva’s book, Powers of Horror. Blood, shit, piss. “These body fluids, this defilement, this shit,” writes Kristeva, “are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.”
The Ravenous Audience teeters on the precipice of the living being, looks directly into the abyss of uncomfortable taboos and does not flinch. Witness the final lines of the poem ‘Perfect Love':
The knife was in his back pocket.
He slammed her on the table.
He sodomized her with a broom handle.
He raised the knife above his head.
She laughed at him.
She couldn’t stop laughing.
To know how one might fruitfully read such disturbing material, it might help to consider Georges Bataille’s argument in Literature and Evil that there are two opposite kinds of evil. The first related to propagating society, making sure all goes well. The other consisting of deliberately violating fundamental taboos. In this equation, evil is pervasive. It’s not a matter of choosing between evil and not-evil, there exists only different kinds of evil. What The Ravenous Audience does is embrace this predicament by suggesting an absence of the binary antagonism between purity and impurity (good and evil) based on the premise that all is impure (evil) to one degree or another. It suggests that reaction cannot always be calculated, nor will it always be appropriate, because calculation often fails and what we consider appropriate is just another form of evil. Or, to return to Critchely’s argument, if we accept his idea that “existence seems ever more screened and distant,” and that art, “in its essential violence, can tear away one or two of these screens,” then perhaps reading Kate Durbin’s The Ravenous Audience is a way of stripping multiple layers of distance away from the raw and monstrous experience of existence. If we read the book in this way, then it takes on a whole new gravity. It becomes, in fact, a balm for contemporary life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christopher Higgs authoured The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney (Sator Press) and assembled ONE, in collaboration with Vanessa Place and Blake Butler (Roof Books, forthcoming). He teaches literature at Florida State University, and curates the online art gallery Bright Stupid Confetti. Find out more by visiting: www.christopherhiggs.org
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 1st, 2012.