by Carolyn Creedon
Kent State University Press
Of all the metaphors that expose the restrictiveness of traditional standards of beauty, I can’t imagine a better one than in Carolyn Creedon’s sonnet “The Shift.” In it, the speaker is given an antique nightie by her lover. Although it was once worn by someone “obviously thinner, and attractively dainty,” she tries it on. Then,
the bodice ripped open with jagged alacrity;
out sprang a breast like a starfish all on its own
with startled, blinking, just-awake opacity,
onto my shore as if unstuck from a stone,
awkward, surprised at its own hot-pink audacity,
fanned out helplessly, dumbly searching, suddenly alone.
Not only does the speaker’s body not fit the fantasy, it rips through it. The suddenly exposed breast becomes a separate entity— “startled,” “just-awake,” “as if unstuck from a stone”—and since it doesn’t fit idealized standards of beauty, it finds itself “suddenly alone.”
Creedon’s inventive first book of poetry, Wet, confronts, head on, traditional female roles and stereotypes. Its mission is not merely to challenge them but indeed, through its directness, creativity, and unflinching observation, to render them meaningless. This is made plain in the ending of the title poem, an in-your-face manifesto on sex and womanhood:
I want you to see that I am who
I say I am, an unsavory woman with her seasons undone. I want to lay
you, on a bed without a towel, without a curtain, without a good enough
reason. I want to wear a white dress stained with certain possibility, like an autograph,
like a river ripe with spawn, like a signpost, like a season,
like a dam come all undone.
Intensity and urgency build in this poem until, as though after years of being held to modest stereotypes, the real, unrestrained person bursts “like a dam come all undone.” Cleverly, the word dam can be used here to mean not only a structure that holds back water but also a female domestic animal that gives birth. Both definitions are on the mark.
Creedon’s poems experience the world through the body, providing numerous opportunities to expose our culture’s deeply entrenched and oppressive physical standards for women. In “Woman, Mined” Creedon takes on the ideals of flawless beauty and youth. She describes an experience at a cosmetics counter where a woman’s face under extreme magnification shows skin damage from years of abuse. “Look what you did,” scolds the cosmetics salesperson. Creedon, addressing the remorse so often associated with aging, offers an entirely different response: “and you’ll wear your face / with its amber earned, its amethyst, its intaglio tear- / etched diamond, and say, I am cut that way.”
Along with her intensity of conviction, Creedon exhibits an impressive amount of playfulness and invention. In the sarcastic “Just a Sestina to You, Honey, Letting You Know What an Interesting Thing Happened to Me While You Were at Home Rubbing Your Wife’s Back,” the speaker informs her married lover that a Martian fell through the French windows and into her bed. Although the Martian wanted to have sex with her, she refused and remained faithful to her married lover because “My married lover could be by to see me any month now.”
In the wildly creative “How to Be a Cowgirl in a Studio Apartment,” she alternates advice on how to pick up men with seemingly unrelated directions on how to paint the solar system on a ceiling. By the end of the poem the two begin to blend together so that the directions on how to paint the solar system become a metaphor for what to do with the man. Or is it the other way around?
Mark out the man. Trace him with your tongue like an outline of the moon
made of milk. You’re a cowgirl. Circle him like you would a wild bull
in a cloud of red dust. Then let your wanting run, turn it over like a bucket
of color, let it spill into the other, and, panting, let it dry until it’s done.
She covers an adventurous range of subjects: reinvented mythological stories (“Medusa’s Sisters” and “Medusa’s Love Song”); an updated take on the nursery rhyme of the old woman and the shoe (“Shoe, Worn”); and a response to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” Creedon also has a lot of fun with titles, ranging from a poem that is an extension of the title poem, “Wet 2.0,” to the title of the sestina mentioned above, to another detail-laden moniker: “For Jill, Who’s Blue on Account of She Just Broke Up with Her Lover, an Asshole Doctor from across the Water.”
The book’s emotional range broadens as Creedon explores her complicated relationship with her mother. To her credit, she applies the same tough, clear-eyed examination to herself as she does to her mother. The depictions of her mother range from nurturing to self-involved, as do Creedon’s depictions of herself. In “After Thanksgiving,” in which her mother is tired from trying to catch an early flight home, Creedon says, “My mother asks me to rub her feet / and I sit on the couch / not rubbing her feet . . . I make a mess of loving her.” But in poem after poem, it is also clear that the connection with her mother runs very deep. In fact the notion of motherhood is inseparable from Creedon’s brash definitions of being a woman. For example in “Wet 2.0,” she responds to a man who asks why she doesn’t express her femininity in more delicate ways with a rant that ends thus:
And now you (because what in this good and green earth
have I to protect you from) want to know why I’m made of wet?
I’m made of mother, baby. Come on,
let me show you
my beautiful filth.
Creedon is clearly at home in the worlds of bars and restaurants. Among the admirable features of her work are depictions of people who populate these worlds. Her poems are filled with specific, often quirky details that seem as though they could have come only from lived experience. Many of the depictions are of women in harsh and powerless situations—prostitutes, waitresses, overweight teenagers, single mothers, bartenders. Some put up a brave fight; others just look for ways to survive. All have been subject to some form of abuse at the hands of men. The intention of these poems seems to be to portray these women and the unfairness of their difficult lives. While the writing is lively, they don’t quite pack the punch of the other poems. Their overall points feel predetermined and, in some cases, predictable.
Creedon is at her strongest in poems in which she and the people she describe claim their experiences—the joys, the mistakes, the inequities—and, from them, create brash, original lives. There is a freshness not only in her overall perspective but in the energy and creativity in which the poems are conceived and expressed. It is as though the poems themselves enact the freedom and originality that they espouse. As a result, in this terrific new book, we discover a voice that, with its intelligence and exuberant energy, lifts us to embrace our own lives as
lived-in and loved, as nothing you planned, but chose.
-“How to Be Perfect (Not You)”