Patty Seyburn

The Hounds of No (Action Books, 2005) by Lara Glenum

The final poem of Lara Glenum's first book, "Manifesto of the Anti-Real," serves as an instruction manual as to how to read the book. Among the catalog of eight assertions are: "… art explodes"; "Realism is the bordello of those who would have their perceptions affirmed rather than dilated…"; "Irony is not a device. It is a state of being"; and "Sentimentality is a form of exploitation, a connivance with official lies." This last sentiment concludes as such: "Hang sentimentality on the gallows of Emergency."

Though utility is probably not Glenum's intention, her manifesto explains the bulk of the poetic strategies, ideas, and concerns underpinning this collection. Actually, this book seems full—to use her word, "exploding" with intention, and attention to grotesque image. These images are largely related to the body—but not the body of a "real" human being, with physical limitations, but the body of a sock monkey—yes, the sock monkey made from Rockford Red Heel Socks. One "real" instruction manual for creating sock monkeys includes several lines that could have come from or found their way into Glenum's poems: "turn the sock so the seams are on the inside and use the crotch opening to stuff the head, body and legs…." The sock monkey takes a star turn in many of these poems, along with Kreimhilde, a character from Fritz Lang's adaptation of the Nibelungen saga who seeks vengeance for the murder of her husband, the warrior Siegfried. Who else?

This book grabs the reader by the throat, throws her to the side of the road, gasping (reader, not book - the guiding voice of these poems has abundant energy for trick and play), pummels her about the face and shoulders, then looks back and says: aren't you coming? And means it, every which way. Not that all of these sensations are entirely unpleasant. One never doubts that the writer of these poems is alive in the most vivid sense; it's nearly impossible to imagine this poet sitting by a window, administering to a smaller creature or even, for that matter, with normal blood pressure. Such trappings and actions are for the weak, and the characters in these poems, while often submitted to compromising positions and various forms of torture and victimization, do not represent weakness. Rather, they are agents of pain and distortion themselves, as Kriemhilde asserts in "Kriemhilde's & Sock-Monkey's Busy Day": "In the courtyard, I whip the clouds until they scream birds."

Glenum's "stock" images are the opposite of that, and entirely her own. In no other collection of poems could the words "meat" and "pig" be so dominant. And don't forget about sac, spleen, gland. Of course these are poems of and about the body—particularly the female body—and the language is so visceral that the poems almost feel like bodies themselves. Many of her images have some connection to other poets—for starters, Blake and Coleridge—but Glenum surgically removes the images from their context with no anesthesia. The "take no prisoners" tonality of this book is both appealing and dismaying. Remember that David Cronenberg movie, "Dead Ringers", where Jeremy Irons play twin gynecologists? I think Glenum has seen this movie…10 or 15 times.

One problem with this corpus (it can't be helped) of images and the narrator's attitude toward them is that we all know that stirrups are demeaning and that the female body continues to be objectified. These poems want to objectify the body in an entirely different way, via the grotesque and absurd, via postmodernity, thereby stealing the teeth, so to speak, from "vagina dentata." But the body remains the playing field, and as such, gets in the way of the poet's constant ironizing. There are a few too many poems that could be titled, "If Goya were your Gyno."

Among the best moments of the collection—poems such as "Message to the Department of the Interior" and "Medea and the Snow Angels"—balance Glenum's imagery and level of energy with a discursive mode that allows the reader a few seconds, here and there, to digest the material before it starts bashing around in the abdomen. In both poems, the aggressive posture is mediated by language instead of exacerbated by it.

In Andre Breton's "Manifesto of Surrealism," written in 1924, he proposes the following definition: SURREALISM, n. "Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern." While Glenum's concluding manifesto claims the Anti-Real as its subject, her project seems distinctly surreal, particularly in relation to part about control, reason, and moral concern. Not that morality should be our concern: art need not be moral to be good art; it need not even be good to be good art. But the poems, while full of bodily connective tissue, seem lacking in emotional ligature.

The problem is that along with wanting to hang Sentimentality, the book seems to want to hang Sentiment, as in: there seems to be no interest in connection. The images are often gorgeous as those found in Sylvia Plath's work, but equally often they dwell in a precarious place where dark humor rules, with few serfs in attendance. The project of this book is the opposite of Marianne Moore's admission of poetry as a possible place for the genuine. The genuine has no clothes, says "Hounds" - at least, none that are worth a passing glance. What matters, in these poems, is a lush, in-your-face defiance of the standard tropes of the female body. The butcher shop is open for business.

The collection's penultimate poem, "The Regime of Bliss" provides an example of Glenum at her best. As in other poems, the narrator advocates violence in the face of complacency: very Blakean. Let's face it, Blake was a narcissist: kill babies before stunting desire, etc. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" was the first self-help book of the kind we like in the early 21st century, abundant with assertions of the primacy of desire and self-determination over compromise and tradition. In fact, after flipping to the back, hosting a debate between the Manifesto of Surrealism and the Manifesto of the Anti-Real and then truly taking pleasure in the last poem, I decided to read the book back to front, which is perhaps one of the book's projects/modes: inductive reasoning. We'll arrive at what we mean later. We are late, anyway, to this brutal exam, so let's establish the rules in summary, rather than as preface.

The unequivocal nature of this book manifests itself in the title: it ain't called "The Hounds of Maybe" or "Let's Look at the Trees, Shall We?" The book's whimsical and smart-ass tonality is threateningly contagious. The intimacy of the subject-matter and the material treatment of the body makes the collection feel both strangely personal and utterly impersonal. In no way can the reader get lost in the land of Glenum's making, hall of mirrors where the self may find itself a carcass in corset, reflected and refracted through the incising eye of a narrator who has no sympathy, but will not leave you alone.