THE RAVENOUS AUDIENCE
by Kate Durbin
144 pp. $15.95
review by Sivan Butler-Rotholz
When I had an opportunity to speak with Kate Durbin, I told her that I found a recent review of The Ravenous Audience to be overly pedantic. I also told her that I would be reviewing the book myself for the upcoming issue of Mayday Magazine, and that I hoped my review would be more generally accessible to a wider audience. Ms. Durbin responded by telling me that she’d hoped The Ravenous Audience would be a book for teenage girls. If you read the book – and you really really ought to – you’ll understand why touting it as an instruction manual of sorts for teenage girls walks the same kind of sticky line that Ms. Durbin seems to revel in. Yes, “sticky” is the perfect word.
If I had to sum up this book in one sentence I would say it is poetry reclaiming the sexual and feminine from the jowls of history, religion, and culture. I also would like to throw the word feminist in there, because taking back the feminine aspects of overarching forces in our modern existence seems like a feminist thing to do. But feminists sometimes shrink away from sexuality as opposed to reclaiming it, and there is hardly a page in The Ravenous Audience that would fail to shine bright and messy under a proverbial black light.
Things that drip sex: Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, and The Ravenous Audience. Perhaps promo versions of the book should have come with a travel sized container of lube. But there is more to this book than sex, or rather, sex is but one of the vehicles driving this finely-crafted delicacy. With her debut book Ms. Durbin takes back the night (and the day!) on behalf of women everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Fairy tale characters are transformed from victims into Dorothy Parker-esque heroines. Christianity is under scrutiny, and biblical women move from being a two-line feature in a man-centric story to having a life, a drive, and – you guessed it – a sexuality all their own.
With its quick and continuous use of words such as “cunt,” “clit,” “sex” (as a noun), “prick,” etc., one starts to wonder at the author’s notion that this book was intended for teenage girls. With themes of incest, rape, cannibalism, and revenge – bloody, sexual revenge – the book seems meant for an adult audience. Surely if books could be given ratings like films, this one would receive at least an NC-17, if not an R or an X. But Ms. Durbin is not throwing around this language for the hell of it. There is nothing gratuitous here. Instead, there is a window being opened up, nay, a gash being cut open by a chainsaw, into the Puritanical backdrop of America.
One of my favorite poems from the collection, “Little Red’s Ride,” reads like a Brothers Grimm guide for a girl’s coming of age. No holds barred. This is not your Girl Scout Handbook. This is honest and brutal and freeing with moments like:
“Spring-stink, the world heaves with lust. / Mother sniffs sex from the kitchen window: / Woodsmen stripping trees / Housewives mounting stallions. / Not a world for little girls, she says… Fleshnubs sprout under your clavicle; / A stealth forest slips across your secret holes … In the violet before-dawn / You woke to stains on the sheets … Will you follow the path, or will you stray? / Of course you stray, disoriented one – / Encounter your wolfprince, / Crash into his exposed teeth. / When you do, you don’t give it / All away, only whet his taste. / (You knew this by instruction? / You knew this by instinct?)”
In one fell poem, one pair of couplets at a time, Ms. Durbin manages to lay out for the reader what it is to be a girl coming-of-age: to grow breasts and pubic hair, to feel sexuality awaken within you, to do what you are not supposed to, to know – by instinct or instruction? – how to tease a man, that you are, as a woman, a sexually empowered creature.
It is for this genius, for this clear and honest account of the true experiences of the modern teenage girl, that I agree with Ms. Durbin’s audience-intention for her work. Do I think that most parents today would allow their teenage girls to read this book? Absolutely not. Do I think that this book could help a lot of girls to learn that they are normal, that they are not alone? Absolutely. Victims of rape, victims of incest, girls who are developing and lustful, girls who are shy or empowered, girls who are conflicted about their religious teachings and their own thoughts and feelings– these girls could all get a lot out of reading this book. Therefore, I believe this book can function as the teenage girls’ counterpart to what pornography is to teenage boys. I hope teenage girls know this book exists. I hope they get their hands on it behind their parents’ backs, if necessary, and indulge in a little good old fashioned poetry porn.
Of course, this book has a wider audience than the contemporary teenage girl. In fact, I think this book is accessible to a wider audience than most books of poetry. Why? My hunch is the success in readability of this book stems from the author’s background as a fiction writer. Ms. Durbin’s MFA is in fiction, not poetry, and I think the world of poetry owes a debt of gratitude to the world of fiction for sharing with us such an artist.
The Ravenous Audience is one of the few books of poetry I’ve ever read that I can pick up and read cover to cover as I would a novel. I do not feel overwhelmed by the need to deconstruct. It is clear to me what the story is, what is going on here, and I like it. I really like it.
I love the familiarity this book brings. I love that I am reading about Little Red Riding Hood, about Hansel and Gretel, about Queen Esther, Jezebel, Lot’s Wife, Amelia Earhart, and Marilyn Monroe. And yet, these are not the fictional, biblical, and historical figures as we know them. These ladies are sassy, sexually empowered, and forthright. And they’re helping to fill in gaps and questions left in the wake of their original appearance on the cultural landscape. And all of this is clear to the reader. If this book were a main course, it would have that ever-elusive perfect amount of salt. I believe that if you gave this book to your friends and family for Christmas they would get it. And enjoy it. I don’t know too many books of poetry that fall into this category.
In “Felt Jesus,” Ms. Durbin explores her own personal relationship with Christianity. The poet tells us that her Sunday school had a felt Jesus, that he often fell to the ground from his felt board, but that she “pretended not to stare / as he lay facedown on the carpet: / to gaze made his shame indecent somehow.” And at the end of the poem, after exploring the women of the bible – their sexual lives, their sufferings and their strengths – Ms. Durbin declares “How I longed to lift his discarded body off the floor, years ago— / even reduced to felt, base material, how I craved his skin and wounds. / I would have rubbed my fingers over every part of You, / then put You in my mouth to consume.” This is a complicated relationship with Jesus, and, by association, Christianity. I believe a number of people experience a complicated experience with their own religion(s) during their lifetimes, but lack the courage Ms. Durbin has to fully explore it and call it what it is, in every explicit detail.
Ms. Durbin goes on to explore a “Mostly Silent Movie: Starring Clara Bow,” taking and manipulating the onscreen language of that film and fleshing it out with information gleaned from movie magazines from the late 1920s and early 1930s. She explores the Russian Doll collection from the fashion house Viktor & Rolf in her piece “Doll Dress,” and then goes on to create a Q&A with icon Marilyn Monroe, evoking a dialogue similar to the dialogue between Jack Spicer and Federico Garcia Lorca in Spicer’s After Lorca. This is topped off by a similar postmortem confession appearing to be written by the late Amelia Earhart in “Amelia Earhart: Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator’s Boot,” which was originally published as a chapbook by Dancing Girl Press.
When I saw Ms. Durbin read at City Lights Books in San Francisco I knew I was witnessing something – someone – different. Inspired by Lady Gaga (Ms. Durbin is the co-editor of Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art About Lady Gaga located online at gagajournal.blogspot.com), Ms. Durbin has said that she views fashion as an extension of poetry and that she likes to wear her poetry on her body for the world to see. If you attend a reading you may find her decked out in huge fake eyelashes, covered in glitter, or wearing a dress that has “POETRY” featured in large block letters across her ass.
I love the idea of fashion as an extension of poetry. And I love the idea of artists livening up the poetic landscape by putting on a show for their audience. In the age of Youtube and Twitter, where people’s expectations and attention spans are becoming less patient, I think it is genius to truly perform for your audience at a poetry reading. If anyone can make an artistic spectacle of herself on a large enough scale that crowds will actually gather to watch poetry being read, Ms. Durbin is the woman to do it.
But at the end of the day, it is Ms. Durbin’s words that have earned her the buzz that surrounds her. People in the poetry world know Kate Durbin’s name. And it is not because she gets dolled up and puts on a truly entertaining show, which she does. It is because her debut book is good. It’s really good. And it’s because with her straightforward narrative and daring refusal to self-censor, Ms. Durbin is giving her audience something that the modern American masses are starving for. So only one question remains: “Are you ravenous?”