Page after page, Bobcat Country stirs both the counter-intuitively satisfying “Should I be reading this?” queasiness of the Confessional poetry of Berryman, Sexton, and Snodgrass, and the unsettlingly provocative “Is this really poetry?” queasiness of such Muumuu House-affiliated poets as Ellen Kennedy.
In her second collection, Bobcat Country, Brandi Homan pulls a surprising bit of bait and switch. She calls the things contained therein “poems,” but really, they are some of the funniest, saddest, most honest and raw pieces of autobiographical prose to come along in some time. But it seems like Homan couldn’t care less about whether someone who self-identifies as a “poet” has to write things that are easily identifiable as “poetry” at all.
In a review of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies that appeared in The Nation, M. L. Rosenthal became the first critic to apply the label “confessional” to poetry. He observes that previously, even when a poet was writing about unflattering personal subjects “a certain indirection masks the poet’s actual face and psyche.” Lowell, he argues, “removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself, and it is hard not to think of Life Studies as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal.”
It is hard not to think of Homan’s Bobcat Country this way either. You could almost see her as a latter-day Lowell, only from working-class Marshalltown, Iowa, not Brahmin Boston, and a woman, not a man. (Full disclosure: Homan is the Editor-in-Chief of the feminist press Switchback Books, which published my first poetry collection in 2008). But it is also hard not to think not merely “Are these Confessional poems?,” but also “Are these even poems?” The collection is rife with pieces that evoke the latter sensation, but one of the earliest is “A History” in which Homan tells the extended account of how long it took and what steps were necessary before she finally achieved her first orgasm:
When Tanya Anderson spent the night and told me, half
asleep to use my finger and pretend like it was a boy, I did.
Watching a movie with my mom, Dolly Parton says “sax.”
I asked mom what it meant and she checked out a series of
books from the library. I knew what sex was, just not “sax.”
I don’t remember my first kiss.
I do remember Tony Kilbrow, though, feeling me up for the[…]
first time in Jackson Park after crawling through a pipe to an
empty storm drain. We couldn’t look at each other, looked
instead at the Quiet Riot lyrics the high school kids painted
on the wall, stared at that rectangle of light like a mail slot to
the street, Listened to the cars.
In college, I’d get drunk and sleep with men I already cared
about as friends, but then I’d cry. And sometimes they
weren’t good friends.
The story continues for two full pages, ending:
Twenty-nine. The first by my hand alone. Twenty. Fucking.
I guess I should be thankful even now.
The history in “A History” is a gripping story—uncomfortable certainly, but riveting at the same time. And as Homan said in her patter at a recent reading, it’s “all true.” So, page after page, Bobcat Country stirs both the counter-intuitively satisfying “Should I be reading this?” queasiness of the Confessional poetry of Berryman, Sexton, and Snodgrass, and the unsettlingly provocative “Is this really poetry?” queasiness of such Muumuu House-affiliated poets as Ellen Kennedy.
In some of these pieces’ initial appearances, Homan labeled them prose poems. In one recent anthology, narrative (dis)continuities , editor Kristina Marie Darling includes Homan’s title poem under the subheading prose experiments by younger americans. Calling Homan’s writing prosey and experimental seems closer to the truth than merely labeling it “poetry.” At first glance, because of the pieces’ straightforward narrativity and familiar, detail-saturated subject matter, most readers would likely not consider Homan’s work experimental; it could seem conservative, even reactionary, in the vein of the soft confessional poetry that dominated the latter half of the 20th century. But to view the pieces this way is to sell them short. And while it may seem pedantic to fixate on categorization, I would argue that labels as they relate to Homan’s attitude toward poetic form (or lack thereof) speaks directly to the management of and disregard for reader expectation that are part of what makes Homan’s book so alternately delightful and frustrating.
Part of the frustration arises from what can come off in many of the shorter pieces especially as carelessness—a heedlessness toward decision-making, particularly as it relates to line breaks, structure, and syntax. Reading “Drugstore Cowgirl,” for example, which begins “Do they really put shards of fiberglass in lip balm?/Pastiche, pastiche. Collage away./I am not a poem-writer. I am a poem-MAKER! Cut/ and paste” it is hard not to wonder: Did Homan break the lines or just let them break? Did she even think about it at all? Does it matter?
You could see this slackness as a weakness, or you could see it as a sign that Homan is busy with bigger concerns, like being as honest as possible when tackling class, ambition, and Midwestern femininity. In the prose vignette “Mobile Homecoming,” for example, Homan does not merely say what happens:
My professor said I was “aiming for mediocrity.” I was thirty years old. My mother’s into money recently, talks about some book that associates class with worldviews of material goods. In the book, low class means “quantity,” middle class means “quality, and high class means “presentation.”
She also shows the reader exactly how she feels as a result of these happenings, feelings which are just as frank and striking than the events themselves, as when she continues:
“Working on my master’s degree, I knew for certain I wasn’t middle class, going again for quantity. I saw that others, hello Professor, viewed me as not middle class. That I was low-middle class, or low-class, even, depending on how much cash the one doing the viewing had. Or really that I was culturally bankrupt from growing up in a vacuum cleaner.”
Homan puts stuff into her poems—like the above analyses of socioeconomics—that is often not considered the stuff of poems. As a result, there are aspects of these pieces that come so close to what these days is called “the lyric essay” that it seems perverse—not unpleasingly—of Homan to call these poems when some publisher might have given her a little bit of money had she, with very few changes, instead decided to call them essays. But by calling them poems, she insists on a certain kind of reception. She even ventures to write about such distinctions overtly, as in the poem “Taxonomy Lessons,” which begins:
They’re jealous of you and they just don’t know it yet, said Sarah
to me once over merlot at Gioco. I think of this often, like
when Kristen announces she’s getting married, making me the
last of our group not to be.
Sarah goes on to say that I’m a peacock while others are
pigeons. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a
pigeon she says, pigeons are honorable creatures. You’re just a
peacock! Why do you want to be a pigeon!
Homan’s use of such heavy-handed metaphors and symbols (poets are like peacocks, get it?) can seem like an oversimplification of a complicated emotional situation, but her application of self-deprecating comedy alongside these cartoonish indulgences gives them enough self-awareness to succeed, as when the poem concludes:
Jennifer tries to solve the problem. You are neither peacock
nor pigeon she says, but a combination. Something like a
jackalope she says, not one or the other.
What “one” or “the other” was, Jennifer didn’t say.
Still, the pigeons know something’s not right. Am I
then a robin among sparrows? Close to passing, with this
bright red burning I keep trying to hide.
Throughout the book, Homan holds herself up as someone who does not fit in and is subsequently received with disapproval in some quarters: the academy, the workplace, her mother’s home. Writing so semi-sloppily and candidly leaves her open to criticism, but she gives the impression that she knows this to be the case, and is going to do what she wants regardless.
Yet Homan seems to want to be understood and appreciated, too, and this tension between self-indulgence and an effort at communication makes the book a fascinating read. “Taxomony Lesson,” for instance, would be intelligible to the “pigeons” being described, and as a whole, Bobcat Country tries to navigate between different groups of readers, all of whom seem to think they know what poetry is, and are going to have their own opinions about how Homan writes it. In return, Homan systematically forgoes the hints of control or restraint that are designed to give comfort to the reader of poetry. The speaker of many of these poems is like the friend at the wedding in “Taxonomy Lessons” who nobody has seen in a long time and who has had too much to drink and is just talking. It’s not that nobody wants to hear what she’s saying, but rather that nobody knows quite how to react. You get a WTF-will-she-say-next vibe at the same time as you really want to see what it will be. A lot of what gets said will be repetitive and sentimental, but that in turn produces its own effect.
The long middle sequence, “Recurring Dream House,” contains the worst of the book’s periodic dips into cliché and sentiment. The section has an intro to creative writing atmosphere, fairly awkward and rudimentary, almost like an unrevised in-class, list-style exercise as when Homan writes, “Walking from one car to the next, my arms overflow with closet artifacts—jars of Grandpa’s carrots, salmon in yellowing liquid, half-used cans of spraypaint. However hard I look, every trunk is full.” The opening participle here is extremely prosey and is a weak construction to put in a poem, or to put in anything that you’re going to call finished. The unmitigated, unironic details that follow add to the mawkish ambience: “I’m buried face-first in the foyer closet, shoulders weighted by the brush of musty fabrics. Dad’s letter jacket’s stiff, crinkling sleeves, striped cuffs […] Dad’s Army jacket, its weathered patches. His boy scout uniform, complete.”
But the risks that Homan is willing to take are so brashly executed that it is as exciting to watch them fail as it is to see them succeed. Homan’s writing is the literary equivalent of NASCAR. A major part of the appeal comes from knowing that at any moment, there might be a crash. Often there is. And often Homan herself is the casualty.
More often than not, though, Homan’s deliberate artlessness and use of lax language works to the book’s advantage, because it allows her to express her serious and legitimate anger with comedy and self-criticism. At her best, Homan puts one in mind of Dorothy Parker with the meter and most of the wit removed; for Homan’s humor has none of the irony associated with wit. This is not necessarily a criticism; wit can be a means of asserting authorial distance and privacy, two traits Homan eschews. Like Parker, Homan never takes cheap comfort in neat epiphany. Also like Parker, Homan is able to make depressing observations that basically boil down to “The world is fundamentally unjust and fucked,” while adding “and this situation is funny.” Or at least suggesting that if it’s not funny, per se, people can make themselves and others feel better by discussing the circumstances in a forthright and amusing fashion.
Whatever you call the pieces inside, once you pick it up, this book is virtually impossible not to read cover to cover. Whatever form Homan either chooses or defaults to, almost every piece does exactly what Samuel Taylor Coleridge advised Thomas Poole in a letter in 1797: “I could inform the dullest author how he might write an interesting book — let him relate the events of his own life with honesty — not disguising the feelings that accompanied them.” Despite the criticisms that can be raised against it, Bobcat Country is never dull. Even Homan’s lesser poems are candid about their complicated feelings, making for a read that remains unfailingly honest and undisguised.