I was told this as though it is impossible for mature adults to be vulnerable. We just don’t do that. It’s not allowed. And that really, truly, made me sad. The idea is that you have to put away your inner turmoiled feelings and keep them to yourself in order to be the right kind of person. That disturbs me.
And that’s why the last book I loved was The Cow, a book of poetry by Ariana Reines. I loved how strongly the poems seem to run in the opposite direction of what we’re told is “good writing,” and good being-an-adult, for that matter. In an article she wrote about her book, Reines said that she wanted to “write poems that an educated person would feel embarrassed to read, poems that sound like Goth girls with feelings.” I think that’s kind of an awesome idea. There’s this opposing idea right now (or maybe always), that the sorts of emotions felt by teenage girls are not real emotions. They don’t count. In fact, we discount many expressions of emotion, ones that seem too strong, or too messy, or too lurid and cliché. If somebody writes about emotions in that way, we say it is bad writing. We cringe, we are embarrassed, we turn away from it. But why should we?
What’s so great about The Cow is that it is full of shit. Literally. It is full of grotesque, messy physical descriptions of the slaughtering of cows. It is also full of grotesque, messy descriptions of human bodies, and of human emotions. And it’s also beautifully and lyrically written. There’s a line in the poem “Rendered” that says, “Where is a living thing not itself. Is her shit any less her?” And guess what: women shit, and they sweat, and they smell bad, and they have emotions that are messy and uncomfortable. I know that’s part of being me. It’s part of what living is.
And here’s the thing: it’s ok for men to be physically gross. They can fart and they can be fat and hairy and it’s okay. Right now it’s not okay for women to do and be those things, but I think it could become okay. That’s because almost anything that is typically seen as masculine can be accepted and thought of as the correct mode for all people. It’s not the same for feminine things. I think we’re still a long way from accepting the messy, gross emotions that people have. And that’s because emotions belong to teenage girls. They’re feminine. They’re weak. We distrust them.
This probably matters to me so much right now because I’m struggling to become a writer myself, and to understand what that means, and how I should do it. And at the same time, I’m in a new city struggling with making new friends and learning how to get close to people all over again. I feel a little bit like my experience is negated by the vast pantheon of serious male authors whose works I’m making my way through. I’ve read a lot of current literature, and I like a lot of it, too. There are just some parts of myself that I don’t see there.
But in The Cow Reines pulls all of these rejected things back into the picture. We have to wallow in shit and wallow in feelings. It’s a gorgeous, sensual experience, meaning that you feel the poems in your body. Your senses are engaged. But it’s not pretty, and it’s not delicate. It’s feminine in a different way, in a dirty, honest way. It makes me want to make a new best friend. Somebody who can talk shit with me. Somebody I can show my vulnerable underbelly to, and maybe they’ll show me theirs back.