There is a canon of cinema that revolves around girls leaving girlhood, and finding themselves young and nubile, ready (so they think) to embrace their future as women. There’s the girl who seduces her teacher, only to realize she should have loved the boy next door, and there’s the girl who dreams of the city, only to appreciate too late the wisdom (and boys) of her humble town. These girls rarely seem more than wisps of memory- poorly catalogued desires ambiguous enough to be recognized and claimed, without any of the sweat of honesty. When you are a girl, these stories read two ways: sometimes they are like lifeboats from the future- sometimes they are condescending, and the lack of grounding shows through. It might change depending on the day, or a phrase, as everything does when you’re 17.
In Catherine Pierce’s third collection of poems, The Girls of Peculiar, she explores this dialogue between the past and present, and the weight of deciding who you are now against who you were. She walks the limits of identity, memory, and woman (girl) hood, casting herself back to adolescence and forward, to lives she might have lived. Ultimately, she surfaces determined to embrace life in this body, in this moment, but the possibilities of the past never lose their sweetness.
Pierce splits the book into thirds, the first section filled with recurring images and sounds, calls and responses like campfire games; book-ending the first section are “Poem to the Girls We Were” and “Poem from the Girls We Were”. In the former, the opening poem to the collection, Pierce picks apart the girls of memory with the venom of a queen bee clique: “….look at you/ Luxuriating in the bathwater of shame./ It’s lovely, isn’t it, to pity yourself”. Yet Pierce longs for the simple self-absorbed focus of adolescence, how rumors stung and “radiated, like a jelly fish binding/our organs in its poison strands”- such self-centered behavior in an adult is less accepted (oh the irony!). Then was a time when the world seemed to stop for a pretty girl who could “make the world dance any way/ your gorgeous, guilty selves want”.
The girls of the past respond, reminding Pierce “this is no romance”, that despite the melodrama of memory, for those living those highs and lows, it is deadly serious, as everything is when you’re breathing that moment:
This is every house on your block
lit from within, each bedroom window
shining with safety and you outside
in the icing dusk, knowing nothing
will ever warm you. This is the gray
song you’ll hear forever. Your bones
will stay marrowed with dust.
The Future? This is The Future.
If you were here, you’d know that. (Poem from the Girls We Were)
By college, we’re expected to have identified ourselves. Adolescence was the time for dying our hair, to pulling on ripped t-shirts one day and Lacoste the next. Yet, this does not mean that we are content with our decisions. “Postcards from Her Alternative Lives”, published first in Court Green, and then later selected for The Best American Poetry 2011, explores the regrets and wants of choosing and settling into ourselves. At one point, we could have become desert shamans, where
rock rests a bowl of water, a wooden flute, a lizard.
The clouds swoop into the shape of my fears, then
blow off into the next country.
Pierce acknowledges that selecting our identities, especially as women, is a political and social action on which we’re judged by our choice’s worth, and respectability in poems such as “Hare Lip” and “The Women From the 70s Are Beautiful”. In “The Guidance Counselor to the Girl”, Pierce writes the litany of acceptable professions that might also satisfy “an aptitude for solitary work” and a “proclivity for nature”. By the final line, Pierce resolves to pursue art, to “create the wind”.
She invites us into this inner monologue, switching between first person singular and third person plural, expecting that we too “howled. Oh yes./ Listen. Our throats still know how to find the rawest song” (“The Delinquent Girls”). Despite this attention to teenage sturm und drang, we’ve never given a taste of the roots of our angst. Is it our overbearing mother? A failed relationship? Did our parents divorce? Did our class douse us with paint during prom? There may have been insignificant reasons for us to lay in bed listening to the Smiths, but there were reasons- and they didn’t feel insignificant at the time. Pierce fails to root us in a place, or a where, as if stopping herself from truly embracing the wants and pains of girlhood.
I wanted to like The Girls of Peculiar. I too, write poems rehashing the agonies of adolescence, and suburban upbringing. I bet Catherine Pierce hates herself for using ‘yay!’ in text messages, and prefers the Smiths to the Cure. Maybe she also realizes too late that she should have smiled at that strange boy. I know she allowed words to obsess her, and is still daydreaming about the woman, the girl she could have been, should have been. But I don’t feel as if I learned much else about her.