The Teenage Girl in All of Us: Last Sext by Melissa Broder

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In March, the poet Melissa Broder’s website read, “One on [sic] my poems from LAST SEXT called Forgotten Sound won a Pushcart Prize. I didn’t think a Pushcart was a big thing, because a lot of ppl get nominated for them and you always see the nominations in people’s bios, but apparently it is a thing.”

More than being nominated, the “thing” is to win one, which Broder did, though her emphasis on nominations softens the brag, and a hint of humility is the result. So while Broder’s Internet writing dwells fluently in the drive-thru, all-caps salted, abbreviation-peppered, dash-of-typo special sauce, syntax of a teenage girl in her thirties, there’s a rather brilliant artifice in her lack of artifice. Last Sext is her fourth and most recent collection.

“I think there is a teenage girl in all of us,” Broder told Bryn Lovitt in a Vanity Fair interview (March, 2016). She told Whitney Joiner in an Elle interview, also in March 2016, that she worries about losing her young female audience if she reveals her age. In her first piece as a columnist for Elle, Broder wrote about waxing her “pubes” to appeal to younger men. She’s clearly interested in appealing to youthful audiences in a manner reminiscent of Edna St. Vincent Millay. In Millay’s “Rendezvous” for example:

___…you are you, none other.
Your laughter pelts my skin with small delicious blows.
But I am perverse: I wish you had not scrubbed—with pumice I suppose—
The tobacco stains from your beautiful fingers. And I wish I did not feel like your mother.
(Poetry Magazine, May 1939)

The Pushcart-winning poem, “Forgotten Sound,” also laments age differences.

I pretended the lust was voices
And I wrote down the voices
And sometimes the voices spoke as I had written them
To confirm what I already knew
Which is that I am a child and ready for petting
And sometimes the voices said nothing
To confirm what I already knew
Which is that I am filled with holes
And sometimes the voices said strange words
To confirm what I did not know
Which is that I am a ghost
And the men are real
And going on without me

Broder shares with Millay a voice that is not overly assertive (compare Broder’s many “sometimes” with Millay’s “I suppose”) though Millay’s has stronger, more specific images such as the “pumice” and “tobacco stains” which make the man real, where Broder just says, “the men are real.” Millay wrote excellent formal sonnets, and Broder seems often to follow the sonnet’s internal rhetoric if not its outward form: two-thirds exposition, a turn, a discovery, a tingle at the end. In “Forgotten Sound,” notice how the repetition of “to confirm” changes in the final iteration, “to confirm what I did not know,” and how the poem hinges on “strange words.” A Broder “sonnet” (she never uses the word, and would probably rather be compared to Emily Dickinson than Millay; more on that later) may be cast in the same foundry as Sharon Old’s recent odes. Both Olds and Broder read to admiring audiences at last summer’s Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Their poems share an impulse to celebrate what was previously too shameful for poetry, from the tampon in Olds’s case, to cocks and holes in Broder’s. And they share an informality. Form is fluid for these poets in the ways they adapt the ode and the sonnet.

Gender is another “form” that may be fluid in Broder’s poems. She suggests as much in “Instant Rain,” where the speaker concludes, “I played a girl.” Other poems contain moments like, “Men without homes are farting behind me / The grass is their home, why can’t I be them?” and, “…when my childhood feeling surfaces / I kiss the shadow of my boyself,” and, “Call me a jellyfish / In the evening my body grows a penis.” In the mythic poem of origins, “Lunar Shatters,” the speaker refers to “broken young man parts,” and goes “Back to the time before I was a woman / Before I broke me off to make a flattened lap” when the speaker “came into the world a young man.” Follow the link above to listen to the poem and you’ll hear Broder’s most prevalent musical strategy: repetition. As the poem descends into a litany of “The myth… The myth… The myth…,” you can hear her voice go almost monotone and take on a chant-like quality. The delightful final line, “And wear my crown of fuck its,” further invites religion.

Broder’s persona is no Christ figure, although at times she seems like one tortured. Broder enjoys juxtaposing the sacred and the profane. Take the first lines of “Bone Rooms,” “Ladder to the genitals of god / You never go high enough.” They suggest an experience of sex that fails to satisfy. There are poems titled “Dry Fuxx” and “Mercy Fuxx” which suggest the same. But in “Honey Field,” Broder writes, “Fuck what they say / I can find goodness in a church.” If Broder never really does the work of redeeming church for her audience, she certainly brings repeated attention to a desire for god as transcendence. “Honey Field” ends, “But in the end dissolve / Like everything infinity.”

Perhaps it is a persona that seeks this transcendence. The poet herself seems earthbound and of this world. Consider that at the time of this writing Broder’s @sosadtoday Twitter profile page lists 450,000 followers and 26,900 tweets. In the Vanity Fair interview, Broder told Lovitt that, “Emily Dickinson would have been great at Twitter,” and again we see Broder’s nimbleness with the humble brag as she indirectly suggests we compare her to Dickinson. Because Broder is great at Twitter. And Broder isn’t wrong to invoke Dickinson—fragmentary lines in short poems with an attraction to death and god—though Dickinson might have argued about the Twitter assertion (see her poem “Fame is a fickle food”). Dickinson is famous for her reclusiveness; her desire for connection trended upward toward God. She might have also taken issue with all of the profanity in Broder’s poems—hard to imagine Dickinson ever having said “fuck,” but “fuck” comes up so much in Broder’s poems that it would likely be enlarged and prominent in a word cloud made of the book. I’d also expect to see: cock, holes, silence, zero, vomit, water, horses, dogs, prayer, dust, and god. Emily Dickinson did write about God a lot; I wonder what she’d think of Broder’s spiritual work.

Broder doesn’t use rhyme or pay homage to Dickinson’s dashes and capital letters. She doesn’t even capitalize “god,” except when it’s the first word of a line, a rare moment where she lets a formal rule—all lines begin with a capital—interfere with a noticeable pattern of implied meaning—lower case “god” is not your stodgy “God,” is perhaps simply “transcendence.” Unlike Dickinson, the only word Broder ever capitalizes inside a line is “Earth.” But somehow Broder’s line “she is a waiting room for bones” captures something Dickinsonian, and what’s left to the imagination in Dickinson’s dashes might be compared to Broder’s floating, unpunctuated lines. If you think of punctuation as “pubes,” most of them have been waxed from Last Sext, (except for the stray curls of question marks). One could argue that these seemingly plain lines lack nuance and specificity, but Broder’s voice signals an informality that welcomes a reader who may be weary of academic, “classroom” poetry like Dickinson’s. (How very strange given her anti-stodgy form and content that Broder invokes the old Belle—I like her for it).

From my perspective as a high school teacher, it seems far more likely that Broder’s young female readers would put Last Sext on a shelf next to rupi kaur than Emily Dickinson, despite Dickinson’s “Wild Nights!”—“Instapoet” rupi kaur has one million Instagram followers, and her 2014 milk and honey has been a poetry bestseller. One imagines it read in one sitting in many college dormitories:

what am i to you he asks
i put my hands in his lap
and whisper you
are every hope
i’ve ever had
in human form

Broder’s work is like kaur’s in many ways (plainspoken, full of informally disarming sincerity, interested in gender, unashamed to go where older writers—Olds excepted—may fear to tread). But kaur’s book arcs towards expressions of her own healing and emerging self-love, where Broder leads us into the darkness. kaur’s aphoristic advice, “you must / want to spend / the rest of your life / with yourself / first” might seem too easy an answer to the struggles of finding a companion.

Broder doesn’t offer easy answers. Last Sext captures a youthful, hard, myth-informed, sleep deprived, aroused, spiritually searching, self-loathing worldview embraced by many of the young women in our lives. Broder’s sensibility is dark, unresolved, and appealingly complex. Her “Along” doesn’t strive didactically the way kaur’s aphorism does. Broder ends the poem, “How does it feel with your body gone / Narcissus weeping but the stars like yeah.” It expresses two reactions to being alone in a little drumbeat of resolution.

Edward Derby, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, has previously published reviews at The Rumpus and Kenyon Review Online. His poems have appeared in numerous journals. He hopes to receive his MFA in poetry from the University of San Francisco in December. More from this author →