Reclaiming the Language of Pop Culture: Reversible by Marisa Crawford

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Though Marisa Crawford’s powerful new collection Reversible is steeped in pop culture references—from images of a shoplifting Courtney Love, to Betsey Johnson dresses and Tom Petty lyrics—her poems offer so much more than mere nostalgia. The poems of Reversible provide provocative meditations on gender, loss, family, sexual agency, and an ever-evolving feminist identity. In them, Crawford has created a vivid portrait of a 90s-era girlhood informed and shaped by images of fashion, celebrities, and mainstream music. Her lyrical, free verse style embodies a collage-like quality that juxtaposes song lyrics with images of reality TV shows, media icons, and fragments of personal memory. The lasting effect is a narrative that reveals how identity is formed through submersion in pop culture.

These are playful poems charged with sadness and yearning, the ache of possibility and becoming. Reversible examines the means by which a young woman constructs an identity in a culture saturated by pop icons. In “This Is What I Was Wearing When I was Leaving,” the speaker tries on, through fashion, the identities of celebrity women: “It was always a question of do I want / to be Janis Joplin or do I want to be Drew Barrymore or Enid Coleslaw or Kerry Kennedy today?” Crawford’s speaker strives to locate herself, seeking both power and a sense of self in trying on these identities, shifting through each as one might choose a new outfit.

In a later poem, the speaker steps into the 70s-era culture of her mother’s youth, wearing espadrilles and her mom’s vintage blouses: “I imagine that I’m opening a time capsule. And inside it is another / time capsule. / Like there was a way to complete the puzzle. Reverse the curse. / Rearrange the outfit.” Again, through fashion, the speaker lives inside the image in order to possess and understand it.

Crawford has an anthropologist’s gaze, and every detail has meaning, be it “an oversized shredded Pink Floyd tank top” or a pair of “Punky Brewster-pink pencil hair barrettes.” Such artifacts invite the reader to inhabit a special sense of intimacy with the speaker, creating a more nuanced understanding of how particular objects and images imparted ideas that influenced the speaker’s growth and development.

Aside from an interest in how pop culture forms us, these poems also work to reclaim and transform the language of pop culture. In doing so, they examine—as Adrienne Rich describes in Of Woman Born—how “in the interstices of language lie powerful secrets of the culture.” We see this in “Sweet Jane Remix,” where the speaker mourns the changing nature of friendship and life, weaving together lines from the film Empire Records with Lou Reed lyrics in order to communicate larger dimensions of loss:

I want to sing in a band, but I don’t have the guts to even audition.
I don’t have the balls to even learn my key.
I thought my life would be a whole big pool of things that dripped
like water.
Heavenly wine & roses / Jane says you only get one.

Like the brilliant There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker and Jennifer Tamayo’s electric YOU DA ONE, this collection also examines issues of gender through the intersection of the mainstream media and the intimate, often exposing complicated family dynamics. Sisterhood and mother-daughter relationships live at the heart of Crawford’s poems. The speaker yearns for a deeper intimacy with both her mother and sister, yet is met with frequent misunderstandings, distance, and locked doors. In “Sisterhood Isn’t Powerful,” the speaker keeps a detailed record of each outfit she wears, refusing to repeat a single one, as she obsessively replays songs in her bedroom, saying, “I wanted to know all the words to every song, so I listened to my / stereo, pressed play, pause, wrote, rewound, repeat.” This infuriates her sister in the next room, who prefers silence. “I don’t know where my sister went,” the speaker says, “but I know I can’t save her. / I could make her a mix tape of songs about sisters including the / Juliana Hatfield song but that wouldn’t save her either.”

The tight bonds of girlhood friendship are also important to these poems, which depict long summer afternoons and moments stolen between classes, trading secrets or getting stoned with friends. But they also examine the struggles of girls who find refuge in one another in the wake of absent fathers, difficult mothers, episodes of self-harm, heartache, gossip and betrayal, and who are bombarded with patriarchal ideas and oppression. In the prose poem “Dark Star,” the speaker chronicles various memories with her best friend Janie, who shares some common wounds:

We were listening to the Ani DiFranco song about how she forgives her father. It made Janie want to forgive her father too. We sat on her roof making up a dance between ourselves and our shadows to “D’yer Maker” by Led Zeppelin, and I guess I’m saying that wrong. But I already have my connection to the song. I made my connection…We’d walk to the elementary school from Janie’s house, smoke pot on the swing set. There was a song on the radio that went, I want to push you around I want to take you for granted. We kicked off our shows while we swung on the swings, said it was our song.

Over and over again in these poems, Crawford conjures the speaker’s confusion about the mixed messages she receives from both the culture and the women in her life—messages about how a girl should navigate life, engage in sex and relationships, and feel about her own body. Later in “Dark Star,” for example, the speaker reveals that “(b)eing ‘good’ means eating as little as possible. My mom said, ‘I / was so bad today.’ My sister told us, ‘Kristen’s so good. She eats / a few crackers at lunch.’”

This awareness serves the speaker well as she develops an growing sense of the misogyny and abuse that exists all around, deeply ingrained in a patriarchal society. Crawford’s speaker recognizes that there exists a certain silence among women in the presence of violence and sexual objectification alive in pop music: “we didn’t know what to do except to pretend we didn’t hear it.” In “American Music,” no one seems to notice the lyrics of “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix, as the speaker sits among friends, unable to ignore the story of a man who kills his girlfriend, further noting that “you can tell from the way the music keeps going at the end that nothing bad happens to him.” Later in the collection, in “Dream Girls,” the speaker critiques the romanticism of death, as if women aren’t meant to live full lives beyond their physical desirability: “All these people yelling at girls in their bodies. All these lyrics about dying young like it’s gonna turn your life into a song. But it’s just a trick to get girls to die off.”

Yet despite these negative messages, in Reversible pop culture provides an ongoing assortment of images that offer sustenance and endurance. The speaker discovers newfound strength and solace in the lyrics of Ani DiFranco, or in iconic images of Janis Joplin, or in the characters of Brenda and Donna from the TV series Beverly Hills, 90210. In “8th Grade Hippie Chick,” the speaker adorns herself with meaning: “I never knew justice like I knew putting clothes on my body.” Every object and piece of clothing harbors a particular resonance in the face of oppression and pain. In the face of the culture’s negative messages, these objects and images promise freedom, transcendence and joy.

In “Kozmic Blues,” for example, Janis Joplin emerges as a matriarchal figure whose image instructs the speaker and her girlfriends how to present themselves to the world. The speaker remembers how meaningful it was “To dress like Janis Joplin or to dress in a Janis Joplin shirt. /…Carrie looked just like Janis when she put the dandelion behind her / hair. / And the crazy pearls around her neck. / Violet crushed-velvet skirt like I was following a trail somewhere.” Throughout the poem, Joplin’s presence is a powerful one: “Joplin had the kind of laugh / you could hear reverberating throughout the office. / The kind that could set a room on fire, / that could never get big enough.” It’s a power the speaker drinks from, fortified in an image that offers a means of survival—how to resist a patriarchal conditioning meant to diminish selfhood. Marisa Crawford’s Reversible is an evocative collection, showcasing the ways in which pop culture saturates us with meaning, and how it teaches us to become.

Olivia Kate Cerrone’s The Hunger Saint (Bordighera Press, 2017) was praised by Kirkus Reviews as “a well-crafted and affecting literary tale.” Her Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction won the Jack Dyer Prize from the Crab Orchard Review. Cerrone’s writing has also appeared or is forthcoming in Salamander, The Huffington Post, The Brooklyn Rail, New South, and other journals. She's received various literary honors, including residencies at Ragdale, the VCCA, and the Hambidge Center, where she was awarded a "Distinguished Fellowship" from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is currently at work on a novel called DISPLACED. Find her on Twitter at @OliviaKCerrone. More from this author →