Time Is Money: Porn Carnival by Rachel Rabbit White

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I would write that Porn Carnival was a confession if it had any semblance of guilt. But, because there shouldn’t be guilt, there isn’t. Rachel Rabbit White is a free and empowered descendant of Sappho singing a siren’s song. Her debut poetry collection simply tells it as it is, as it has been, and as it will be—no puritan morals allowed!

Rachel Rabbit White has enjoyed a life of varied and exciting experiences, from writing for Playboy and VICE, to practicing for years as a top escort in New York City, to participating in a documentary screened at the Berlin Porn Film Festival. She leads a life of community involvement in the world of sex work, whether by hosting a Sex Cult Book Club out of her fifteenth-floor apartment in Williamsburg or donating the proceeds of her merchandise to Whose Corner Is It Anyway—a mutual aid, harm reduction, and political education organization led by stimulant/opioid using low-income, survival, or street-based sex workers. She also blesses the poetry community with both her thoughtful and magical poetry, and by hosting a reading series in Manhattan called Ceremony.

Porn Carnival, White’s first collection, is a lesson in performance. The speaker is fully aware of the oppressive nature of female beauty standards and the male gaze, but she refuses to succumb to maudlin victimhood. In the poem “CABARET,” our speaker confesses: “it’s true, sometimes I have to get extremely drunk / but it isn’t like / poor me.” In fact, White is fierce, and full of agency. As written in “OPEN AIR MODERN,” “when I lunge, I lunge.” The speaker of these poems is a victorious self-proclaiming whore, here to win it all, where she has no qualms with selling her body to the patriarchy. The speaker writes of her own plastic surgery procedures and modification of appearance with an air of shameless indifference. In her short film The Body Heals, with filmmaker Annelise Ogaard, White says of her nose and breast work, “I love my apartment, and I love the ways I’ve decorated it, but then I have new ideas for ways I wanna decorate it.” White is transgressive in that she makes her own rules and wins at her own games. After all, it is her own body, her own time, and her own vision. In “ALICE ALICE ALICE” she asks, “how could we be victims / using every situation for our gain.” This isn’t a book about loss; rather, it’s a book about sheer willpower and intentionality.

These poems aren’t, however, devoid of anger. Sometimes the anger grows to “the size of an international hotel,” and sometimes the speaker fantasizes about killing men with Hitachis, or smashing glasses in her clients’ suites. But, as she writes in “LITTLE CLOWN,” “no i’m not going to cry i’m going to drink and never stop.” The speaker in these poems is untouchable, out of reach from anyone who would wish to hurt or exploit her—White always ends up on top. Even when faced with injustices, she is not overpowered. As stated in the last line of the aforementioned poem, “CABARET”:

and if I’ve suffered
I surely never felt it

White writes meta-poetry in a way that is refreshingly edgy with lines like: “the poem turns on ‘available now’ in their settings / the poem is available now…” and “the poem invites you to gaze womanizing / at a woman gazing.” White goes on to compare the poet to the sex worker in “a poet should live near the water / a prostitute near the harbor,” and we soon learn that, to the speaker, there is no difference. We are also taught that a poet cannot be straight.

Perhaps the most calming poem in the book offers a similar meta-awareness. In “PLUME DE SMOKE”:

it’s very relaxing
to let the poem do
what it wants

Porn Carnival is divided into short poems, like “PLUME DE SMOKE,” as well as long and sprawling works of experimental free verse. In “KISS FROM A ROSE IN A GLASS PIPE,” Rachel Rabbit White sums up her poetics with a simple metaphor, “want operates / like a body of water.” Fueled by the desire to write, to articulate, and to express herself, the words on the page move with fluidity and naturalism. The form of these poems, as well as the content, never feels forced but it always feels necessary—like water itself.

One of the more unexpected themes in Porn Carnival is motherhood. In “DIAMONDS,” White writes:

my mother was my first love
of course I had to betray her

And later, in “THE INFAMOUS SPIDER DANCE,” she tells us, “no, / I have never committed the crime of maternity.” White writes of motherhood without blind reverence; instead, she approaches the subject with a sense of challenge which suggests that motherhood is not a passive position but an active choice not void of consequence. In “I’M LIKE MAKE ME YOUR WOMAN,” she exclaims:

but no one can!
not even my mother!

Porn Carnival speaks in volumes, less surprisingly, to queerdom. This collection is full or orgies, dildos, and the jouissance of gay love. “CHAMOMILE” is a sparkling poem which reads like a queer hymn, complete with biblical references and ecstatic holiness. White writes: “actually Jesus was trans / g*ogle it.” And later:

Xe imagines Jesus
protestors with signs
like
help him
his hands hurt

Three stanzas later we are given the treat of this hilarious callback: “We’re really really gay / and we’re really really horny / Help, our hands hurt!”

One of the more unique features of Porn Carnival is its entirely nuanced relationship with time. In the first poem, White writes: “I outsource my thinking to the moment, / reacting only to the moment and it’s money.” A sure nod to capitalism, the speaker knows how to prioritize their time and energy to monetize and otherwise move with an upward momentum toward their goals. White continually poses the question: what good are means without ends? It is consideration for “the present” which permeates the text. In “THE HEART IS DELIRIOUS ABOVE ALL THINGS,” White writes: “I am the present’s babygirl / I belong to the present and the present alone, alone for an instant before slipping again / to become property of the past.” Earlier in the poem, the speaker reflects on a mirror surrounded by beauty products and its reflection of the present looker-on before her present state slips away—continually.

She resumes, more constricted:

if only time would stop pursuing me
time who constantly pressures me
time the man I never asked for
time who cannot let me breathe always behind and or in front of me

While the speaker seems a devout servant to the present, she is also overborne by its continuation and neediness. It seems that, if time would only fuck off, the speaker could experience a greater sense of freedom. Yet, time is money. And, since White writes: “if men didn’t mean money / and money didn’t mean the opposite of death,” we are wound in a dilemma.

In an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, Rachel Rabbit White speaks about the dullness of work—especially sex work. In regards to her experiences with escorting, White says,

There’s this very specific thing that happens in sex work (it happens to an extent in all service work) where you’re performing, and you’re made to constantly act and react in this little theater that’s been created. In that space, when you’re building that little character that is you, but is not you in order to protect your boundaries, there’s no time or room to have any of your interior life. It’s just gone, lost in the face of work. That’s what’s so painful for me in the dullness of sex work. It’s sitting across from these people, these men—these rich men, usually—who you have nothing in common with, your mind going completely numb.

In the same interview, White explains that the three consecutive lines in “OUR LADY OF THE CAMELLIAS”: “I would rather die than work / I would rather die than work / I would rather die than work” come from an invasive thought she had on a date with a client, during a bout of serious depression. This dullness can be felt throughout the book. For example, in “AFTER ALL THE BEIGE” where White writes, presumably, about a travel date: “in Turin I complained I felt nothing.”

As readers, we are faced with empathy that prioritizes, above all else, a desire for luxury. As White writes: “When my desire grows dull / I sharpen my nails.” Later, in “LIFELONG LOUNGE”:

who wouldn’t
resent their circumstance
who wouldn’t’
want a beautiful
home

However, as readers of Porn Carnival, we don’t have to imagine luxury. The reader sashays through glitzy sorrow as if we were granted a societal upgrade. We are led up the ranks of socioeconomic privilege for free thanks to lines such as: “scattering gold goblets on / lush carpets,” or, “lush pink carpet unfurled to the heavens / wine colored stains along every step,” and, “in Swarovski liquid dust / crystal cut pipettes.” Since the speaker has traded their time for luxury, we are now recipients of her experience. Though, what of it? For, even when the excess of luxury is attained, we still find it to be empty.

It seems that, through the speaker’s experience with decadence, Rachel Rabbit White has uncovered a truth of which many willing participants in late capitalism are heartbreakingly unaware: materiality is a farce. As she writes in “CABARET”: “so at last / the rich may know: / there was no dignity in living anyway.” Not only does existential dread and the agony of sentience remain alongside any acquired excess, but luxury ultimately fails to hold up. White goes on to write in “AFTER ALL THE BEIGE”:

and I couldn’t even feel
the Michelin star multi course

or is it that food for the rich
is tasteless

So as readers we ask, what does one do with excess once it is attained? The answer, according to White, is simple: we spend it. In “CELEBRITY STAGE” she writes, “we know there’s nothing more revolting / than a lot of money that isn’t spent” and later, in “ANGELWARD”:

spectacularly, I let
cash slip,,,

White teaches us to be proud of disposal. In “ALICE ALICE ALICE” she writes: “tell it, how we threw / an entire wardrobe into the lake.” Why not? Porn Carnival forces us to interrogate the value placed on luxury. In a world rich with rich men who can’t even believe in magic, or people too dumb to have so much money, and clients who are not even interesting enough to write about—what’s the point of capital?

Porn Carnival is a work of radical politics which repudiates capitalism despite, and perhaps due to, the innate nature of desire which plagues the human condition. White offers a radical take-back of resources to those in a state of lack so they may encounter beauty, waste excess and luxury, disrespect wealth, and revel in whatever they can. As promised by the last poem in the collection, “FOR ALL THE GIRLS THAT GOT DICK FROM RRW”:

we’ll make heaven
from whatever we’ve got


Shy Watson is a poet and painter, and the author of Cheap Yellow (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2018). She tweets @localsingle69. More from this author →