The Authentic Self: I Live in the Country & other dirty poems by Arielle Greenberg

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Arielle Greenberg’s I Live in the Country & other dirty poems is a necessary collection of poems. It is not just a necessary collection for Arielle Greenberg to have written, though it becomes very clear through reading the book that it likely was. It is also not simply a necessary collection of poems to be read by someone like myself who only cancelled a subscription because money got tight and who, like the speaker who Greenberg does not seem to distinguish from herself, also soaked up those kinks while living in the country. Although I admit, as the speaker does in the titular poem, I am not in the country proper, I am “in town” where “you see people who are your neighbors and sometimes want to fuck them by the bulk whole wheat pastry flour at the Co-op.” Being a perv in rural America, Greenberg illuminates, can feel extremely specific, but does not, so much, feel lonely.

No. I Live in the Country is a necessary collection for any “thinky animal” (Greenberg’s term, not a meme, though it has the potential to be one) living in 2020 who is constantly being told which version of themselves is acceptable, from and to, external forces.

This collection is sharply focused on the experience of a woman who, as Greenberg writes in the comically cringeworthy poem “Taproot,” lives in Maine

                 With my husband. With my two children. I knit. I bake. I grow garlic. I write. I change diapers.
This is and is not my life.
This is and is not my aspiration.
I try to escape to and from it.
I am not sure if you love me more or less for it.
I am not sure if I care.

and who also, she writes in “Hops and Barley”

can’t quite bring myself to show you the photograph
of my mascara pooled under my eyes
after he demolished me facedown into the mattress
until there was nothing left of my psyche
but a raw snake-length of synapse, jumping.
And honestly, I never think I look so pretty
as after I’ve had him use me this way.

An archetype of complaint lodged toward poetry is that it is not relatable (though this issue usually shows up way more often as a straw man setup in “how to poetry” manuals prominently displayed in small-town libraries, possibly this poet’s local one, than it does anywhere else) but not even the most well-anthologized editor with a major house contract would be able to make that stick against I Live in the Country. None of the poet’s individual circumstances or desires need to resonate with anyone else (for her and for the reader)—this book is for anyone who’s ever considered what their authentic self entails and especially those who are still placing themselves under consideration.

Though the environment—internal and external—of the poet are exact, they are never singular or, as she announces at one point “Nothing I contain is flat.” We needn’t be Walt Whitman in order to contain multitudes—maybe the only criteria for that state is to be alive—and even that is a strong maybe. In “Interapocalyptacourse,” a poem that reminded me of Dennis Cooper’s short book Oliver Twink both in its visual structure and even more so in its language, and way more so in its internal argument with its own space. Greenberg considers how no longer being alive might just be another curve:

The sun will explode. The clean
water will be gone. Nuclear or
meteor, we are not meant to
last. And yet we obsess about
lasting. The only time I don’t
obsess about lasting is when
you are graciously destroying

These compressed lines are juxtaposed alongside parallel stanzas that belong to the other half of the same brain, and they continue, begging for the same end from different sides. Amazingly prescient for the year 2020, this year of the pandemic, where I Live in the Country was released:

Being in the constant crisis,
one may understandably
want a vaccine. But I’ve never
trusted Big Pharma, and the
only kind of disruption my
internal systems can bear is
the one that comes from your
well-intentioned slamming of
my internal organs.

The focus on fucking in this book is, to me at least, a means to express a more expansive desire to be our authentic self—and for Greenberg, our authentic self is whoever she chooses to be in any given moment—the rest of the world’s opinions be damned. In “Did You Have a Midlife Crisis on Top of Your Midlife Crisis? (A Response),” she addresses this proverbial world with only the “A” portion of a Q&A (the “Q” parts can be imagined quite easily by anyone who’s ever had a family, friend, partner, or even whoever’s interacted with a stranger on public transit):

A: I left the city, left my salary, left a daily touching of strangers in other languages on the elevated train and came to this white place with balsam sewn into muslin pouches. Hung the tree swing low.

A: When I tell you about the choice to fuck like I’m now fucking, you ask, How’s Maine? You worry, maybe, that I’m already bored, that the country is a failure, that the drop-out’s a failed experiment, that I have failed in my choices.

That I have, in my own farmhouse, contracted “cabin fever.”

Judgment masked in concern for another’s well-being is something that Greenberg does not suffer passively. She calls it out, addresses it directly, and moves the hell along with her own business in a way that makes me wish that someone had handed me a copy of I Live in the Country when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. Of course, the book didn’t exist then, but now at thirty-three I’m certain it’s still going to help out and for this, I thank her. Later in the poem, Greenberg again brings the prescience:

A: Some people consider this an apocalypse, and some people are on lockdown, cannot travel, will not travel. Some people cannot, will not fuck for pleasure. Some people cannot, will not love a lot of some people.

A: I find my town a hopeful place. I find it a sheltering field. My sexual pleasure is non-site specific and mobile, and sometimes happens in the ether, or in text. And before or after my face is slapped to the snap of ecstasy, I want to eat raw honey from Swanville on a spoon and walk to the post office.

Having read this book while on a lockdown that didn’t exist when this poem would have been written, the degree to which the poem and the book resonated was amplified—though it would have resonated strongly under any conditions. We are all amalgamations, Greenberg asserts, and we need not adhere to only one portion of ourselves—especially when it’s the part which others prefer to see.

There’s absolutely no prerequisite for a reader to be into kink (whatever that means to the reader) because these poems hit hard. Nobody needs to desire their face to be slapped in order to be subject to the pressure to obtain a seal of approval from others.

Despite this, I must return to my own canceled subscription. Though I got rid of the service because I couldn’t afford it any longer, like most paid digital content, asks why you are choosing to no longer subscribe. On the list of options for an answer is “my family disapproves.” Though I can’t put a dedication in somebody else’s book, I Live in the Country & other dirty poems is for the people who have chosen that answer in all sincerity.

Every poem in I Live in the Country sells what it’s craving. Sometimes that craving is simply “for salted butter slabbed on a dull, heavy knife” or, more complicatedly but equally desired, “to fuck your jump-started, your amped-in, your dragged-out selfhood.” Most of all Greenberg seems to crave kink. To begin the book’s last poem, “The Grid,” Greenberg pulls us aside and writes:

I will tell you the dirtiest secret:                     all this “play”

is just                           a way to make the bright red strings
of invisible power

                             that matrix through our everyday doings

In making those “bright red strings of invisible power” visible, Greenberg renders them avoidable. They will, of course, continue to exist and try to obstruct our movement, but she has offered us a very useful map around them. It’s up to us to choose our route.

Joseph Goosey lives in North Carolina where he held multiple jobs prior to the pandemic and is a volunteer at the Carolina Tiger Rescue. A dropout of the MFA Program at George Mason University, he is the author of a few chapbooks including STUPID ACHE (Greybook Press, 2013) and one full-length collection of poems, Parade of Malfeasance (EMP Books, 2020). More from this author →