Planchette by Juliet Cook
Blood Pudding Press, 2007
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom
Juliet Cook is a poet with such a unique voice that she seems to be managing the near-impossible in the poetry world, to carve out a niche all her own. Cook's tendency to employ recurring motifs might at first blush smack of gimmickry, were it not for her subtler gifts: a consistently pitch-perfect tone and uncanny knack for scene-setting to evoke lingering (and always unsettling) moods that draw the reader deep into the space of her poems, gradually inviting the realization that there's something going on beneath the haunting surface of the work that's only too immediate and real. And if a reader were caught looking too complacent, something (perhaps the creeping chill of discomfiting candor) may just crawl out of the bowels of that mysterious space and grab her by the leg.
Cook's new full-length collection, Horrific Confection, will be reviewed in Melusine's summer issue, but for this issue I had the pleasure of reviewing Planchette, Cook's third chapbook. And it was very much a pleasure to literally unwrap this handmade chapbook, replete with dark green bow and feathery ribbon, like a naughty present from an illicit admirer slipped under one's door.
The 10-poem chapbook, produced by Cook's own Blood Pudding Press, is printed in two different color schemes, (the one I reviewed had robin's-egg-blue pages inside and a sandstone-colored cover) and the cover art is spookily gorgeous, featuring a haunting image by Art and Ghosts of twin girls with dark flowing hair levitating over a patch of bare trees.
If a chapbook were a themed-ingredient repast in a televised food competition like "Iron Chef," Cook would win the presentation category hands-down.
As the title suggests, "Planchette," named for the heart-shaped piece of wood (“little plank”) placed on a Ouija board, veers away slightly from Cook's recurring culinary focus. Although confection and consumption still figure in many of these poems, there's greater engagement with Cook's other staple motifs of girlhood, beauty, and (more obliquely) sex. Images of conventionally conceived girlish perfection are deconstructed or caricatured in the manner of the grotesque, or specifically the "Gurlesque," a term-in-definition that I delved into a bit in my editorial.
And, of course, there's horror – well, not so much visceral horror here as the vaguely supernatural and the slightly spooky, like a nightmare where nothing particularly eventful happens, yet the dreamer wakes feeling uneasy enough to want to turn on all the lights.
"Wan and wilting and blue-tinged" girls lounge on "dusty divans,” shut in together in mysteriously shrinking, claustrophobic parlors, shielded from daylight, dirt, and most of all humanity.
"i am lurking in a furred crawlspace," the narrator says in what's ultimately one of the chapbook's most realistic poems, about inducing a vision of the dusty, dreamlike world these imaginary girls inhabit with a real-life blue pill.
"The Spindled Girls," a relatively long narrative poem which is placed third in the chapbook, introduces us to the aesthetics of a society (like schoolgirl cliques, they tend to congregate in groups) of delicate young virgins drained of all vitality and appetite yet retaining a fetishistically languid sexuality that suggests, among other things, the slow decline of a fashion model who retires suddenly in youth and never finds another vocation: “They subsist on alfalfa sprouts and watercress and and an occasional spoonful of small curd/ cottage cheese. They dab their lips with bleached handkerchiefs and vacantly gaze/ across the room ...”
These girls also bring to mind the aging virgin of the Southern Gothic genre, a quintessential grotesque, but although, like the would-be/never-was belle, these girls are hyperbolically WASPy, their fates seem not so much determined by social or historical factors as something innate that is rotting them from inside, a decay from within, perhaps the slow cannibalization of their own self-idealized beauty, the tension between de-sexualized girlish prettiness and womanly sensuality, heightened to the point of self-implosion. If so, the scenes Cook paints in these poems depict the aftermath of this implosion, because these girls, if not quite cold yet, are fading fast.
The narrator asks in "A Few of the Motives," “Are they empty contraptions, outer casings, prettily painted shells/ for ghosts? Are they already dead?”
The only thing that may limit some of these evocative poems is their tendency to stop at the place where the scene has been set and the moody spell cast, and not tell to the very end the stories the reader is ready and willing, however apprehensively, to hear. The most successful of the poems are often the ones heaviest on narrative, such as, in addition to the "The Spindled Girls" and "Omens," about a garden party at the girls' place gone inevitably wrong, a lyric poem called "Stained Bloomers" that traces a haunting sense-memory back to its chillingly real origin in a vivid childhood scene; and "Crawlspace," whose first-person narrator is a grown woman facing a real-world question involving those little blue pills.
The final poem, “Hippomancy,” named for the Celtic practice of divination by horses, is probably the most ambitious in that it takes as its starting point the real-world setting of “Crawlspace” and explores it in mythic terms through the vivid imagery and wordplay that characterize the best of this chapbook's more lyric poems.
The divination theme that frames this collection is well-suited to Cook's tone of inquiry, and when her narrator suddenly asks a question, for instance, in "A Few of the Motives," that invites something verging on a value judgment, the reader is tempted to concur.
Are they the lax debris of disambiguation gone wrong?
Although much in the world of Planchette is uncertain, on this one point, at least, this reader began to feel a growing cognizance, as the chapbook progressed, that the flesh-and-blood rebel-misfit-as-heroine who is largely missing from these poems is emerging, precisely through her explicit absence, as a desirable alternative to an ideal of cookie-cutter girlhood perfection turned on its pretty, vapid, creepy little head.
There is more information about this publication on the author's website, http://julietcook.weebly.com