Horrific Confection by Juliet Cook
BlazeVOX [ebooks], 2008 and Blood Pudding Press, 2009
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom
Juliet Cook's first full-length poetry collection, published as an e-book by BlazeVOX and as a limited print edition by Blood Pudding Press, is divided into four (horrifically, of course) confectionary-themed sections, "heat me up," "cool me down," "consume me," and "choke on me."
The last section is by far the longest, perhaps because "choke on me" serves as a response to the project of consumption implicit in the first three titles.
The cover art, which could be depicting the protagonist of the collection's final poem, "Frankenstein Crowned Miss South Dakota" (standing on a giant worm-infested cupcake) clues us in that what's in store for us here may not be pretty.
The first poem in the collection, "Morning Fragment," sets the scene as the narrator compares herself to breakfast:
Marmalade glistens thickly on the blade, waiting. Residue of nightmares oozes through hairline cracks, unspoons me, smears my eye-whites. The eggs are bloodshot. The bread is dark and seedy.
In the previous issue of Melusine, I reviewed Cook's chapbook Planchette, which focused on mood – creepy and vaguely foreboding – and the supernatural, with a cast of characters resembling the girls in "The Virgin Suicides" after they'd joined the ranks of the undead. The reader isn't always sure precisely what is going on in their world.
In "Horrific Confection," nothing is merely hinted at; the horror and the sexual frankness hit the reader head-on, and the protagonists are the bloodless "spindled girl's" worst nightmare: full-blooded females engaging fearlessly with the most grotesque caricatures of their sexuality imposed by mother and culture, and trying to eke out an authentic and original sexual identity.
The "doll injection mold" is the arch-nemesis of these poems' protagonists, and the mother is often its agent, as in "Glass Cake Plate": "My mother beats me in the egg case gulag./ She has to teach me a lesson about/ how a part of us is sasquatch–/ hairy, scary, unintelligible."
The poems' protagonists respond with a defiant exhibitionism, as in "Your Pain Sculpture":
Exposure of vulnerable cavities. Gaping gasp at the jagged dripping mass of your pain sculpture. You built it yourself out of discarded jewelry and rejected words. Out of repression & accumulation. The pigment and pills of past loves. The bones of the sculpture have fused with your own; burrowed spongy homes into your marrow.
Later in the poem, the narrator considers the trap in which the "you," an alter ego or lover, has been self-ensnared:
Is there a redress for this burden you've assembled yourself? Is there some kind of autopsy twisted enough to deliver all this throbbing wreckage you have swallowed?
In the end, though, self-pity is avoided and the choice to deviate from the mold is affirmed. "Pink Bird" begins in self-doubt – "Shame sublimates into inappropriate giggles;/ guilt sublimates into twisted approximations of insouciance./ I curve my own lips. I'd rather look coy/ than cry while I whelp another misfit litter." – but ends with wry self-assurance – "That kitten looked pathetic until it pounced."
At times the exhibitionism may go too far for some tastes. In a poem about inserting an octopus doll into one's "girlie box," the narrator asserts "it's not pornography it's poetry."
And taking this collection as a whole, I'm inclined to agree. There are some poets who shock for shock's sake, or as an attempt at originality in a post-postmodern environment where that's all but impossible, but Cook has an M.O. here that is almost unnervingly authentic: a journey into the dark heart of her own unique experience of female identity and sexuality, not as mother/culture said it should be, but as it actually is, for her in particular. There is something to admire in that courage and vulnerability.
Of course, when she's at the top of her game, with images like those in "little death scenes," the reader is glad to go along for the ride:
she floats just above her own imprint, her tiny glittering cave. her head a panoramic sugar egg with byzantine tunnels, pink figurines, a secret room devoted to pavlova, adorned by doll's eyes, so stiff she could be zipped into a garment bag for the buttons on an empty party dress to flirt with blue fingers.
Juliet Cook’s poetry has appeared in Diode, Diagram, Octopus, Robot Melon, WOMB, and many other fine online and print sources. She is the editor of Blood Pudding Press. For more information, please feel free to visit her website at www.JulietCook.weebly.com