27 July 2012


One could easily mistake “Mommy V,” the 17-page sequence that opens Danielle Pafunda's Manhater (Dusie Press Books, 2012), as an off-shoot of the pop culture vampire-craze fueled by the Twilight series and its Buffy the Vampire Slayer fore-bearers. The fact that the Mommy character “opens just wide enough / to start the black wings rattling” (15) while “looking for a likely bleed, a gush suck” (12) certainly does engage this contemporary phenomenon. But “YA hotlings” (12) and those who place too much stock in these cultural touchstones might miss a more direct connection: Sylvia Plath's poem “Daddy,” which concludes with the stanzas:

If I've killed one man, I've killed two–
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

The speaker of Plath's poem kills her vampire father with a stake to his “fat black heart” because he “drank [her] blood for... / Seven years.” Pafunda, in turn, re-imagines Plath's speaker, also a vampire, as an adult on the verge of motherhood. In many ways, the narrative of Manhater speaks to Donna Haraway's concept of cyborg writing, wherein writers seize “the tools to mark the world that marked them as other. The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities.”

Plath's daughter can only berate and chastise the memory of her deceased father. By writing a sequel to “Daddy,” though, Pafunda provides the daughter-now-mother with a more corporeal agency in her relations with men. And how does the updated story of a blood sucking mother-to-be alter those relations? “Mommy V” does this, mostly, by having the protagonist cruise a “barren fuckscape” on a fabulous death-sex romp. Take, for instance, the following passage:

In the park, she meets a man
who smells like the trunk of a beater.

Mommy gives him a sure thing.
She gives him her favorite disease.
And death. (16)

Soon thereafter, Mommy meets another unsuspecting gentleman:

The flaneur stud shakes toward her.
Off the path for a piss, too cool
and fatted about the skull.

When Mommy's full, she's bored. (17)

Of course, satiating her snuff-based libido isn't all its cracked up to be. In fact, “Mommy hates sex, but she likes to orgasm” (21). The desire for sexual pleasure, it appears, outweighs her disdain for the act of sexual intercourse; but, perhaps, the killing of her sexual partners mitigates the tension of these conflicting drives.

The subsequent sections of Manhater function, to some extent, as sequels and spin-offs of “Mommy V,” examining more thoroughly grotesque, corporeal imagery. The “In This Plate My Illness...” series explores Mommy's “favorite disease” and the treatments she undergoes. For example, in one poem Pafunda writes:

It was a traumadome
and a mummy cage.
I hooked electrodes to the linen.
These frothed and burned me

and I became beautiful.

But far too soon thereafter
fat with suet, my seams split.
Out seeped all the jolly worms
I'd been hoarding. (33)

Pafunda offers image after image of a body deformed and damaged, “frothed and burned,” split open and seeping “jolly worms.” But in these grotesque images, the female body becomes “beautiful”; at least to the extent that the poet, through her poems, creates and champions a non-normative body and an idea of beauty on her own terms. Pafunda, very literally, takes Haraway's concept of story-tools, whether “electrodes,” a “vice of knives,” or a “fucked instrument” (32), and marks the female body in order to reform both it and the world.

“The Desire Spectrum Is Dead To Me Now,” which concludes the collection, combines elements of the first two sections over the course of a sprawling, 21-page poem. It begins with a similar invocation of tool-based imagery:

Which of these do you want in you mouth?
Petroleum hack cake, wire hanger,
rusted piston, or silicone stopgap?

This is a stick-up, an insomnia drill. (43)

Then proceeds to moments of violent sexual relations:

Here is the lover: carved like a mantis.

If you limb him, they won't stop you.

Here is the lover: a mouthful of nettles,
bleached as a baby crab. (44)

That ultimately prove unfruitful:

I can't have an orgasm
large enough to solve my problems.

To solve any problems. (46)

And, of course, Pafunda continues to offer the reader grotesque depictions of the body:

You gave me a disease like lyme disease,
which you put in my thigh with your straw.

You corpse stunk and puked fashion.
You stubbed whatever you could
into whatever I had. (48)

While any label, movement, or school employed by critics (or poet-critics) to classify poetry should be only accepted tentatively and with a high degree of skepticism, Manhater certainly fits the “gurlesque” moniker, which Arielle Greenberg argues: complicates “the relationship between feminism and femininity...own their sexuality, wear it proudly, are thoroughly enmeshed in the visceral experiences of gender...highly conversational, lush and campy, full of pop culture detritus, and ultimately very powerful.” Because, yes, Pafunda's book does complicate femininity, sexuality, and gender through a “lush and campy” fuckscape saturated in “pop culture detritus” and “penumbral scuzz” (61).

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