The Girls of Peculiar
Saturnalia Books, 2012
This is the Future. If You Were Here You’d Know That: On Catherine Pierce’s The Girls of Peculiar
The Girls of Peculiar is an ambitious collection of poems that explore the dissonance between memory and history. The speaker asks to be given “back that simple guilt” of youth, moving from first person plural to a direct second-person address: “Look at you,/ luxuriating in the bathwater of shame.” Pierce creates a dialogue between the speaker’s past, present, and future selves. This speaker both implicates us as readers and asks us to join her in her critique of self as she moves through memory.
Several of the poems in this collection—“The Delinquent Girls” and “The Geek Girls” to name two—begin with the question, “Were we never?” before asserting, “No, we never were.” Pierce takes the risk of using the first person plural, which could easily alienate a reader. In these poems, however, the voice creates a sense of belonging, a strange sense of community.
While this larger voice attempts to understand our collective past, the speaker questions her own identity through a series of epistolary poems: “Dear Self I Might Have Been,” “Postcards from Her Future Self,” “Postcards from Her Alternate Lives.” These poems explore the parallax between the past and memory; the past becomes malleable. The self exists in a new, not-quite-untouchable realm of memory in a sort of revisionist history.
Pierce crafts a voice that is so viciously obsessed with possibility that not only does the present self reach out to the past self, but the “girls we were” get a chance to talk back. “Poem from the Girls We Were” begins with, “You’re kidding, right? You want/ this back?” countering the nostalgic poems and dares the “future” voice to “Come sit amidst/ these songs again and tell us you want/ to live here.” Pierce leaves no angle unexamined and the camera never turns away. “Poem from the Girls We Were” is especially ruthless, ending with this jab:
The Future? This is The Future.
If you were here, you’d know that.
This collection presents a world that is larger and full of more possibilities than a person could ever be comfortable with. In “Because I’ll Never Swim in Every Ocean,” the speaker admits, “I have standards. Then on Saturday,/ I have a beer, watch a telethon.” The bold speaker who attempts to change history is undercut by her own smallness in the world: “I think of how I’ll never go to Antarctica.” She never thinks she can’t go back in time. But our planet is such a vast unknown. The speaker considers,
When I think
of all the mountains and monuments
and skyscapes I haven’t seen, all the trains
I should take, all the camels and mopeds
and ferries I should ride, all the scorching
hikes I should nearly die on, I press
my body down, down into the vast green
How do we come to terms with our own smallness? Our own inability to know everything, past, present and future? In The Girls of Peculiar, it all comes together in the final poem. “Somewhere in the Heap of Minutes” looks at the world as a sort of still life by presenting a series of images to describe what exists within the “heap of minutes, including “the hiss/ and buzz of a mosquito zapper,” “a sparrow falling and arcing up,” “lowlight on the lake,” “neighborhood beagles crying.” Somewhere in this heap of minutes, our speaker finds some closure, some understanding that an infinite number of narratives can simultaneously exist, while the past is static and unchanging. Together, the poems in this collection force us to ask, What should we do with these minutes? What do they mean? Pierce leaves us with a single image:
Always they add up to a plea for more,
a hand closing around nothing, then opening again.
Catherine Pierce is the author of two books of poetry, The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia 2012) and Famous Last Words (Saturnalia 2008), and of a chapbook, Animals of Habit (Kent State 2004). Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Slate, Boston Review, Ploughshares, FIELD, The Cincinnati Review, Ninth Letter, Court Green, Crab Orchard Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Barrow Street, Blackbird, Third Coast, Sixth Finch, Mid-American Review, Mississippi Review, Arts and Letters, and elsewhere. Catherine grew up in Delaware, then earned her B.A. from Susquehanna University, her M.F.A. from Ohio State University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. She now lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where she teaches and co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. The Girls of Peculiar received the 2013 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Prize.
More Catherine Pierce:
Catherine Pierce’s website