Pop culture has mass-produced an American girl that is fun (never emotional, always happy), sexy, open-minded, part plastic, and willing and able to dance all night. Cynie Cory’s book American Girl, however, has quite a different take on this image. The American girl in these poems isn’t overly romanticized by outsiders; instead, she overly romanticizes the world outside her only to be met with disappointment.
by Cynie Cory
New Issues Poetry & Prose, January 2004
The American girl is Midwestern and knows how to use a gun: “I fired my father’s .410 shotgun when I was ten. / It ripped apart my intelligence. // I began believing in ammunition, in passion, in the right to take possession.” Cory suggests that this American girl, in recognizing and ironically embracing the gruesome facts behind American concerns over ownership and the right to bear arms, is more of a rebellious dissenter than a patriot. The poems themselves refuse stringency, moving from free verse to prose, from sonnets to unruly poems, with lines that stretch and yearn to escape the edge of the page.
The girl and the American are never far apart from one another. “American” has invaded girlhood; puberty and American conjointly are “dirty,” as in the poem “The Intruder”:
Someone inspects my period as though I’ve committed a crime.
I bury myself in beach sand until I am no longer ready.
It is debatable whether I am American.
I decide to flee to Paris for no artistic reason.
“American” seems to be how the speaker of these poems identifies herself, yet “American” is more than a label; it is embedded with one’s skin, coursing through one’s veins. The speaker romanticizes the notion of escaping this identity:
I never underestimated
The terrific wind pulling in the dark caps, driftwood
At my feet, appeared. (Canada) This is what I heard:
A landscape like this could not love me.
What the speaker longs for is the thaw of river ice to free lives seemingly trapped there. She longs for a moon that is too far away and a continent beyond her borders. Speaking to the one she longs for, in the prose poem “The Smell of Snow,” she says, “You are so far from here, walking in tall grass, rhyming your verbs. I drift north.”
In “The Smell of Gasoline,” Cory writes, “Amputate the moon like a theory that strings us together. / Time insists we murder fear like a country, fill our days with / bones, hash, amphetamines.” The moon, of course, is also quite American in these poems: it’s an amputee. These poems are not so passive and dreamy as one might think: read them closely enough and you will discover that these are poems of protest against the Iraq war.
Although puberty plays a crucial role in the life of the American girl, it is not springtime—that pretty nymph and budding-breast time—that is the season of these poems. There are no summering, suntanned bikini-babes on beach blankets. (This American girl is never transparent, existing always beneath the surface. Moreover, she prefers the sexual company of women to that of men.) It is always winter here, and the past is a dead, trapped weight, a piece of driftwood forever returning. As titles such as “The Fiction” and “The Terminology of Winter (How the Past Exists)” suggest, Cory relates events to fictions and memories to lexicographic entries in order to catalogue them. In “The Terminology of Winter,” Cory reports on the past:
The river behind my father’s only house opens its mouth like moaning
into the lake. Every winter it freezes there like that, open.
Underneath, what flows never rests, tormented, the terror of everything
past and present—
How many bodies are trapped? Winter never really finishes itself. When
the surface cracks.
When the ice breaks free. It is still winter.
Cory’s biographical statement reads that she grew up in Marquette, Michigan, a place where winters do last much longer than winters should. The whole childhood of this American girl seems to have taken place in snow and ice. Not even winter, however, is free from American soil: “Of America, I knew about winter,” Cory writes in “Gun.”
In “What is America?” Cory seems to suggest that America is precisely a romanticized vision, a fantasy that is created through want: “She wore a fuse around her neck & // I fantasized she was some beautiful boy in the Army Reserve. / Then she took my head // I found—my tongue like a soft wet blade parting her.” Of course, in this version of America, loving acts are committed like murder—“like a slashed wrist” in the poem “Back Home in America,” or like a knife in the belly of pregnant fish in the poem “Fishing.”
Even though Cory presents us with a world where the self is shackled and love is sometimes violent, she doesn’t leave us without hope. In “The Theory of Everything,” Cory writes,
There is a God.
He wants a flower the size of Philadelphia
to open in the moonlight
even when the moonlight
The universe is something I can believe in.
Cory ends American Girl with hauntingly beautiful lines. I won’t spoil the ending by reproducing those lines here, but I can say that they definitely give us something to “believe in,” which most poets refuse to provide these days—even though this is the very reason why we consult the poet. Cory’s poetry proceeds without pretension, a poetry that refuses to supply false beauty, but one that is also unable to leave us with a message of utter despair. Cory is an American girl worth consulting.
Jenny Boully is a renowned young poet and critic based in New York. Moveable Type appears every other Sunday.