Monday, June 11, 2012

Taking Leave: Mindful Self-Reproach & the Repudiation of Cultural Gender Expectations in Danielle Deveraux’s “Playthings”

The accolades for “Cardiogram”, the eponymous poem of Danielle Devereaux’s 2011 Baseline Press debut short collection have been many. From "Cardiogram"'s initial publication in The Fiddlehead 244 and subsequent inclusion in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011, to the attention it has received from reviewers at Salty Ink, Literatured.com, and elsewhere, it’s abundantly clear that this little poem has legs. It’s no accident that the lion’s share of critical praise of the collection has landed at this poem's feet, as it’s poignant, darkly comic, handsomely crafted, and, with apologies to “Mainland Man,” the consensus tour de force of the collection.

That said, much like the forlorn, love-sick heart Devereaux expertly conflates with a hopelessly selfish and perpetually needy pre-schooler within its lines, “Cardiogram” demands so much of our attention that we might well be forgiven for overlooking and failing to celebrate the many other truly memorable poems included in the chapbook.  It’s true, of course, that a handful of these have found homes in some of the more eminent Canadian literary journals, and in that respect, managed to find an audience on their own merit, but the one that most interests me as a reviewer, and that, to my knowledge, has generated the least amount of critical interest, is “Playthings,” the longest and quite possibly the most ambitious and demanding poem in the collection.

What we’re struck by first in this difficult, beguiling, and wilfully slippery poem is the cautionary and authoritative tone of the narrative voice:

Spend too much time playing, dreaming your
little-girl dreams with hair clips, fake
lipstick, mirror-mirror, the [b]right pink glitter
wand and bam! Your legs will become so thin,

so long, they’ll barely support the weight
of your new breasts ... 

That this disapproving and even patronizing admonition should be followed immediately by “but never mind. Think of the shoes:/open-toed peach stilettos, sweet/little white pumps with pink at the heel and toe” establishes an overriding dichotomous (and perhaps even trichotomous) imperative within the poem that continues to play out (pun intended) for the duration.

Now, it may well be that the latter excerpt is meant to be considered as an extension of the opening reprimand, as the narrator’s offhand remark some four lines later “[s]o what if your mother’s a German/porn doll, you’re better than her,” can certainly be read as an ironic means of furthering the initial condemnation. But what we need to consider is to whom the poem is being addressed. While it can be read as outwardly directed (i.e., a warning to impressionable elementary school-girls), or as an address to the doll itself and all that entails, it should primarily be considered an interior monologue wherein a reckoning takes place between mindful self-reproach and the narrator’s more primal impulses towards the mesmerizing manufactured iconography of perceived female beauty and glamour within our culture.

The ironic tone throughout creates the distance and separation necessary to facilitate believable disdain, but Devereaux appears to intentionally complicate the poem’s chastising directive by indulging in an almost fetishistic labelling celebration of all the accoutrements of the Barbie brand by using precisely the kind of descriptive language developed by predatory marketing executives:

The Peaches and Cream ball gown, the Day-to-Night
Hot-pink business suit and your fave, the prom queen
Pretty in pink, hand over the tiara, dream dress.

If nothing else, this predilection indicates an immersive knowledge of the product line, and one, we gather, that is no longer wanted or welcome. Ultimately, the poem provides a forum in which the reader bears witness to an extrication or exorcism of sorts where the literally impossible glamour and beauty fallacy, like a malignant growth, is excised once and for all from the narrator’s self concept.

Behind all the saccharine descriptive language and tongue-in-cheek surface-level endorsements a righteously angry voice cleverly manages to express the hurt and disappointment of having been cheated, lied to, and manipulated. “You’re gutted,” the speaker remarks in the middle of the poem, and while this statement literally addresses the doll, it’s almost certainly meant to be read as self-reflexive. The stanza continues:

                         Cinderella and Prince Charming,
Snow White and that other Prince Charming,
Beauty and the Beast, Ken and you – the blonde

hair, the big boobs, the hot pink box – ruined.

And with this the dénouement begins. Having already catalogued the ludicrous presumptions of impossibly glamorous career outfits, Devereaux’s speaker takes aim at the ideal of unattainable female beauty the doll represents, and cleverly utilises the euphemistic “hot pink box” to devastating effect.

As “Playthings” builds towards its startling final image, it’s no accident of chance that “the sweet little white pumps with pink/at the heel and toe” should make a second appearance, only this time, the narrator remarks “about those shoes, they never did fit.” Aside from cleverly extending the argument of the poem and resonating perfectly with its already established imperative, this almost deadpan statement, it seems to me, both enters and furthers a conversation established almost exactly a half century ago by a poet of considerable renown who also recognized the figurative possibilities of constrictive footwear as a means to express the emotional and psychological damage done as a result of paternalistic subjugation.

From the "hoarding of hurt" we encounter in “Conservation Policies” and the “Lady Lazarus”- like the devouring of a “lover’s wedding band” in “Quelle Affair”, to the “tongue [that] may want/to slide along the smooth hard/edge of a belt buckle” in “How to be a Spinster, circa 2010” and its echoes of “[e]very woman adores a Fascist/the boot in the face” from “Daddy,” Sylvia Plath’s influence is palpable throughout Cardiogram. But to suggest that Devereaux’s approach is derivative would be to mistake the matter entirely, as she never steals, and borrows only as a means to complicate, celebrate, and newly assert the spirit of female self-empowerment and wilful resistance that’s so inherent to the poetics of her predecessor.

Danielle Devereaux
“Playthings” closes with the “pink corvette,” Barbie’s most longed for accessory, “overturned in a ditch,” the doll itself, “naked from the waist down, still smiling,” and the reader can’t help but marvel in amazement at the genius with which Devereaux delivers her knockout blow. The Plath of “Elektra on Azalea Path” “[s]mall as a doll in [her] dress of innocence” who watches “the ersatz petals drip ... red” beside her father’s grave, the same father who bit her “pretty red heart in two” in “Daddy”, would surely applaud the frank and unrelenting manner in which the oppressive and harmful force in this poem is identified, exposed, and ultimately repudiated. So should we. Quietly irreverent, technically astute, and emotionally fearless, Danielle Devereaux is sure to become and remain a force in Canadian poetry for years to come. I, for one, am very much looking forward to the publication of her long-awaited book-length manuscript in progress. If Cardiogram is any indication, it’s sure to make a splash.

Phillip Crymble
Poetry Co-editor, The Fiddlehead

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