You may find yourself feeling at home in the world that poet Patricia Lockwood surveys in her second collection — but getting comfortable could be another story. Take these lines from the book’s longest poem, the title of which can’t be printed here, but which connects the lineage of a certain brand of lewd selfie to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson: “Walt Whitman is the Number Two Beach Body every year, because/ look at the way he snapped back into shape only months after/ giving birth to American Poetry.’’
Fans and followers of Lockwood’s Twitter account — and she’s racked up nearly 45,000 of them — will recognize her brand of delightfully bite-size, comic surrealism, especially her ongoing series of “sexts,” which, on the infrequently printable side, go something like: “A ghost teasingly takes off his sheet. Underneath he is so sexy that everyone screams out loud.” These, along with the Whitman-Dickinson poem and another long work in the collection, the viral hit single “Rape Joke,” offer some assurance that Lockwood is a poet as at ease with 140 lines as 140 characters.
In Lockwood’s world, the rules, roles, and requisites of sex, gender, and power have generously stretched their jurisdiction to preside over everything from the deepest reaches of nature to the most American pockets of pop culture (one poem with an unprintable title focuses on a hypersexualized Bambi). And her lines feel fresh but footed, with the studious curiosity of Marianne Moore, breathless adventures in anaphora that conjure Anne Waldman slapping “Makeup on Empty Space,” and the slightly sinister laugh lines so deftly deployed by young poets like Chelsey Minnis and Dorothea Lasky.
The context is conquest, and Lockwood doesn’t so much turn the tables as flip the whole house upside down. Desire is less of a storm than an entire climate; even Mother Nature must remind Father Time: “Eyes up here buddy.” A man “marries the stuffing out of” an owl exhibit at a rest area, a hornet mascot breathes air “filled/ with flying cheerleader parts”; and porn thrives in a lewd wild in “Revealing Nature Photographs,” where you can “see men for miles around give nature what she needs,/ rivers and rivers and rivers.”
Many of Lockwood’s lines bear a smutty, clickbait undercurrent that’s only partially comic; this is especially so with her titles: e.g. “Nessie Wants to Watch Herself Doing It,” “Perfect Little Mouthfuls,” and “Is Your Country a He or She in Your Mouth,” which could have made just as good a title for the collection, with its concise conflation of sex and violence, the way it expects an answer from you when you’re unable to speak.
This is most effectively unpacked in “Rape Joke.” “Can rape jokes be funny at all, is the question,” she drily reminds us toward the end of a poem that takes turns lighting that question on fire and extinguishing it with spit takes: What starts with “The rape joke is that you were nineteen years old” makes its way to “OK, the rape joke is that he worshipped The Rock,” to “The rape joke cries out for the right to be told.”
Funny and cutting — and not without its share of the inevitable missteps that come with exploring sketchy woods such as these — the poems of “Motherland” may be reflected in the Oakley lenses of bro culture, but they also magnify the vulnerability that gives machismo its purpose, as in “List of Cross-Dressing Soldiers,” Lockwood’s reflection on her younger brother’s service in the Marines, in which “[d]isguised women were always among them,” and “They write each other, ‘Miss you,/ brother.’ Bunch of girls, bunch of girls.”
After a few hours with Lockwood’s poems — with all their hornball anxieties and gorilla-suit overcompensations — a pass through James Franco’s debut collection can feel like a safari into the very bro-normative ecosystem that Lockwood devotes her poems to savaging.
“Directing Herbert White” along with its titular poem refers to Franco’s confoundingly literal and oddly narrow film adaptation of “Herbert White,” a harrowing early Frank Bidart poem about a necrophiliac killer and the young girls’ bodies he visits in the woods. In Franco’s film, we see Herbert driving, cursing, dragging, and having sex with corpses. What we don’t get is a word of Bidart’s poetry, nor a lick of subtext. It becomes hard to fathom why we’re watching what we’re watching. As it happens, Franco’s poems recall this unsettling lack of scope.
Franco’s poems aren’t so much autobiographical as they are confined to the focus of a selfie. We get to see the artist/actor/hyperdilettante switching bungalows at Chateau Marmont to dodge visits from Lindsay Lohan; we hear tales of scoring with girls in the Haunted House at Disneyland; and we sit through hammy homages to James Dean, River Phoenix, Marlon Brando, and Heath Ledger. We also get to see him presume that line breaks add significance to recollections of cracker-dry recountings of grade-school field trips. Throughout, one wonders whether Franco knows that putting music in his poems requires more than naming them after Smiths songs.
At its most interesting, the collection comes off like a cross between the Dos Equis guy and, well, James Franco. At its worst, it’s like being trapped on a date with a chronic mansplainer whose deepest fear is silence. To rummage for a signal of Franco’s poetics (bro-etics?) is to return unassured, with revelations like “And now I see that everything has had as much purpose/ As I give it, or at least it can all make its way/ Into my poem and become something else.”
With that, Franco may want to follow the lead of his imagination — and become something else.
MOTHERLAND FATHERLAND HOMELANDSEXUALS
By Patricia Lockwood
Penguin, 80 pp., paperback, $20
DIRECTING HERBERT WHITE
By James Franco
Greywolf, 96 pp., paperback, $15
Correction: The title of Patricia Lockwood’s book was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.