Zach Powers Reviews Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, by Patricia Lockwood. (Penguin, 2014)

Patricia Lockwood is speaking of lizard vaginas when she writes:

Perhaps someone is uncovering a real one right
now, with a pickaxe a passion and a patience.

But that also seems like an apt description of the process with which she crafts her poems. The act of writing for Lockwood is one of digging deeper into the pop cultural bedrock to find some overlooked artifact of meaning. At the same time, it’s the literal, not the symbolic, aspect of her poetry that makes it stand out. In addition to lizard vaginas, there are gangbanged deer, the Loch Ness monster, and Animorphs (from the popular mid-nineties young adult novels). The source material of her poetry is so far afield from the traditionally beautiful and the recognizably emotional that an unfamiliar reader might have trouble identifying the poetry in it at all.

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals is Lockwood’s second collection of poetry after 2012’s Balloon Pop Outlaw Black. Before that, she earned a reputation for her Twitter account (now with over 50,000 followers), which was written up in both Wired and Huffington Post. Her most popular tweets? Sexts:

Sext: The tip of a genie where it goes into the lamp absolutely KISSES the tip of a tornado where it touches down on Kansas – 16 July 2012

Nobody following her Twitter account would be surprised at the direction that her career as a poet has taken. She can be as crass as she can be profound. The obvious comparison here would be Samuel Beckett, but she transcends Beckett in terms of practicality. Beckett’s absurdity is, after all, an existential genre. While Lockwood’s subjects often veer away from the everyday, she uses these subjects to create the psychological distance necessary to provide a new perspective on our most immediate cultures.

In “Revealing Nature Photographs,” Lockwood writes about pictures straight from the pages of an issue of National Geographic, but uses the language of internet pornography to describe them.

…nature is big into bloodplay,
nature is into extreme age play, nature does wild inter-
racial, nature she wants you to pee in her mouth, nature
is dead and nature is sleeping and still nature is on all fours,
a horse it fucks nature to death up in Oregon, nature is hot
young amateur redheads, the foxes are all in their holes
for the night…

One might feel that this is more show than substance, but that sells Lockwood short. The poem manages, by appropriating the ridiculous terminology of internet pornography, to make a strong argument that this mode of objectification, not just its language, is ridiculous. Yes, the poem shocks, but the shock gets the reader’s attention in a way that the usual vague platitudes would not. A paean to nature might have delivered a beautiful turn of phrase or a memorable image, but it would not offer—to borrow a phrase from the world of marketing—a call to action.

None of this is to say that Lockwood is a poet with a mission. I believe that she writes poems without a social or political agenda. I believe that’s the reason her poems succeed. Poetry with a goal always reads like propaganda to me. Instead, each of the poems in Motherland reveals Lockwood’s own search for understanding on a particular subject. She serves as our tour guide on these searches, and fortunately for us, she’s brilliant and original and often hilarious as she narrates the crevices of her own mind.

Unlike Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, which featured three long-form poems interspersed with one-pagers, all the poems in Motherland are of the shorter variety. The longest, “Rape Joke,” is one of the best, most important poems I’ve come across in years. Originally published online by The Awl, it currently has over 100,000 likes on Facebook. It’s as much its reach as its craft that makes this poem great. I could name several other pieces in the book that succeed more in and of themselves, but if art is created in the space between the artifact and its audience, then “Rape Joke” pushes toward the transcendent.

Even when dealing with such a serious subject, Lockwood’s signature humor is present, which, I hope, makes the poem accessible to an audience who would otherwise shut down when faced with a discussion of rape culture.

The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.

Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting
back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke.

“Ahhhh,” it thinks. “Yes. A goatee.”

However good it might be, I have to point out that “Rape Joke” is not entirely indicative of what Lockwood is capable of as a poet. More often than not, she dwells in a realm of intense weirdness. It’s this quality of her work that I think has turned off some reviewers, many of whom seem to think of poetry as place of pure reverence. Lockwood reveres little, at least not in the ode-writing sense. It would be incorrect, though, to call her disrespectful. She battles with all the old topics of hunger and love and passion and need—even death, which she manages without a single reference to winter:

When you wake to the fact that you
have a body, you will wake to the fact that not for long.

No, Patricia Lockwood can’t be called serious. The source of her poems is usually small rather than grand. But it’s a mistake to confuse the size of the source with the size of the meaning, or to confuse her willful weirdness with the pejorative “clever.” Hers is a voice that understands something fundamental about a culture trending toward singularity, and she’s wise enough to know that this type of understanding is often best expressed in terms of lizard vaginas and the like.