When I began writing this review of Catherine Pierce’s second book of poetry, The Girls of Peculiar, I found myself repeatedly consulting my thesaurus; I was simply not satisfied with the number of synonyms for “longing,” that Pierce’s collection necessitated. Not satisfied with “want,” “Fire Blight,” and “yearning”, I returned to Pierce, to further explore the ways her language creates, in each poem, a version of a past self we cannot help but long for—or with—and found that to match Pierce’s vocabulary of desire is virtually impossible.
While I am reluctant to call Pierce’s collection an ars poetica, her heightened awareness and consideration of literature and language are evidenced through the prosody of each carefully crafted line, sentence, stanza. Divided into three sections, the collection disrupts chronological account, adroitly juggling issues of identity, desire and regret, travel and escape. Though the poems do not experiment wildly with form, they show a calculated mastery of the couplet, tercet, quatrain, and free verse poem. Certainly, Pierce’s tendency toward affinity of line and stanza length indicates a consideration of the poem as unit, and lends itself to the collection’s storybook undertones—each poem, then, becoming its own tale.
Pierce’s treatment of narrative lends itself to a reading of identity as a combination of both multiple places and ages. The narrative is always aware of its projected path of evolution, the Girls always “narrating [their] li[ves] / from an after-point” (High School: A Triptych). In a sense, the refrain of “Narrative Theory” reflects the structure of Pierce’s collection; most of the lines begin, “I was in Italy once,” followed by the telling of various experiences. This poem’s speaker is constantly filing memories away, all the while admitting the inevitable complications in trying to define oneself: “I was in Italy once / and thought I could tell my own story.” If we understand “story” as an omneity of experiences, we can perceive each of Pierce’s poems as taking an episodic approach—showing us various parts of characters and their stories in order to portray identity as an entity of amalgam.
More significant than form is the tone of these poems—Pierce treats her personas with wit and empathy, allowing her younger speakers a bit of sass before switching registers and delving into reticence. In the space between two poems, the poet switches from elegiac to blithe, often poking fun at the very subjects to whom she permits earnestness. Moreover, though her speakers often question their identities, as in “Dear Self I Might Have Been,” they remain poised and astute, regardless of all their doubt.
Riddled with preternatural places, The Girls of Peculiar remembers with thirst and craves with avidity. The collection deals sincerely with the locales associated with childhood and adolescence, leading us from the fantastical realms of nightmare and storybook, to high school classrooms complete with projector images of atom bombs and a “missing-face girl.” There are 20th reunions, the loss of virginity, State Fair rides, all depicted with the calm chaos of the domestic, fear below the surface, and lingering superstitions. The poems present us with a version of youth that escapes nostalgia even while it exists in a space we tend to glamorize.
Perhaps what saves Pierce’s poems from this nostalgia is her deft handling of persona. Every character speaks as though ubiquitous, though each persona is illustrated as distinct from the next—in personality, in placement, in worldview. Ultimately, each persona is explored as inextricable from the eventual self. This is especially true of a quartet of poems from Part I of the collection, a series that illustrates four groups of teenage girls.
In these character studies, the Girls aver with authority, as though they know which parts of themselves will linger with age—which will haunt, which will smolder. “The Delinquent Girls” are “busy prowling / by the river, sending [their] lit eyes into tree hollows.” These hungry wolves of women have what Pierce’s older speakers do not—what they long for—fierceness, intensity, passion. Conversely, in an exemplary tonal shift, “The Quiet Girls” are described as fleeting and enigmatic, “ephemeral, / motes in light, breath in winter.” Through them, the poet’s reticence and reminiscence is evinced; in a shift to the elegiac, Pierce writes, they “float like spores, always aloft and away.”
Recondite yet vulnerable, “The Geek Girls” proclaim, “great elms grew inside our rib cages . . . so that we felt small stabbings daily.” Here, Pierce tactfully escapes nostalgia by showing the reader that pain is tangential to growth, to hunger. And “The Drama Girls” declare, “We were our desire. We were bird cries, sudden and more obscene than was necessary.” Not only does Pierce veraciously characterize a group of high school actresses in this passage, but the speakers as a whole—the poems as a whole—are aptly called “bird cries.” Indeed, these poems are their own desire, prowling by the river, floating like spores, stabbing our ribs quietly with branches of elms.
The notion that each of these adolescent identities is intrinsic to our eventual selves is demonstrated in “Poem to the Girls We Were” and “Poem from the Girls We Were.” The speakers of each talk back to each other, imploring us to consider their respective versions of witness. “Poem to theGirls WeWere” attempts to disavow the je nesais quoi pining of their early years:
Yes, we recall how the hot throb
radiated, like a jellyfish binding
our organs in its poison strands,
but it’s now now, and from here
that throb is simply the sun on a too-
Almost reprimanding in tone, the “Girls We Are” are undercut by the “Girls We Were.” Refuting the notion that age and distance give mature versions of themselves wisdom, “Poem from the Girls We Were” replies:
This is every house on your block
lit from within, each bedroom window
shining with safety and you outside
in the icing dusk, knowing nothing
will ever warm you. This is the gray song
you’ll hear forever. Your bones
will stay marrowed with dust.
The Future? This is The Future.
If you were here, you’d know that.
Pierce’s younger Girls speak imperatively from a place of burning, of “flames / in the fingers and a frozen gullet.” Most compellingly, they recognize before the “Girls We Are” that identity is an amalgamation of varied iterations of hunger, of want. “The Future” of the older Girls becomes a perpetual “gray song,” and reproduces, paradoxically, an identity of the past.
In the end, no matter how hard I search for a synonym that does justice to Pierce’s exploration of identity, I can finally only say it is a deep longing that resides at the heart of The Girls of Peculiar. “These days ache,” she writes in “The Drama Girls,” and it is not just the world they inhabit that pulsates with this yearning; it is every world we want to get back to; it’s our inability, finally, to do so; it’s our persistence—that we will never stop wanting.