Undercover: God’s Garbage and the Hell’s Nest of Sex (01/29/76)

With A Sexual Tour of the Deep South (97 pp., Holt, Rinehart and Winston paper­batk, $3.95), poet Rosemary Daniell would seem to be working right in the mainstream of contemporary popular culture. Her book is about sex and violence, and–as anyone who reads the slick weeklies knows–sex and violence is what our popular culture is all about. But perhaps my classification is imprecise: it is unclear to me whether Daniell’s writing ought to be described as an exploration of sex and violence, or of sexual violence, or of violent sex. Nothing in a snuff movie could provoke horror more intense than that featured in Dan­iell’s “The Operation”:

as I recalled
an operation
in a glass-walled
room at a fair:

a doped dog, carried
in on a tray,
her womb removed,
the strange V shape
held up for the crowd

Maybe what Daniell is offering is not what the public has in mind. She is a little too prosaic for comfort.

A Sexual Tour of the Deep South (the reference is as much anatomical as geographic, but what relief it is to encounter a first-rate feminist writing from somewhere other than New York City) is a book in which gynecologists are as frightening and as repulsive as the monsters in Night of the Living Dead; in which a woman’s body is reduced like Joseph Heller’s Snowden to God’s garbage; in which the boundaries between love and loathing, pleasure and fear, horror and salvation are exploded on the first page and reform only to be blown up again in more intricate, more terrible fashion.

I have previously come across material at least superficially similar to Daniell’s writing: in police reports; in the worst rape stories I have heard; in the work of the early abnormal psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, as he concluded the case history of a necrophiliac who was caught only after the head he had severed from a young girl’s corpse began to smell up his apartment. Stekel wrote, “There is no psychological explanation for this behavior.” It’s an answer that begs the question; what if there were an explanation? Daniell is not concerned with felons or perverts, nor with explanations or motives anymore than was Flannery O’Connor in A Good Man Is Hard to Find. As a Southern woman Daniell can draw on the bloody Southern Gothic tradition to make new sense out of the fine-tuned brutality of modern life, from TV housekeeping commercials to a little girl’s attempt to make Ken and Barbie fuck, to the insertion of an IUD. Daniell is pursuing the sources and the consequences of a normal sexual education felt with a poet’s intensity, writing to rescue the images that formed (given some pages of the book, that doomed) her. She puts those images across with the aggression and precision of a shoot-out.

hellfire of one-night stands,
of women who want too much

Daniell’s sources are ordinary, daily affairs. “If she’s old enough to bleed, she’s old enough to butcher,” runs a quote from a fraternity man at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Would he be outraged–or proud?–to be providing the lead line for Daniell’s “‘Living on Rape Time,'” a long poem that ends with a declaration of violent intentions that has nothing to do with self-defense, at least in its karate-class form?

Daniell rides her reader through girlhood, puberty, marriages, motherhood, love affairs, fantasies of self-destruction and revenge. Her writing blazes with vitality and risk–as writing, not simply as sexual politics. There is really no respite from the book’s momentum. Daniell is out to expose wounds, not salve them.

tears out my womb-
a wet faceless head-
holds it high bleeding
to the toothless man
who sits in the swing
tunelessly humming-
spitting brown juice-
“I al’as loved dolls,”
she cackles, and with
the worn spoon laid by
for scraping the corn,
scoops off my breasts
and one at a time, with
rotting teeth, eats.

It is a measure of Daniell’s success that in the context of her book, such language (from “Radical Surgery”) does not seem forced in the least. Rather than a cry of rage, deserving to be pigeonholed along with so many others on the market these days, Daniell’s poems are a shaping of rage that has as much to do with her craft as a poet as with her fate as a woman. This is a bloody, carnal, unforgiving book; it is full of delight at its own achievement of clarity and form, and rains damnation on most everything else.

ELVIS: Three takes on the Big E. The Elvis Years (Circus Pinups No. 3, $1.75–write to Cir­cus, 747 3rd Ave., N.Y., N.Y. 10017, if you can’t find it in the drugstore) combines a dazzling selection of rare photos, many in blazing full color, with a tough-minded, teary-eyed rave-up of a text by Nik Cohn. I wouldn’t sell my copy for 20 bucks, but for $6.95 you can get either The Elvis Presley Scrapbook by James Robert Parish (Ballantine paperback) or Paul Lichter‘s Elvis In Hollywood (Simon & Schuster paperback), both distinguished by shoddy printing, execrable design and notable for a fervent lack of imagination and taste. Lichter, however, outdoes Par­ish in sycophancy; his ultimate ambition, his editor writes, “would be to be considered one of Elvis’s closest friends… One can only believe that Paul may somehow reach this goal.” Send titles of your favorite self-help books to Paul, c/o his publisher.

Rolling Stone, January 29, 1976

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