Ruining the “Fun”: Patricia Lockwood’s Slippery Poetry

MOTHERLANDIn a dark coincidence, the author of the widely-shared poem “Rape Joke,” Patricia Lockwood, released her second book of poetry just four days after the Isla Vista killings.

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals deals with the objectification of and violence against women in a mystical, gritty and surprisingly elegant way, and though the timing was certainly not intentional, a book speaking to the danger and pain many women face could not have been more necessary as the country reels from this misogynistic and violent tragedy.

Unfortunately, the book of poetry has faced backlash from mostly male reviewers whose critiques range from a dislike of her complicated prose to problems with her allegedly pretentious author biography on the back of the book. Many of these reviews marginalize Lockwood’s writing, as is characteristically done to many female authors. As Mallory Ortberg of The Toast points out, one reviewer of Lockwood’s book—Adam Plunkett of the New Yorker—employed six of the 11 methods commonly used to suppress writing by women.

These problematic reviews of Lockwood often focus intensely on “Rape Joke,” which is included in her latest collection. The poem shot her to fame in 2013 through social media sharing and allowed her to develop a fierce online following.

The problem is not necessarily the reviewers’ analysis of the poem itself, but rather such claims as Plunkett’s assertion, “I hope that Lockwood follows its example” in writing future poems. Earlier, he suggests the poem “probably wouldn’t have been written if Twitter hadn’t been around.” His review implies both that Lockwood has only produced one great work (a term the late, great sci-fi writer Joanna Russ, in her book How to Suppress Women’s Writingterms “isolation”) and couldn’t possibly have produced that poem without some sort of aid from Twitter. (As if all writers aren’t inspired by the media that surrounds them.)

Notably, “Rape Joke” is not the only, or even most poignant poem in her latest collection that speaks to a world in which many women are stripped of their dignity and shoved into a corner.

It’s certainly not surprising that reviewers are attracted to “Rape Joke”. The poem’s doomsday wittiness is simpler and easier to cling to than that of some of her other work, and at least ideologically few would disagree about the immorality of rape. She opens the poem with,

The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.

The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.

The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.

However, reviewers’ attachment to this one poem may reveal their inability to grapple with the complicated, “slippery” language in Lockwood’s other poetry. Plunkett begs her to “make [her poetry] more open to the emotional lives of men she mocks,” and to stop clouding her depictions in a “sea of abstractions.” His and other critics’ inability to contend with her other poems speaks to a society that is quick to condemn the clearly evil (rape in theory, especially rape in a back ally by a stranger) but hesitant to deal with the blurrier, more common instances of sexual assault and harassment.

In a recent interview, Lockwood commented on the difficulty some male reviewers have expressed in connecting with her more recent poetry:

Maybe what we are seeing is that it is more difficult for men—to recognize that they’re in someone else’s hands, to recognize that they’re at someone else’s mercy, when the author’s touch feels different, when the poems are these poems.

Yet if you take the time to wander through Lockwood’s mazes, you will discover an incredibly rich description of the complicated nature of sexism, marginalization and hosts of other issues. “Revealing Nature Photographs,” for example, recalls the pastoral poems of John Milton and others who portrayed nature as a woman and used fertility-based and other metaphors to sexualize the feminized landscape. In these poems, the possession and abuse of women is beautified and praised through the male gaze. Lockwood calls attention to the controlling nature of women-as-nature tropes by using “praise” of nature’s fertility and sexuality in a pornographic manner. The poem reads,

Nature she wants you to pee in her mouth, nature

is dead and nature is sleeping and still nature is on all fours.

Hidden within the pornographic language is the misogyny many women regularly face in the form of cat calls and groping. “Let me watch and watch / without her knowing,  let me see her where she can’t see me,” Lockwood writes, speaking to the way women are silently watched and judged and perpetually sexualized.

Finally at the end of the poem, when nature/woman rejects the male, he takes his vengeance. Perceiving ownership over her body, the male protagonist cannot grapple with the fact that she would not want him, and as punishment for her rejection he can now “come in her eye.”

Of course, this is only nature we are speaking of. Only a poem. Right?

Or is nature the women shot to death as “punishment” for a man being rejected? Is nature the one in three women subjected to intimate partner violence because they are seen as the “property” of another?

Interestingly, Plunkett complains about this poem because he feels the poem “doesn’t evoke Nature well enough to think of her as any sort of woman, let alone one whom you repressed your anger toward.” This critique ignores and marginalizes cases similar to that of Elliot Rodger, where a man reacted violently to rejection, as well as the very real porn industry which frequently frames abuse of the female body as expressions of sexual desire. The character in the poem being paddled, watched and commodified is not just Nature, it’s the many women subjected to rape, incest, cat calling and various other forms of abuse and sexual harassment.

Just as she does with the feminization of nature, Lockwood redefines other poetic tropes to expose their sexist roots and the danger of continuing to employ such metaphors. One popular trope consists of disguising the objectification of a woman’s body by praising her for her individual parts. In a famous Edmund Spenser poem, the poet describes his “love” for a woman by comparing her body parts to pearls, rubies and gold until she is a series of tradeable commodities rather than a woman.

Lockwood reimagines this concept in “Love Poem Like We Used to Write It.” It features a woman described as the sum of her individual parts: her “teeth infinite white,” her adorable “small brown paw” and her “blond of course and blond” hair. Lockwood describes the unattainable constructs of beauty created by the  commodified woman who is “human as we used / to use it, which is to say almost no one among us.” The valuing of the character’s beauty above all else causes her to be torn to shreds in this supposed love poem. “Loop after loop flew out of her helpless.”

Similarly, “The Hornet Mascot Falls in Love” speaks to a myth that frequently perpetuates violence against women: the idea that all women are one interchangeable mass. Look at the Isla Vista killings—Elliot Rodger viewed all women as one despicable entity, such that he could hurt any woman as punishment for all women’s wrongs. Lockwood portrays this perception of oneness when she writes,

Cheerleaders are a whole, are known

to disassemble in the middle of the air

and come back down with different 

thighs, necks from other girls …

All in all, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals speaks to difficult modern issues, and it’s even more powerful for doing so in a way that comments on modern communication. Lockwood’s use of Twitter’s characteristically short, eye-catching language is a beautiful way of critiquing the world through the language of that world.

But obviously, she’s difficult for some men. Jonathan Farmer wrote in Slate that Lockwood’s poetry makes him “feel like the guy who ruins all the fun.” But when the “fun” is sexual assault, breaking women into commodified parts and diminishing women’s intellects, I think the fun deserves to be ruined.



Margaret Nickens is a senior at Brown University and an intern with Ms. magazine. Check out her blog or follow her on Twitter


Margaret Nickens is a senior at Brown University and an intern with Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.