Body Shell Girl by Rose Hunter
Inheritance by Nellie Le Beau
Puncher & Wattmann, 2021
Both these strikingly strong recent poetry publications Body Shell Girl and Inheritance, from Australian poets of feminist inflection, deal at least in part with North American and Canadian experience. While Rose Hunter navigates with a highly effective, raw, and unsentimental diction her often traumatising experience as a sex worker in Toronto and Vancouver, Nellie Le Beau practises an innovative and, at times, a more radically challengingly poetics to send reader perception veering into uncanny encounters with our places in space-time.
Hunter’s sixth full-length collection Body Shell Girl unfolds the title’s implication of a traumatic emptying-out of body-consciousness, and the addictions that the imperative to dissociate can tow in its wake. Inheritance, the remarkable inaugural winner of the Puncher & Wattmann Prize for a first book of poetry, moves through a transgenerational and, at times, an even trans-phanerzoic range of states of being. Le Beau’s book is restlessly migratory and always unsettling, dislocating habitual human investments, acutely aware of the world as more-than-human. Both works evoke affective and sensational intensities, but Hunter’s verse memoir is clearly the more narratively driven – eminently accessible, a compelling, at times hackle-raising, page-turner. Le Beau’s more disjunctive language and image clusters challenge cultural paradigms. Performing in form, soundscape, and lineation the intricate and complex embeddedness of beings and material states, Le Beau’s book contests notions of spacetime intrinsic to anthropocentric concepts of inheritance.
Plunging us directly into her precarious socio-economic circumstances, Hunter dramatises with imaginative economy the paradox of a subjectivity that must constantly vacate her “body shell” to survive the deadly objectification, abjection, and violence that male clients perpetrate upon her in her first two years as a sex worker.
think of my body as a shell that I could vacate, not as metaphor, or symbol but as real possibility (42)
In vernacular language, Hunter’s address always aligns the reader with the intimate perspective. Even when extreme entrapment is terrifyingly performed, never, for this reader at least, does this intimacy become claustrophobic. Several reviews, including Jenny Hedley’s and Charles Rammelkamp’s, have acclaimed the courageous nerve driving this work. I also felt that, since reading Violet Leduc’s La Bâtarde in the early 1970s, I had not encountered such fearless plumbing of the things dire financial need can push one to do. Heralding Leduc’s unflinching sincerity in her preface, Simone de Beauvoir argued that it takes much more courage to write about one’s relationship to money, which in Leduc’s case stemmed from the shame of the poverty she experienced early in life, than one’s lesbianism, even in such a homophobic era (20). The poetic vignettes here do not simply focus on the extreme encounters but also the accommodation to the routines of sex work, and the almost homely and maternal guidance received in Zu’s massage parlour in Toronto. They also charter, as mentioned, the heart-stopping situations that the young Hunter’s shyness, self-deprecation, and naivety lead her into. She is convinced that she’s never slim enough, nor clever enough, nor attractive enough, and suffers unbearably from the clients’ scopophilia so that, in reading her, one has the sense of rapacious eyes pulling at one’s skin. As with Le Beau, expressive and, at times, disjunctive lineation and tactically effective enjambments magnify the pulse of affect and the extreme fragility of the subject, here at least coincident with her body:
the wind hurtled snow across the expanse of the strip mall parking lot flying white specks that pin-pelted my calves and the patch of ice that crumbled a numbing, gloving of foot: I was head down and heading for the window with red neon two rectangles outlined in more red neon, polka dots: MASSAGE OPEN (6-7)
The style of another worker in her “blue suede” dress becomes, for the self-derogatory apprentice Hunter, a synecdoche for all that’s attractive, against which she’s already failed: “and I was no Blue Suede” (7; 9).
But “memory”, after all, “is a shape-shifter” and here, not unlike Le Beau, Hunter effects a montage of the embodied human with the built environment; the freeway kinetics, the weather, and then the room, scene of the sexual transaction with the client (9). An alienated subjectivity is sliced into the reader’s consciousness, making the same dissociative excursions and returns its pulse through the shapeshifting of the lines:
because what I was feeling was a full sort of nothing replete with other static: the hum of yellow lights the soft swishing of the snow-faring traffic on Steeles and then I was just in the room and out of it and floating in between (11)
The client, rendered with comic verve as meringue, can stand for the projected abjection of Hunter’s persona, thus feminising and reducing the male client to a collapsible item of culinary consumption:
his gelled hair-crown, pavlova like white belly tumbling to rest on the table other hand on his hip; a misplaced blasé comedy odalisque? (14)
And indeed, in this vein of tart irony Hunter conjures fumbling contortions of client and masseuse to release “the Clag Plaste” emission, eliciting for her the praise, “You’re a natural” (17).
Likewise, the self-portrait of our ingénue, yet to be styled as sex worker comme il faut, gains sharper focus via manager Zu’s voice:
“And clean up the eyebrows for the love of Mary This is forest you have.” (19)
Hollowed out, the girl undergoes the junk food binge to convince herself that yes, she is worthless, shameful. Queuing in the convenience store proves an extreme form of martyrdom – becoming once more the “Stupid Thing”; the binge is “its own jangled beast”, and the expressive lineation certainly nails the beast (35):
My mouth paste and falling water, and emptiness stretched my body, a hole that hurt like arms and legs and bones were empty stomachs too screaming to be filled (35)
And ‘body shell girl’ assumes the shame that should be the predator’s when, prodded insistently in the small of her back by what is not an elbow, she descends from the bus at the wrong stop in the midst of a snowstorm.