Heather Taylor Johnson Reviews Teri Louise Kelly

By | 21 March 2011

Girls Like Me by Teri Louise Kelly
Wakefield Press, 2009

Apparently for some it’s abhorrent to assume that a writer writes about herself, but I’ve always loved that bit: the drama of a writer talking about her own life, or about the lives she leads. So I really appreciate Teri Louise Kelly’s Girls Like Me, because she makes no secret about it. It’s about her life: the drugs, the druggy friends, the fuck-you atmosphere, the I-am-here stipulations. In short, I love the shear drama of it all.

As a boy who grew into a woman, Kelly’s got a lot to say. The first stanza of ‘all the things i left behind voluntarily’ reads:

MASTURBATION.

FRUSTRATION.

CONTAMINATION.

INTERROGATION.

That’s a lot to take in if you don’t know the poet’s particular struggles. But being aware of Kelly’s gendered background, I just get it more. I’m willing to go there. I trust her more. I don’t see it as angst (which I absolutely would if this were some other first-time poet I knew nothing about). I see it as something much more complex. Fabulously, it’s a concrete poem – I think so, anyhow; I’m not really sure what Kelly intended – but it’s shaped like a woman wearing a skirt. I swear.

Yes, she’s got a lot to say: she’s been around the block, the world, been in love, in lust, met some crazy people, done some crazy things, read some crazy, life-changing books. The problem – if one is to say it is a problem – is that she says all those things in much the same way throughout the book. The majority, if not all of the poems, seem to share the same passion, the same urgency, the same rhythm and style. But Kelly is a confessional poet, so is that so bad? In the end it’s sort of like a continuum. This is a psyche we’re dissecting, not so much a work of poetry.

Again, the drama, the lives. In this way Girls Like Me reads like a narrative. It’s so easy to get caught up in the character and all of her feelings and her antics that the verse becomes secondary. The problem with this sort of flow is that poems like ‘DeAd Set JeNnY’ (a poem about nearly drowning a woman and feeling apathetic about it) run the danger of ceasing to shock. They risk losing their singular appeal for a more collective allure – as narrative does. And I don’t feel this collection was meant to be broken down. Like Poe’s idea that a good short story should be read in one sitting, Girls Like Me is meant for a single sitting.

But for the sake of discussion, let us break the poems down and say that by themselves they are nothing overtly huge. They are creative, but not so groundbreaking or groundshaking as one might want from a poet who has lived in two bodies. In ‘Abridged rejection letter from the editor of a prestigious US poetry journal’ Kelly lays it down. She’s not going to win with the critics of any hoity-toity (or respected) literary journal. And she doesn’t much care.

dear madam (question mark)
thank for your latest submission to blah blah
firstly, let me congratulate you on succeeding in taking the genre
to new & somewhat disconcerting lows,
& while I feel sure that in this day & age work such as this would find
a willing, albeit, uneducated audience, I must also add that in part,
your work demonstrates the true spirit of maladjustment

I like that about her. Her raised middle finger shines brightly throughout this collection. And for me so much of that feeling of rebellion lies within her grammatical choices. Her use of the ampersand and slash, her misspelt and text-styled words – they’re all part of that same passion and urgency, the same rhythm and style I spoke of earlier. Even the centre-justification adheres. The choices she makes in punctuation, spelling and form enhance the my way of Kelly’s poetry, and as we’re privy to her background (hate to belabour a point but this is a major point to be made), it totally works. Of course she should break the rules, do things her way. Of course she should be intelligently quirky.

Here’s an example: I love ‘U KNOW’ because of the purposefully misspelt ‘write’. It’s not so obvious but it makes an impact:

u know how it is right?

How it feels when youve
given all u can give
said all u can say
lied all u can lie
fessed all u can fess
written all u can write
begged all u can beg
thought all u can think
drunk all u can drink
eaten all the crap u can stomach
how that feels write down in the
pit of your gut, at the front of
your forehead, deep in the groin,
when everything screams ENOUGH!

She’s inserting her must-write / must-have-poetry impulse into her life’s anguish and, for me, it doesn’t get lost in the rhythm. It’s essential. The rhythm, in fact, is very beat. And she’s a successful spoken word artist, too, which should come as no surprise (many of the poems in this collection can be found on her just-released CD Love in Words and Feet). Can’t you just hear Beat extraordinaire Gregory Corso in his stained and ripped jacket reciting the lines of Kelly’s ‘low brow poets in serials’:

aw fuck
please no
no more of ya low-fi
lyrical die-horreah.

Another fine example of the purposeful misspelt word.

Kelly’s second to final poem, ‘THE LIBERTINE’, ends with five words sprawled across the page: “DO YOU LIKE ME NOW?” If her approach to both life and poetry hadn’t already snared me, I would have been caught by this poem. It stops one in mid-step. Makes one question sexisms, discrimination, those split-second reactions to an Other. I smiled when I read those words, admired the confidence of this bare-naked woman. I wouldn’t stop for a second look at one of her poems as a stand-alone piece in any respected or otherwise literary journal, but I loved the experience of reading Girls Like Me. The pace of it, the zeal … How can I not anticipate reading Sex, Knives and Bouillabaisse or Last Bed On Earth, her two memoires? May Bukowski never get old, nor those of his disciples who have something worthwhile to say.

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