Why Do We Love? Why Do We Long?: The work of Emily Pohl-Weary
(This is another in a series of critical essays I've been commissioned to write for the independent bookstore Quimby's for their website. If you enjoy this review, I urge you to check out their site and read other excellent nonfiction by members of the Chicago underground lit scene.)
Emily Pohl-Weary sure knows how to tell a good dirty story. It's the story contained in Throat Flower: Poetry and a Short Story, one of two books by the author recently published by Petra Press in Toronto. ($1.50 apiece; 18 Virtue St. Toronto ON M6R 1C2; or through their website.) The story's called "Monday's Missing." In actuality it's a feminist story, about a woman in a bad relationship with a lousy boyfriend who doesn't care about whether or not she has an orgasm. But wow. Somehow Ms. Pohl-Weary manages to tell a story about how much men suck in a way that somehow. . .turns me on.
I'm not sure how she did it, to tell you the truth. I went back through and read it a second time when I discovered the uncomfortable shifting in my pants by its end. Ms. Pohl-Weary writes it graphically, for one thing, scenes like where the boyfriend "sticks his dick in her mouth when she comes up empty-handed beside the bed." And there's the girlfriend, for another. Sometimes she admits in the story how much she likes the boyfriend nonetheless, how she still can't help sometimes but be attracted to him even as he pisses her off the other 23 hours a day. Lorna, the touring riot-grrrrl friend of the girlfriend, is not exactly the hero one would expect her to be in a political feminist short story. And strangely enough, the girlfriend seems to be fascinated with the time in her childhood when a "man once caught her peeing in the bushes in the dark."
Why are these such good traits in a story? Because with these elements Ms. Pohl-Weary automatically raises herself to the top five percent of political contemporary underground fiction and poetry writers currently active. She says, "Look folks, sexuality and gender issues and orientation and plain old-fashioned fucking is a much more complicated thing than you're wanting to give it credit for. These things are shades of gray, not black and white." And it is, as usual, such a wonderful treat to see.
The fact is that the world is a complicated place. You cannot love the good things about a person without recognizing their bad things, and you ultimately cannot hate a bad person without acknowledging that sometimes they're good. . .which is what makes them so bad, after all. The problem with the underground literary scene in this country--a problem that started at the beginning of the 90s and is reaching a fever pitch now--is that more and more writers are not willing to take complicated views of these issues. It's always taken courage to stand up and talk about the real complexities in the world around us, no matter what the age. But it seems that in these postmodern times, more and more of our nation's counterculture are more than happy to tow the safe and unyielding line, pandering to black-and-white conclusions and accepting the praise of the guilty majority every time.
Every so often, of course, we in the minority find one of our own, another champion for the cause of complexity and realism in our everyday lives, and those are the times we celebrate. It's not just the fiction where Ms. Pohl-Weary excels at this literary style, but her astute poetry as well. She says some dangerous things sometimes. From "back hoe loader of my dreams," a poem about being in love with her snow-plower:
"I watch him work: lifting, pushing, crushing the ice / sweeping aside a drift of snow with the same gentle caress he uses to touch me."
According to most modern wisdom, a woman (much less a feminist) is not supposed to use such images of violence in her work -- it smacks of the patriarchal order. But Ms. Pohl-Weary says fuck it. She writes with the attitude that one must understand their masculine side in order to appreciate their feminine, and vice versa. But instead of apologetically, she says it defiantly, openly. She corrupts the counterculture simply by stating retroactive truths, that sometimes it's perfectly okay to love someone simply and deeply, sometimes it's okay to be vulnerable, sometimes our bodies tell us things that our minds cannot.
Do I have a crush on Ms. Pohl-Weary? Well, of course I do. How could you know me and not already realize that? There is a color photo of her on the front cover, and she is attractive, there's no doubt about it. She's emotionally smart and her work resonates with a clarity and ring that can be heard across great plains for miles. As always, I feel slightly guilty about having this crush. Why, I hardly know her. I don't want to embarrass her in public. She could be married. She could be a lesbian. She could be a married lesbian, and don't the fuck do I know that by now. I know my crush is the result of reading twenty stories in a row by a really good writer. I know I find that unavoidably attractive. I know (by now, finally) that the one thing possibly worse in the world than dating a writer is when two writers date each other. I know that, once again, I have corrupted the sanctity of the critical essay and injected first person voice into its middle, a fact that makes my friend Greg groan in frustration and keep yelling, "Jason, you must stop doing that! You must stop putting your own thoughts into your fucking critical essays!"
But you know what? That's perfectly alright. If there's one thing that Ms. Pohl-Weary shows us in her work, it's that honest people make a lot of stupid fuckin' mistakes in their lives, and when you deal with other honest people there's no reason to apologize. And believe me, in her book This City of Faces: Urban Tales, a collection of five monologues with accompanying photos by Paola Poletto, her characters make a lot of stupidfuckin' mistakes. One lets herself get beaten up by bullies. Another lets herself get lightly pawed by a senile old immigrant on a regular basis. A third plays footsies under the table with a pretentious "anti-feminist" writer who she in actuality hates. The writer, of course, never realizes that she's hitting on him at all. A fourth attempts to liberate the class gerbil in sixth grade, just to watch the gerbil placidly stand in the hallway and the girl herself become labeled "Oxanna the Terrible" for the rest of her life. And the fifth lets her boyfriend fuck her in a pool without a condom as a teenager.
It's, uh. Hmm. Ms. Pohl-Weary walks that thin line at spots between extreme realism and offensiveness, and there's a whole lot of people out there who will not take kindly to her stories. But she saves herself again and again by her earnestness and sincerity. Not once is she ever trying to MAKE A POINT but simply make a point, lowercase. Her work is not political to be political, but political simply because she enjoys political issues. Ultimately she is trying to do what every storyteller in the history of time has attempted, which is to tell a simple little tale that people understand and enjoy. A girl thinks of her ex-boyfriend when around her new boyfriend. Lovers lay on a beach at night. Toronto's cool. A lot of other writers suck. The normal things we write about.
There's no clue at Quimby's how her books ever made it to the store. Shappy and I debated whether she had been in town last August for the National Poetry Slam. Shappy agreed with my assessment that we undoubtedly would've remembered a woman like her if she had been here. Perhaps she mailed them? How did she know about Quimby's? How does one ever find out about the retail stores that support the underground? Why do we all make these random connections that we can never figure out but undoubtedly help us, inspire us, nonetheless?
Ah, another question for another day. The back of Ms. Pohl-Weary's book lists another six publications by her company. I'm sure in one of them she has already answered my question.
Copyright 2000, Jason Pettus. All rights reserved.