Michelle Detorie’s _ Ode to Industry _, reviewed by Juliet Cook

 

Michelle Detorie
Ode to Industry
Dusie Kollektiv 3 / Playful Rectangle Press, 2009
Design and Composition by Michael Labenz for Juliana Leslie
Cover Fabrication by Henrietta Bobbinclyde and Skip Out

Reviewed by Juliet Cook

“for it to work she has to look like a girl”: Michelle Detorie’s Ode to Industry

Ode to Industry by Michelle Detorie is a hot little off-sized chapbook with a highly appealing design, involving spray paint in neon green and raspberry and queasy bronze splayed into sexy splatters and provocative shapes on front and back covers. Since I only have one copy of the chap in my possession, I’m not sure if this design is uniform or variable from copy to copy, but my copy looks fancy fresh and graffiti-esque in an obliquely poetic sort of way.

Poetry prompts infiltrate my day-to-day in that fragments of what I’m reading, watching, listening to, and otherwise experiencing tend to infiltrate my poetic consciousness. Around the same time I was reading this chapbook, I also happened to be researching and writing an article about Rape-aXe, a rape deterrent device developed by a South African woman in response to the extremely high incidence of rape in her culture. The device resembles a female condom with barbs inside that are meant to snag and implant themselves into an invading penis, the idea being that the sudden pain to the perpetrator would give the victim time to escape, plus the device would need to be surgically removed, thus alerting police to the crime. An earlier prototype of this device was more akin to a tampon, but was equipped with spring-loaded blades that were meant to be activated by a penis invading the wearer’s vagina. I remember reading about this device and thinking what if it misfired or malfunctioned? Although I imagine the impetus behind the creation of such devices was well-meaning, they certainly have their problematic aspects, including the convoluted burden of women being expected to wear a dangerous weapon inside their bodies as a safeguard.

Perhaps these kinds of thoughts and contradictions had an influence upon how I viewed the cover art of Ode to Industry. The front cover of my copy features a prominent cylindrical shape with a rounded tip, which my mind’s eye perceived as penile-looking. Above the tip is a raspberry-colored spatter that could be perceived as an abstract spray of blood. What makes this perceived tableau all the more interesting is that there is a comb inside the phallus—and the comb is not merely an impression, an abstraction, or an ambiguous shape; it is literally a comb and is the only clearly concrete shape in the whole design. Well, after reading about women having to wear blades or barbs inside their vaginas, I liked the vice versa effect of seeing a foreign entity inside a penis— especially a foreign entity like a comb, which could be viewed as a domestic trapping and thus perhaps more closely aligned with the province of female-hood. Also, even though a comb is not a dangerous weapon per se, it would certainly take on an alternate meaning if it was inserted or implanted into a penis. I liked how the cover of Ode to Industry challenged comfort levels and got me thinking in some unsettling directions before I even opened the book. Fortunately, the contents of the book continued this work.

Many of the poems in Ode to Industry also present certain domestic trappings within unlikely contexts, so that ordinarily innocuous or even utilitarian objects suddenly take on a tone of menace or veiled threat. Seemingly routine assembly line rhythms are juxtaposed with an underlying sense of unease that just might spring forth like the blades in a spring loaded tampon, hidden within until a moment of hideous impact. Flesh containers and domestic constraints intermingle and brush up against each other, sometimes coalescing; other times, repelling or resisting.

Poems in this collection have titles like ‘OF THE TALLOW TRADE’, ‘SPINDLETOP, ‘SWEATSHOP’, ‘PINK TIDE’, ‘FABRICATION’,’SAFTENING SHEATHS, and ‘UNIONIZED NEEDLES’. Even such titles hint at the buzz and busily clicking needles of female-oriented factory work, humming along like a smooth machine, except perhaps we’ve failed to consider just how clamorous and potentially hazardous such machinery can be. Even the accoutrements of seamstressy trades, like sewing machines and needles and scissors are capable of being re-appropriated into weaponry and inflicting some serious damage. Here are a few hints of the impending danger hidden beyond the surface of women’s work:

“And inside there is humming
dense and thick like bee’s litter, hiving
not eggs and honey but automatic
teeth…”

(from SWEATSHOP)

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“For every root there is a grub, ground
tunnel turned and funneled like a mouth
opening out. Uncovered dirt filled
with shovels. The twitch-light glinting.
There were teeth, and then there were
entrails…”

(from PINK TIDE)

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“…modalities
for workers, bee-hives, honey comb.
Dark where there is pain, plastic
lit in plastic lights, polyurethanes
aglow. Scissors underneath
the tight-rope, the greased
machines. All along whose
wondering about the parts…”

(from FABRICATION)

Such snippets and the poetic fabric with which they are interwoven convey an uneasiness of industry with calamity lurking within, a flirtation with some kind of hideous resistance if the confusion of human and machine is taken too far. Some of these poems seem to be set in a terrain where it’s already gone too far and the human parts and machine parts are welding and warping and fusing into strangely sinister hybrids.

I also interpreted hints of the vagina dentata myth in some of these strange fusions. In many variations of the vagina dentata myth, a man earns hero status by conquering the toothed vagina, by removing or destroying its teeth. In Michelle Detorie’s variation, teeth and other sharp pieces keep appearing in unlikely and unpredictable places, such as places where humans have been forced into machinated rhythms or in contexts where they are taken for granted, disrespected, treated as expendable, or otherwise have their humanity compromised. In some of these poems, it seems as if the humans might as well be worker bees, buzzing away industriously, except they’re not located inside a honeycomb. This comb isn’t honey at all; it’s something harder to extract, consume, or wipe away. The system with which they are involved is much larger and more difficult to extricate from, thus they must grow teeth on the inside.

Other poems in Ode to Industry contend with topics such as fear and death and male/female gender dynamic communication issues (“See:/we were sitting on the side/of the stretch and the car/wouldn’t go. You were talking/about forgiveness. See! I wanted/to yell in your face. See! Yellow/line zipping by the mirror/not enough to hold both/my mouth and it” from ‘WHORE FORREST’, which begins with the line “How I want to tear your trees away”). I could really feel the speaker’s frustration in this poem, it feels almost violent in its desperation, and again I’m thinking of sharp blades, cutting things up, piecing them together in different ways, re-appropriating, trying to get someone else to see a picture from a different angle, even if you have to rip their blinders off or slice them away.

One poem that takes a more direct and obvious approach is ‘RAPE KIT’, a kind of statement on the terrible ridiculousness of the blame the victim mentality (“like who can really hear/ a needle or a gloved/finger or see marks/ or a red drink if they/weren’t there”), which uses italicized words to interesting effect to generate an almost sing songy accusatory rhythm. Although I can certainly appreciate the relevant message of this poem, I was more drawn to the pieces with motifs of unease morphing in the midst of seemingly neat frameworks into a soon-to-be-insidious entity or a toxic seep. I found the juxtapositions of human and machine rhythms to be disturbingly apt—furthermore, I found the machinated assembly line context to work as an interesting and unsettling metaphor for the idea of people (and more specifically women) being kept contained in small spaces by way of different kinds of fear.

One kind of constraining fear is threat of violence, such as sexual subjugation, bodily harm, or even loss of life. Another kind of constraining fear is intertwined with economic necessity, such as the risk of ending up homeless if one can’t manage to conform enough with the system to make ends meet. Whatever permutation such fear and its imposed containers assume, how long will it be before those so stifled start to mutate or evolve and develop parts sharp enough to cut their way out of someone else’s stultifying fabric? While reading Michelle Detorie’s Ode to Industry, I could hear the clicking of unruly needles; the song of an underlying horror transforming into a resistance and furiously snipping at the seams.

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Further Reading:

Rape-aXe: Is It a Good Idea?

Sylvia Plath’s ‘An Appearance’

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Juliet Cook’s poetry has recently been published or is forthcoming in Action Yes, Columbia Poetry Review, Diagram, Diode, Oranges & Sardines, Robot Melon and many more online and print sources. She is author of numerous chapbooks, most recently including MONDO CRAMPO (Dusie Kollektiv 3), PINK LEOTARD & SHOCK COLLAR (Spooky Girlfriend Press), and Tongue Like a Stinger (Wheelhouse), with a new chapbook, FONDANT PIG ANGST, coming soon from Slash Pine Press. Her first full-length poetry collection, Horrific Confection was published by BlazeVOX in 2008. For more information, feel free to visit her website