Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, by Patricia Lockwood

Review by T.M. Lawson


There are too many (or maybe not enough) words to state my worship of Patricia Lockwood. I forget if it was her infamous “Rape Joke”, or the lesser known but still as psychically-charged “He Marries the Stuffed Owl Exhibit At the Indiana Welcome Center”, that drew me into her orbit as some free-falling fan-cum-satellite, but Lockwood is a young immortal in the literary world. Her art of infusing social critique and commentary with divine poetics is evidence enough; her chapbook (Balloon Pop Outlaw Black released by Octopus Books, 2012) was followed up by Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexual (Penguin, 2014). Her “sext” series on Twitter illustrates that she can take a medium and run away with it, provoking the internet with post-coital spasms (sometimes mistaken as a seizure).

Poetry is often argued as “dead” or “irrelevant” because of the changing of the guard; the clash of new and old generations arguing over how it should be used. In a way, they are right; poetry is dead—the old generation’s conception of poetry. Poetry is a phoenix. The Beat generation endured this transformation, the Confessionals suffered it, the Spoken Word poets ignored it (sometimes preferring to be separate)—and the same for the Lockwood-esque writers who reject convention while warping it to suit their means. Melissa Brody (So Sad Today and Last Sext), Kate Durbin (who claims that ‘they’ don’t pick Poet Laureates who use “cunt” in their poetry) and dozens of other emerging writers who blur the line of poetic form and sensibilities. It was the same for Romantics as it is for these Millennial writers: poetry is dead, long live poetry.

Patricia Lockwood could be seen as an anomaly in the literary world: no M.F.A., no elite connections, straight out of Kansas, completely organic in conception. In a way, I feel that this has given her an advantage over the M.F.A. graduates; not in measures of talent, but it is understandably difficult to create a heterogeneous writing population if most of these writers are graduating from the same universities and programs, taught by the same writers and professors, applying the same angles of theory with minor variations—literary inbreeding. In workshops, writers sometimes feel the pressure to conform and align the content to some “politically [literary-fashionable] correct” view, because in a way the workshop acts as a focus group, a miniature audience. Lockwood circumvented this and went straight for the jugular, a different sort of poetry: pop cultural, passionate, filthy, grotesque (Walt Whitman doing the nursing?), yet dry and critical at the same time. Highbrow meets lowbrow. This type of art resonates with the reasonably educated or at least hip reader.

I had the privilege of reading her second book before reading her first. Popeye is a surprising motif to decorate the cover, some freakish monster right out of an Adult Swim cartoon. In some ways, this book is the prequel to Fatherland Motherland Homelandsexual—pungent sexuality in that book has more in common with fisting than Wordsworth, while Balloon Pop Outlaw Black seems to have been corseted. This is Lockwood easing into poetics, not quite comfortable but on her way to challenging conventions. But everyone has to start somewhere, and it is interesting to map growth from her first book to her latest.

For example, she spends fifteen pages on deconstructing cartoon Popeye and the ideas that prop him up, “He has never worn a mustache, because he is not capable of growing a mustache. This is because he lacks both the letters M and W.” The poem is exactly Lockwoodian: prose stuffed into verse form, with a touch of irony and wit as she questions the everyday.

One of my favorite poems of hers in this book is “The Construction of a Forest for the Stage”:

…If a woman lives in the forest, we build
her a half-log cabin out of only the visible sides
of trees. She is self-sufficient; in her hand, the play
opens out like a hundred-blade jackknife, and
she cuts her name, and then all of us are watching …\

She plays upon the idea that not only are the characters and speaker watching, but we the readers as well. The whole poem is about performance, “construction” of identities and roles and social expectations. Then there is the equitable relationship the woman has with the forest, both as objects in the spotlight (the forest as backdrop, the woman as an actress). Lockwood’s poetry in this chapbook is surprisingly dense with detail, metaphor, and narrative that sometimes it feels like the page is choking with words. In other parts, the content becomes plain weird. Delightfully, isolatingly weird. (There’s a multi-page miniature epic reboot of Jonah; a boy on some sort of philosophical nautical adventure with a female whale, among other bizarre inventions.)

What sets it apart from other poetry collections is how much of a story Lockwood is portraying, really pushing prose poetry and the line between the two genres meet to its limit. Stylistically, more than half of the content is not traditional verse form, making this feel like a hybrid short story/poetry collection than any poetry that the regular reader might be more familiar with. After all of the conventional and traditional poetry I’ve read, even those that defy these stylings somehow repeat them; Lockwood’s gamble on prose-dominant styling works for her topsy-turvy message. The overwhelming depth of strange bedfellows she brings out (the dictionary salesmen whose “teeth are all / black gaps”, two halves of a horse speaking to each other, fathers and mothers of all varieties) creates a horrific symphony, the chorus being Lockwood’s deadpan wry observation of our natural (and unnatural) world.

A good instance of this is her frequent mention of forest as not just a subject and setting, but as a character, like a background character slowly being fleshed out into a supporting role. Another peculiarity is within the form of the poetry, particularly “Killed With an Apple Corer, She Asks What Does That Make Me”, which ends on a comma, leaving the entire piece hanging on the pause, experiencing the waiting. It brought to mind the old cellophane reels and a strip stilling, images slowly burning – that’s what her poem evoked. If you enjoyed her latest book Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals, you’ll adore this early look into Patricia Lockwood’s brain and the poetic tentacles testing out a sea of words.


Balloon Pop Outlaw Black is available through Octopus Books.