Review of My Dinner with Ron Jeremy by Kendra DeColo (Third Man Books, 2016)
My Dinner with Ron Jeremy by Kendra DeColo is one of the sexiest books of poetry I have ever read. These poems are filthy gorgeous. For DeColo, desire is not simply a topic: it is an aesthetic and an engine. It is how the lines, at once lush and muscular, taste in the mouth. It is how her language moves through you. This is the kind of book that feels a bit scandalous to read in public, but is far too delectable to put down. As the inclusion of porn star Ron Jeremy in the book’s title suggests, many of the poems in this collection discuss pornography. While I feel an impulse to defend the poems against imagined criticisms by saying that they are not themselves pornographic, that they are balanced by moments of poignancy and a biting dark wit, that they are pressed against a landscape in which to inhabit a woman’s body is dangerous and perhaps the greatest rebellion imaginable is to want and claim each and every tremor of it — I think such an argument would undermine this collection’s tenacious refusal to delineate between what is obscene and what is art.
The book itself is quite an alluring object, with a wonderfully soft matte laminate cover and an oversized back flap that includes the entirety of a provocative poem (which also appears within the book) called “Dirty Talk.” With “Dirty Talk,” a reader is immediately introduced to a frequent aesthetic choice in the book, which is to mash “high art” up next to the grit and musk of the bodily. The poem begins with an epigraph from Russian poet Osip Mandelstam: “Listen, even a lullaby can bleed.” This epigraph is rather curiously situated next to the poet’s commanding first line, “Say my name like the last bright syllable / of olive in a martini glass” (1–2). How do you not keep reading a poem with that opening? I am feeling a bit hot and unbothered trying to write about it. After DeColo has the reader in the palm of her hand, she quickly flips the sultry image into something as weird as wild as sex is: “your tongue / an eel deranged with moonlight /squiggling” (2–4). The poem presents romance as enticing and bizarre, as radiant and animal, declaring: “Love, we are ancient / as the first people who learned to screw standing up / against a pine tree” (13–15). The blood from Mandelstam seems to reappear in the final moments of the poem, in which the speaker equates sexual satiation with becoming “engorged and radiant /a tick boasting her blood-swollen / hunger without shame” (18–20). While for Mandelstam the blood seems to represent a possibility of human frailty and vulnerability within the loveliness of a lullaby, for DeColo the blood is boasted and glorified. Having “Dirty Talk” on the book jacket invites us into this topsy-turvy world of shameless want and pleasured aching.
The book’s interior is divided into six sections that seem centered around certain aspects of the speaker’s sexuality and sensuality, of how she encounters her body and the bodies of others. The first section is comprised of a single poem, “The Perfect Aura.” Admittedly, I had a bit of trouble embracing her reoccurring trope of auras, but that is a minor quibble that probably projects a personal bias I hold against most things New Age. The poem begins with a speaker reflecting upon the “stripped and starving” display of a mannequin and asking questions about what it means to be human considering this rigid fantasy of how a woman should appear. By expressing gratitude toward elements of being human that the mannequin does not possess — “teeth and good vision, / the taste of grapefruit and a woman’s / full voice singing fuck you” (5–7) — DeColo celebrates the bodily while critiquing the fantasy of its de-animalized representation in the mannequin. The poem then turns toward the speaker’s envy of the mannequin, which is notably not for its unrealistic curves and cinched waist, but for its “un-desperateness / to live that will outlast us all” (14–15). On one hand, this first poem is a bit tamer and less risqué than much of what follows it, but the poem does a good job of opening some of the book’s central questions: how do we celebrate our bodies in all their gross and lush temporality? How do unrealistic objects representing the female form (such as mannequins and porn) affect how we understand ourselves? And, perhaps, most basically, what does it mean to love the human animal?
The book’s six sections are demarcated by illustrations from Ryon Nishimori, as opposed to by titles. While the first section begins with a circular graphic that relates to the idea of an aura, the second section begins with the image of a car dashboard and steering wheel. This image of the car’s interior, often an important location for early teen sexual encounters and first experiences of freedom from parental supervision, seems a fitting opening to these poems that explore the nebulous state of adolescent sexuality. While the image seems nostalgic and nonthreatening, we are quickly jolted into the world of being a teenage girl — which is in many ways terrifying and heartbreaking in that it is a world of trying to understand one’s desires amid the backdrop of predatory masculinities. The first poem of the section, “They Said I’d Never be a Dancer,” sets up the expectation of a poem about a girl who is for whatever reason unsuited for ballet or ballroom, but continues into another world entirely: “even though I was born into the family / business — half-off Tuesdays at the Gilded / Cage — the club my uncle owned” (1–3). While we were probably expecting a poem about the struggles of body image in the world of dance, we instead get this startling poem about coming of age in a family that owns strip clubs, about how that is both freeing in its acknowledgement of sexual desire and confining in its relegating of sexuality to “tasseled parts.” Perhaps one of DeColo’s greatest strengths is in her ability to set up an expectation of what a poem will be about in her title or first lines, and then to take us somewhere else entirely, usually somewhere more wild. Waiting for these flips, often made possible by smartly placed line breaks, creates a highly pleasurable sense of anticipation.
While this book houses a multitude of highly visceral images that linger and are worth discussing, I want to turn to the second-to-last poem in the book, “Interstate Pastoral,” which I feel unable to un-see. The poem begins with praising images common to suburbia: “the lewd radiance / of a neighbor’s grass, shellacked pesticide-green, the glossolalia of sparrows ransacking a split-open / sack of fries” (1–3). Here, we are led to believe that we will get a somewhat critical contemporary anti-pastoral set in a non-stereotypical location (i.e. not in a shepherd’s field), recalling the gritty disquiet of poems like “Skunk Hour” by Robert Lowell. Most of us have read and probably written many versions of the first third of this poem, and it is a pleasant rendition: the language is beautiful, the images are vivid. But then, right when we get comfortable, we swerve into:
I once preferred to be anonymous, translucent
and tinged with the essence of being a person
like the Heirloom Asparagus Water at Whole Foods
that people buy for nine dollars so they can forgive
being in their bodies a little longer,
like paying to watch women stick cucumbers
into each others’ assholes to disguise
the feeling of being alone. (11–18)
While I have never paid to watch women stick cucumbers in each others’ assholes, the specificity of that simile, of that loneliness, has a universal appeal — how many ridiculous things do we consume to cloak loneliness? Is that what it means to be human? Or, perhaps more specifically, to be human in America? What even is Asparagus Water? How have we made it to a point in which so much food is made of nonfood materials that we have an entire bougie empire devoted to “Whole Foods?” Here, DeColo’s turn from the expectations set at the beginning of her poem leads us into a deep reflection about the loneliness of being a person surrounded by objects, about the line between being a consumer and being consumable. How does she do that? Really, I would like to know.
Although I may be haunted by the cucumber porn image until I die, I am incredibly grateful for this collection’s unabashed refusal to discriminate between the vulgar and the beautiful. There is something inherently cunty about these poems: they defy notions about what can be said in poems, about what is proper and allowable. I read this book for the first time in one sitting (alone, in my bedroom, somewhat glad that nobody could watch me blush), and I found myself lured along by the anticipation of tonal shifts, the visceral and embodied imagery, and DeColo’s undeniably commanding voice. It’s been awhile since I’ve found the experience of reading a book of poems as pleasurable as I found reading this collection — DeColo’s poems are strongly crafted and accessible, strange and familiar, lush and gritty, eloquent and hilarious, radical and inviting. I’m not sure how much more one could ask for in a book of poems. This is truly an exciting second collection from a young and talented poet.