Louise and Louise and Louise by Olivia Cronk
The Lettered Streets Press, 2016; 110 pp
Reviewed by Davy Knittle
A soap opera is unseated from normative time. You watch at home in daylight. Your watching sits against people with daytime jobs outside the home. Part of the pleasure of it is in being at home while they're at work, whoever they are. People at work can see the bodies of other people at work and you can see the bodies on the television, who were at work making the soap a long time ago, or you’re at work in someone’s home, and also seeing the soap opera bodies. It's that other world, the one in the soap, that's a kind of proxy for your own, the absence of which is indicated by the daytime TV.
Soap operas feel pre-internet. A moment in which you might have been home watching a soap is one in which the television was a metonym for a residence. The golden age of the soap opera feels like it's hinge is the ’80s and ’90s. The ’90s are appended to the soap opera as a genre, which itself is joined to its nostalgia like a Linus blanket in Olivia Cronk’s forthcoming second collection of poems Louise and Louise and Louise.
Louise and Louise and Louise is a sequence of meditations on estrangement and its dangers. The collection, made up of four long poems and an introduction, offers a critique of genre through its hybrid attachments to soap opera, fantasy, and horror. The poems belie their awareness of describing spaces curated as though they were television. Cronk writes, “Your mother yells in an overdubbed / language.” Voices sound modified, unable without mechanical distortion to reach your ears.
In a later section, Cronk writes, “couldn’t you just unload your eyes into absolute theater / just die / in your mother’s housedress.” In “No no,” the penultimate section of the book, she offers, “antlered / children in tinfoil, Fritos covered in ants // I would like this kind of soap opera.” Tone doubles and triples in these poems. Even the title of "No no" sounds both like a gentle admonishment and like a scream of terror.
Some parts of the book are spoken by a first person speaker, and others by a narrator who describes the actions and feelings of named characters. The singularity of the first person speaker, like the tone of these poems, is murky. It echoes Bruce Andrews's encouragement to "think of yourself as a twin." In this case, the book is interested in triplets perhaps, Louise, plus Louise and Louise.
The poems' speaker(s) produce(s) and take(s) part in altered states. Distorted time and space, as occasioned by drugs and memory and extremes of scale, make things weird. In the introductory pages, Cronk writes, “I am 11 in the end of my private doll time.” Elsewhere, “I simply cross into wooden time.” Later on, “in all of time is two weathers / is us and the clay women.” When drugs offer estrangement, Cronk comments on a “narcotized kinda living” or notes a person who is “On the red drug / On the red drug.”
Cronk's Twitter feed is a nod to the project into which the Louises fit. Her handle, @InterroPorn, suggests the questions she has: It's partly the remaking of language, in which an "InterroPorn" might be a hybrid punctuation mark designed to ask and intrigue at once. It's also partly the announcement of the questioning of what makes a phrase or image sexy and for whom and at what cost. On her Twitter feed, Cronk runs Romero, the “docu-soap-opera-fantasy” she produces, which feels like the live-action accompaniment to the poems.
One way into the soap and its environs in Louise and Louise and Louise is through the chopping up of images that have been be canonically and upsettingly sexy to the genre of soap opera. People and objects in the poems are broken into fragments, or squished together: “[f]aces laid on faces” or “When we sit in the white wicker, small pieces crack off and fall under the furniture.” Affect is hard to read in these poems. Things are all wrong, but that’s not really a problem. The book is often offhanded about its disavowals. In its final line, Cronk’s speaker, borrowing from Eliot, blurts the fragment, “But that’s not what I meant at all.”
Louise and Louise and Louise succeeds at being familiar and inconclusive, on drawing out the discomfort of the way clothing hangs, or the way someone's eyes rest on your shirt. Discomfort, to these poems, is valuable information. It's aesthetically interesting, but also socially necessary. It’s not an estrangement that can be remedied. There’s nothing to get back to. Cronk engages with genres that provide extreme alternatives to the average unsplendor of lived experience. Yet, in the poems, those extremes are dialed back into an attractively unpleasant Heathers-esque series of scenes.
When these poems look back, they see early shreds of an apocalypse that won’t come on majorly but in a “monogrammed blouse and summer hairdo.” You’ll “[f]eel your toe come to life in that shoe,” or the characters will. You have to deal, in the poems, with having a fantasy you may already have lived. Negotiating that difficulty is what these poems do at their best, as they put pressure on expectations, particularly of what it means to have been young, to be in a female body, and to have felt and managed the gaze of other people. Cronk renders fantasy as dangerous, articulating its engagement with exploitation that is often written off as pleasure.
The practice of continuously confronting other people’s experiences of your body, and of trying to see your own body as though it were that of another is an additional means of feeling far away in the poems, without always knowing what you’re far from. In “Middle Mansion,” the first of the book’s four sections: “In the story there is a woman who is shamelessly confused by the / lack of reaction: her slutty cheap boots and fake fur in the middle / of the Chasidic neighborhood.” In a later moment, “I worried over my unshaven legs: would the effect be cool or / would it seem weird?” Cronk’s speaker(s) spend(s) much of the book thinking about bodies and clothing or getting dressed or explaining what they are or were wearing. Clothing lets bodies be lovely and strange in these poems, and lets there be bodies. Often there are just voices, and no bodies at all.
Louise and Louise and Louise is hazy and sharp at the same time. It offers the superpower of seeing detail through a blur. Sometimes it tries to work with that detail, but often it just lays it all out, displayed to mystify, as in “taupe house,” the book’s second section, where Cronk writes these lines that are a kind of ars poetica: “In the fog of it I watch my stories and examine the tiny indigo / flowers on a weed in the alley.”