Tender Data by Monica McClure
Birds, LLC, 2015; 145 pp
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts


“I’m always saying_desire like I’m a theorist/_like my mouth_is a mirror_caked with vaseline/_slid halfway inside someone’s ideals,” Monica McClure writes in Tender Data, her first book-length collection, and the speaker in these poems is indeed as if not more so necessary as the prominent male theorists with whom she peppers her work. McClure’s distinct voice is an amalgam of feminism, consumerism, gender, and race theory more in alignment with spectrum of personality traits attributed late Gen Xers and Millennials. Her poetry navigates extremely raw confessionalism while seeming aloof or vapid at the surface level, but it does so to offer scathing truths about the intersections of race, gender, capitalism, and sexuality. She synthesizes a sort of old Hollywood glamor with an attachment to detachment attributed to twenty-somethings. The speaker seamlessly moves between Southwest trailer parks and N+1 parties in Brooklyn. She moves among her social circles as a mixed-race woman, assumed by others to be the ethnicity which she presents. She performs a self for social media, for her brand presented through an incomplete, filtered and hashtagged malaise, and always subject to male gaze and desire.

Like female theorists Cixous or Irigaray, McClure’s Tender Data deals with the speculum aspect of speculation—what it is like to be constantly othered, fetishized, objectified—as well as the speaker’s own admission of enjoyment of her sexuality. In “Blue Angel,” she writes:

Men can’t structurally see women
We loom like shadowy shrieks
in the entrance
the way Euripides wanted it

McClure takes on the literal speculum in poems such as “Luxe Interiority” and “Dead Souls” which deal with abortion in two very distinct sociopolitical contexts. In the first poem, the speaker getting an abortion reads W Magazine in the waiting room:

I was starved for love
Now I’ve just had an abortion
It’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week
but I don’t want to go to the shows […]
I refuse to be stuffed full of myth
when I can live like a blade on ice

In the latter poem, “Dead Souls,” the speaker is an underage girl in conservative, Christian Texas whose last resort is bribing a woman into giving parental consent after unsuccessful attempts to acquire birth control or a Plan B pill:

I was inconsolable when I missed prom
and had to pay a woman to pretend
to be my mother so I could
obtain parental consent […]
I’m not a wise man
I’m too fertile for that
But I can tell you that some abortions
are more convenient than others

Not only does McClure tackle a highly sensitive, personal, and often taboo topic such as abortion, this poem is one of many that fuses the sociopolitical and socioeconomic into a critique of women’s agency over their own bodies. The speaker familiarizes herself with civil law by strolling though it “like a gamine through a sample sale.” The speaker waits for a friend to bring her a Plan B pill in the parking lot of a TJ Maxx. The speaker herself is a consumer hoping to be unburdened and saved by product.

“Beauty School Dropout” is another poem in which McClure fuses together female sexuality, capitalist consumer culture, westernized standards of beauty, and critical theory. The speaker here wants “to solve the problem of heterosexual desire” and asserts that being a woman means she must starve herself, she must hunger, she must be in a perpetual state of desire. A woman must do what she must to achieve impossible form of Caucasian beauty under the impossible lens of an unforgiving yet impotent male gaze. McClure writes:

I don’t know what scholars say
about Brazilian Keratin Treatments […]
I masturbate to underground gay thug porn
and still wind up thinking
about the male gaze
how without taste it is

McClure’s collection is also largely comprised of poems such as “Chiflada,” and “Petocha,” which use these Spanish colloquialisms to analyze and deconstruct the speaker’s mixed ethnicity and her inhabitation of two oppositional identities. in “Chiflada,” which is loosely translated into bratty or crazy, the teenage speaker hangs at the mall, yearns for Britney Spears’s early aughts midriff, quotes Audre Lorde, frosts her lips with gloss, and shoplifts from The Limited Too. She’s chiflada in her grappling with her new sexuality, chiflada in her “feeling entitled to a solace of oneself,” in her “sleeping/on the phone with the glow of VH1/pinkening the walls.”

McClure again tackles mestiza ancestry in “Naco,” slang for those who rank lower in the socio-economic caste. “I saw my people scooping/mayonnaise and chili into styrofoam cups/and calling me mutt.” Naco, the result of the Spaniard in the white savior narrative, on the white horse whose genocidal rape is recast as a cute story to explain the emergence of this new class, this new race. In “Petocha,” slang for a loose, party girl, McClure conflates innocence and desire when she describes virginity as something that men stare at for pleasure, as something that “is going to fall out sooner than later.” Purity is a double-edged sword, purity is unrealized sexual capital:

Short of money
your purity makes you an object
of exchange
Mina Loy said get rid of it
as fast as you can

In the first page of the first poem in Tender Data, McClure asserts, “I know a poem/by how much it does or does not/sound like its precursors.” While her poetry pads itself with the stabilizing familiar products and settings from LA Looks hair gel to Britney Spears to Park Slope brownstones and the TV series Lonesome Dove, it is in and of itself a hybridized blend of social theory and memoir. It is and isn’t like its precursors. “Monica hearts Philip Larkin 4evah,” she writes, and while she may always heart her influences, her poetry and cultural criticism move in leagues far beyond Larkin, Rosseau, or even Marx because her candid vulnerability give these theories a much needed human and feminine lens.