Most of my favorite books bear coffee stains. I once returned the Selected Levis, on inter-library loan from a big fancy library, to my home-library librarian-friend who conspiratorially whispered, “We won’t tell them and see if they complain.” As far as I know, they have never complained. While I stained just one page of the Levis, the whole bottom edge of my (ugh, signed! First edition!) copy of Valerie Wetlaufer’s debut collection, Mysterious Acts by My People, is water-crinkled in an umber smudge. What do I so love about it?
Wetlaufer unites the lowbrow and highbrow, the profane and the fancy, in beautiful poems that make us question exactly what standards we’ve been using to determine something is “lowbrow” or “profane,” anyway. It’s an academic cliché to discuss “liminality” and to question the “liminal spaces” between categories, but Wetlaufer really does it, and does it with such uniquely beautiful language that you start to feel like maybe you’re a jerk for thinking something is so out of the scope of poetry.
For example, her “Love Poem in Three Parts” tells its addressee, “I want your fist inside me.” By the end of the poem, the speaker tells her lover, “Through thin walls we hear / my parents talk & fuck.” The hard k’s reflect our discomfort at hearing our parents copulate, and the profane nature of this sound is emphasized not only by the status of “fuck” as an obscenity (sometimes even in the legal sense).
Often, we code Latinate words as highbrow and Anglo-Saxon words as lowbrow (see Joseph M. William’s iconic Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace for a discussion of why—after the Norman Conquest, the ruling class spoke French, through which English inherits its Latin influences. I am oversimplifying; if you’re interested, check out the Williams). It is not just a coincidence, then, that neither “talk” nor “fuck” has its roots in Latin. “Talk” is from the Middle English, and while “fuck” has an unclear etymology, the OED lists the most likely progenitor to be the Dutch verb “fokken,” which meant “to strike” in the 15th century and then evolved to “to beget children” in 1637 and “to have sexual intercourse with” in 1659. Part of our sense that something is cultured or profane, lowbrow or highbrow, comes from power differentials; those in power define what they do as highbrow, and those who are subjugated do things that are, by definition of who does them, lowbrow.
I realize that this is not necessarily a new insight. However, I think it sheds light on why Wetlaufer’s “I want your fist inside me” feels profane—is it because this book begins, “I loved a girl / when I was a girl”? Mysterious Acts by My People questions the marginalization of lesbian experience, and asks us to look for our own prejudices and discomfort at “non-normative” sexual behaviors, by dramatizing them using blunt language. Set next to the parents’ “fuck[ing],” it becomes normative—we can feel discomfort even at the normative behavior of two long-married people having sex in their own bed in their own home at night. So why should we marginalize lesbians for performing behaviors that might make some readers feel discomfort? I want to make sure that emphasis is on “some”–plenty of people will read that description as being as normal as it is. What’s important is that Wetlaufer splits discomfort from moral judgment—we shouldn’t use our personal discomfort to determine what is “normal” or appropriate or acceptable behavior. Or the stuff of poetry. Something shouldn’t have to seem beautiful to be poetic.
Or, perhaps it represents our discomfort at any sexual behavior being spoken of openly in poetry, our Puritanical history influencing our reading. In that case, it feels particularly subversive to describe specific sex acts in beautiful ways.
I also want to point out that the contrast between the fancy and the profane, the lowbrow and the highbrow, that marks much of this collection is not only thematic but is also coded in the DNA of the book’s language. It’s in the etymology of Wetlaufer’s diction, and it’s in the title of “Love Poem in Three Parts”—“love” is also not Latinate, but Saxon, and we don’t consider it to be lowbrow, particularly. Or do we? It is, at worst, considered a “universal” experience, felt by the upper and lower castes alike. Again, an oversimplification, but it does highlight that etymology alone can’t account for our sense of profanity.
But this is just the lowbrow, the profane. We haven’t discussed the highbrow and the fancy. The speaker of “Love Poem in Three Parts” calls the lover’s clothing her “vestments” (you guessed it—Latinate) in the first section of the poem. In the third section, the speaker and her lover are “wearing / white & clasping hands.” By the end of the poem, the frank discussion of sexual acts, and the lyric beauty of the English language, combine in the closing image: “You dip your face / into me like a kitten drinking milk, your whole face / disappearing into the shallow bowl.” In “like a kitten drinking milk,” the assonance of the repeated short i’s, and the consonance of the repeated k’s, texturize the image and contrast it with the soft sense of the kitten’s action and tongue. The assonance of repeated “ow” sounds in “shallow” and “bowl” ends the poem on a moment of sonic beauty and on a sound that can be both a common orgasm or a specialized, lyric invocation.
Thus, Mysterious Acts by My People invites us to widen our concept of what is beautiful and poetic by examining why we find things to be profane—saying something in Latinate vocabulary does not mean it’s inherently better than something with an Anglo-Saxon moniker, and sex is sex is sex—we’re uncomfortable about it, and we love it. That frisson is perfect for poetry—lyric beauty emerges from that contrast.
And the word “coffee” comes to us from the Arabic qahwah, in case you were wondering.
Here are your assignments! And yes, that’s plural. I’ve asked Wetlaufer to write an assignment for us, and I’m going to provide one, too. Here’s mine:
Write a poem that includes a word or action (preferably both) that makes you uncomfortable, or that you find “profane” or “lowbrow.” “Elevate” that word/action into the lyric with the most beautiful language you can muster.
Wetlaufer’s assignment: Wetlaufer told me that she wrote many of the poems in Mysterious Acts during a year-long poem-a-day stint. We’re going to do a starter version of that, so your assignment is to write a poem a day for the month of April, starting now!