In his review, “Strife Between the Tinctures,” Aaron McCollough argues that Carmen Giménez-Smith’s Milk & Filth “explicitly positions itself as part of the third-wave feminist project called ‘The Gurlesque,’” a subgenre that in his view “reckons with and embraces apparent contradictions at work in the construction of 21st-century female identity,” and whose “most hyperbolic, current mass-culture manifestation” is Miley Cyrus with her “hyper-sexualized, hyper-cute performative persona.” Because of this, Milk and Filth provokes his consideration of his “performance position as reader.” He asks himself, “Might I not better suit myself to the experience if I performed my reading not as a he but as a she?” and he tries to read Milk and Filth as a woman, but ultimately fails because “I’m a dude, and my feminine reading persona more often than not felt forced.” Ultimately, he concludes, he best read the text as an “it.”
When the Gurlesque anthology was released in 2010, it caused a fair amount of controversy much of which concerned the question of who or what was included or excluded by the editors, a problem that seems to haunt most anthologists who attempt to coin new genres. But “because God named all the animals,” Arielle Greenberg was compelled to coin a new genre, to delineate who and what to include or exclude in the Gurlesque, which to me is all fine and good, I suppose, because the invited authors had the chance to decline before brandishing the label, so none suffered forced branding, the way McCollough seems to force Giménez-Smith in his review. And here I don’t mean “force” to evoke some unwanted masculine penetration. I mean to say that most of what I read in Milk & Filth as a reader runs completely contrary to what I understand about the Gurlesque. To classify Milk and Filth into the subgenre is in fact to force the work into a space it simply doesn’t fit.
To Lara Glenum, the Gurlesque “assaults the norms of acceptable female behavior by irreverently deploying gender stereotypes to subversive ends.” The Gurlesque borrows from the Burlesque in that its performers masquerade literally or poetically in costumes that parody, among other things, “normative” behavior of the different genders. It exposes the monsters that mediocracy creates by parading as their carnivalesque extremes. Glenum makes it clear that the poems in the anthology “are not persona poems,” that there is no face beneath the mask because “there is no actual self.” There is only the performance on the self, only “a messy nest of conflicting desires and proclivities that can be costumed.”
I find much of Milk and Filth, however, is comprised of nothing but persona poems. Homages, in fact. Reverent anti-parodies that depict the experiences of real persons, characters, or archetypes. Each of the titles in Part I employs open and close brackets in the title as if to insure to the reader that what is being depicted is merely a partial depiction of a complete picture. As in mathematics where the brackets indicate a relation to the larger equation, Giménez-Smith’s brackets indicate that there is a whole self beyond what she chooses to depict. Many of the poems of Millk and Filth are written in the third and second person, not in the Gurlesque “I” that parodies the “I.” Some reference real people, like Malinché. One depicts Susannah from the Bible. Then there are archetypal characters like Lolita, Romeo, and Phaedra. But while some of these characters are dramatic characters, the poet’s depictions are not parodic. In fact, they are anti-parodic. There is a sense that Giménez-Smith subtly scolds the Gurlesque poets by gently rebuking their fixation on emptiness. In one, she writes, “You leave cloud / out of your play because / he’s amateur.” In another, she writes, “The Pope invents nihilism, and then Juliette is born.” In this poem, although she points to “[Juliette’s] deference to utopian carnival,” it is a mistake to think that the poet is proponent of the superficial carnivalesque, let alone a card-carrying member. It’s quite the contrary, in fact. She points to Juliette’s ultimate depth. “I can barely see [Juliette]. Heavy with aura… she’s a visionary’s / invitation to the nadir.”
To Glenum, the Gurlesque, like the Burlesque, is “closely related to the realm of camp.” Glenum quotes Susan Sontag to explain “the essence of Camp is the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” and “this interest in artifice is one of the hallmarks of the Gurlesque poets who rail against classical canons of the Natural.” Glenum uses as example of this the “kitschy imagery” in Chelsey Minnis’s poem to as example, with its “hotpants and spearguns, leopard pillows and cat-eye glasses.” These, she says, make “a parody of aesthetic consciousness.” But the poems in Milk and Filth to be full of the natural, not the artificial, rivers, oceans, fish, weeds. She writes of “shelters of trees,” “a scabbed leg,” and “Trees, caverns, rocks / made perilous by green.” In “Labor Day,” she writes, “I split open like a melon. / I bled and shat. My back was / a semi-colon. I bled and shat.” And In “Parts of an Autobiography” she wrotes about Ana Mendieta, a Cuban-American artist best known for her “earth-body” sculptures in which she merges her naked body with the landscape. On the Hirschorn website, Mendieta’s work is introduced as follows:
While deeply rooted in her personal experience, Mendieta’s art reveals a passionate desire to connect with a wider, collective human heritage. She sought to unravel the collective layers of individual and societal history and unmask the latent ethnic, cultural and gender biases in society, thereby fostering greater self-awareness and comprehension of the complex diversity of humanity.
For these are the issues at play in Milk and Filth: “the latent ethnic, cultural and gender biases in society.” In “A Devil Inside Me, after Ana Mendieta,” She writes, “Press a hand into / earth’s flesh – / duplexity comes up / like inception. / The bodyprint / is an illegible surge: / of leaving trace / of self on route.”
To Glenum, “Gurlesque poets deny catharsis because they deny the aesthetics of the pure,” and yet in “Parts of an Autobiography,” Giménez-Smith writes, “The decision to excavate is the catharsis. The transformation from dreadfulness to art is the catharsis.” To Greenberg, “[The] honest assessment of the perverse pleasures of horror – even horror so closely associated with women’s suppression – is one of the key markers of the Gurlesque,” and yet in “For Lars Von Trier,” Giménez-Smith writes, “This is a gesture of offense but not meant / offensively: I’d like to garrote you with your / camera as an in-kind spectacle.” Cuteness too is an element of the Gurlesque, “Come pet my ketty sweet kitty,” for cuteness “reveals a state of acute deformity.” And sure, one could find a lot of deformity in Milk and Filth, but I read Giménez-Smith’s deformity as deformity. There’s nothing cute about it.
Finally, Glenum argues that the Gurlesque is part of the third wave, and that this “third wave” puts female pleasure at the center of their poetics, and writes, “bell hooks has repeatedly critiqued Second Wave feminists for seeing their desire for political change as a separate entity from the longings and passions that are the stuff of their everyday lives.” There are a lot of waves in Milk and Filth, to be sure. “The wave comes down.” “Down the ocean’s blur.” But Giménez-Smith seems to criticize the so-called third wave for its criticism of the second wave. “An agitator holds her sign up asking do you feel equal, so you and your sisters deride her / because she’s so public about injustice, so second-wave,” paying homage to Simone de Beauvoir, Adrian Rich, Our Bodies Ourselves. Whether or not Giménez-Smith is first or second or third wave feminist, I don’t know. I get sea sick. The point is, if feminism builds itself on the foundations of our foremothers, how can a feminist criticize our foremothers for thinking too narrowly? To me, feminism, like equal rights movements, are movements that should build on the past without interring it.
With respect to McCullough, it’s clear that he enjoys Milk and Filth. He genuinely lauds Giménez-Smith’s work. My concern with his reading of the book, however, is his desire to categorize it in a genre to which it clearly doesn’t belong. Whether or not this has anything to do with his approach to reading, I’m not sure. Because I’m not sure what it’s like to read something as a “she” or an “it.” I only know what it’s to read with curiosity and criticism for authorial intent.
But what I really wonder is the following: can a self-identified Latina poet be included in the Gurlesque at all? Can she be parodic about her identity? And if so, what would the parody of a Latina self be? The only thing I can think of is this a video I saw on YouTube a few years ago called “How to be a Chola,” linked below.