Lemonworld and Other Poems
reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts
As I read through Carina Finn’s first full-length collection of poetry, Lemonworld and Other Poems, I became nostalgic for those Hard Candy nail polishes I used to want so badly as a teenager in the 90’s—the kind that came with the plastic bauble rings—back when the brand was legit and not a staple at Wal-Mart. Back when it was a department store price point mothers said no to with names like "mermaid," "fetish," "porno," "trailer trash," and "jailbait." With poem titles like "SMART GIRLS AFTER HOURS IN MUSEUMS," Finn is a younger poet associating with the "Gurlesque," joining the ranks of Arielle Greenburg, Danielle Pafunda, Kate Durbin, and Lara Glenum. A brief, but oversimplified, description of the "Gurlesque" is that it suggests an amalgam of elements of burlesque, grotesque, and carnivalesque: a highly performative style of feminist poetics.
In a piece Lara Glenum published in Jacket2, "Welcome to the Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics," she attempts to separate Gurlesque poets from Confessional and Neo-Confessional feminist poets. According to Glenum, "To engage in persona is to assume there is a face beneath the mask. Gurlesque poets, on the contrary, assume there is no such thing as coherent identity. There is no actual self, only the performance of self." Glenum also notes that when Gurlesque poets use "I," it confesses a "raucously messy nest of conflicting desires and proclivities that can be costumed this way or that,” rather than a stable self. Essentially, Gurlesque poetics places an emphasis on kitsch, camp, artifice, performance, and a brutality that creeps beneath a veneer of cuteness. Yet, as Glenum notes, this “cuteness," "far from being a harmless aesthetic category, reveals a state of acute deformity."
In "THISLOVE/THISHATE," Finn writes:
french gamine brooklynite, it’s hip to be coral. study the classics and get lost in the tutu. let’s not try to figure everything out all at once.
As one wades into Carina Finn’s collection, one should not mistake her language as merely adorable. Rather, Finn uses this glitter poesy to subvert gender norms. In "CAIRO, Y R U SO CRUELLL xXxX," partying and self-mutilation are worked into Finn’s brand of Gurlesque newspeak. She writes, "saturday killed the featherdance star/w/maxikultur breaklights/so we cutwrist & purr."
"COSMIC POPPIES" in particular stands out as an Americana offshoot of Gurlesque:
caterpillar girl, believe in the things you know: teapots, ruffles vintage prussian; frozen sunshine and cherry tears. the limeshorts paint it blood and chocolate. would you really rush out on me now?
Throughout the collection, Finn conjures up a glitteringly subversive kind of word play and makes use of typographical manipulations. For example, she writes, "american goth left winterclothes in my skin," in which the "t" in goth is printed like medieval iron cross, and in "OPIUMFAVOUR," "like a laserweekend crystallized" is followed by a solid black triangle symbol. "IMAGINATION IS THE REFORMATION MEDICINE" makes use of text shorthand and slang with "saturdaydeep in 2mrw’s/yesterday."
Finn also incorporates the glaring "me-ness" of social media sites into her work. "AFTER EVERY PARTY I DIE," for example, reads like an entire Facebook status update:
current obsession—waisting my time current mood—beamin’ wearing—flies listening to—a velvet heat wave good news, flotsam! the blues full of grace blog you.
"QUIT MICROWAVING YR EYES OUT," is one of the strongest pieces in the collection in terms of its wordplay, Gurlesque aesthetic, and visual presentation:
happy bird-day ribwillow girl ! cream + nude is a supercomfy food goodwasted to a coatwalk you sexy little swine. nastyblue thou art, & intensely coming—
I wondered why Finn named her collection Lemonworld. The first thing that sprung to mind was the song of the same name by The National that goes "you and your sister live in a Lemonworld," and then I noticed that Finn dedicates the book to her twin sister. There are two poems with this title-- "LEMONWORLD," and "LEMONWORLD II." In the first poem, Finn writes, "when she was seventeen, brooklyn was a prairie" where "ambulances arabesque on the fire escape." The sequel to the titular poem is filled with literally explosive lines like "monday ashes chernobyl child" and "flying propane nightmares." There is a tone of eerie resignation in the first, as if all the other poems in the collection are a reaction to this landscape of "walloping whatever" and the speaker’s heartbox eating a harpie. Although Glenum doesn’t classify Gurlesque poetry as confessional, the poem "LEMONWORLD" evokes a Sylvia Plath-esque domestic discomfort, and I wonder if the Finn’s collection would function differently had this poem been placed first or even as an introductory poem to the collection as a whole, setting the tone for the bland and restrictive genderscape Finn intends to dismantle. Whether or not the second poem is a continuation of or reaction to the first, it feels distinctly less narrative and more femme-kitschy, with references to va-va-voom Marilyn Monroe cardigans and literal kabooms.
There are a handful of poems that pale in comparison to all the brilliant wordplay and critical theory Finn has worked into her first book. "BEDHAIR," for example, does not engage the reader as intelligently:
it was windy and I was like baby baby baby . . . ooooh. techno angst is a rocket to the moon. sway, misfortunes. jamais vu. I got you.
Whether or not it’s intentional, my mind immediately wanders to Justin Bieber songs, which I feel are the furthest possible entry points into the realm of the Gurlesque-- unless of course Finn’s intent is to incorporate Bieber-obsessed tween girls into the working definition of poetics. Titles such as "PRETTYBOY SWAG" "I'M NOT AN ABACUS BUT YOU CAN COUNT ON ME," and "ARE YOU TRYING TO LOOK UNNATRACTIVE, ZOOBOY?" fall flat. Was it a conscious decision on Finn’s part to misspell "unattractive" in a Steve Roggenbuck kind of way? In "MY SERIOUS VIRGIN MARY TAPESTRY," the line "my name is christmas, will you merry me?" completely takes me out the frou-frous and fashion faux-pas Finn has used to construct her Lemonworld.
Carina Finn’s poems are like the original Hard Candy nail polishes in every sense of the word, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. Each poem is like a taloned, diminutive fashionista in a fur coat ready to coquettishly eviscerate. Gorgeous turns-of-phrase such as "this trick we have of turning vixen," "dust the phoneme," and "glowcream fuck in the morning" are the best kind of devastating.