Tongue Like a Stinger by Juliet Cook
(Wheelhouse, 2009. Available viz http://www.wheelhousemagazine.com/chapbook/cook.pdf)
“Heavy feathers, stiff legs, shorn fur, tentacles, stingers…” heads the contents of Juliet Cook’s 2009 chapbook, Tongue Like a Stinger. This list doesn’t simply suggest what a reader will find within the volume, it states it quite plainly. This collection is unyielding in its animalistic imagery, gothic tone and violent, gory themes. The pieces are shocking, startling and thought-provoking not just due to the blood, guts and “scary” stuff. It jars the reader because each is layer upon layer of real or imagined meaning exploring issues like body image written competently, eloquently with agility and intelligence. For the most part, this work succeeds in being a cohesive and tight collection, unified in part by a unique, strong, venomous, curious voice coupled with a repetition of themes, images and a common vocabulary woven throughout.
In Tongue, Cook’s style is sticky, sickly and sweet – apparent throughout the piece and particularly strong in the onset. The first poem, “Bird Bone Poem,” introduces the tone and vocabulary that will permeate the entire collection, as is illustrated in the following excerpt. This selection introduces the birds, urchins, lungs, teeth, anemones, dolls and spines that are just some of the images that reoccur alongside the pecking, breaking and choking to be found throughout Tongue. These stanzas also illustrate the horrific-surreal style of writing that Cook utilizes, increasing the reader’s shock through plain, image-laden writing:
These birds live inside certain people’s lungs;
try to peck their way free
as if our lungs were new and ovoid.
These birds are in favor of spiny urchins doing their damage
in a tank of pink anemones, creating a strange colloid.
These birds’ favorite word is dollface.
They like to tap their beaks against porcelain teeth.
Not veneers. Doll teeth.
Throughout Tongue, Cook embraces the bizarre and the creepy-crawly with some pieces that seem to aim for some sort of shock value or fear factor. Certain poems, like “Parasitic Twin,” go for the gross and don’t cater to the squeamish. As illustrated in the third stanza of this unrelenting piece, which appears below, Cook layers image upon image that can make a reader uncomfortable as they echo death, decay and destruction among other things, while turning something like a kitten that is a symbol for all that is cute and cuddly into a grotesque:
with many cockeyed heads,
the wormy kittens come out.
Small, patchy army of bedlam.
Scritching, scraggling, scrabbling,
festering scabs on their undersides,
milk lust in their eyes. Some bulging,
some slits. Some pinworms squiggling.
What could quite possibly be my favorite poem in Tongue happens to be the one piece that just didn’t seem to fit in. While the piece, "Posting her personals ad," does deal with the dirty and the grotesque, it lacks the overt violence, looming danger and animal imagery that punctuates every other piece. This somewhat short character profile turned poem mixes food and symbols for female sexuality together in a piece that makes a reader feel a sense of revulsion with lines like: “One trick is to stir the batter with a filthy stiletto / wrenched off her own battered shoe.” The poem ends condemning our judgments, as the poem states that “you’re not the demographic she’s catering to.” This seems to be a message to readers and critics who may not be fond of the intriguing, poetic, highly-stylized gore that Cook has written here, hinting that if you don’t like these works, it doesn’t really matter since it wasn’t written for you anyway.
This was my first foray into the strange, sharp, sticky world of Juliet Cook’s poetry, and from further research, it seems that Tongue Like a Stinger is in line with the other shocking and smart poetry that Cook has been publishing. This collection is crafted relatively tightly, with few variances like "Posting her personals ad." While the grotesque and gothic styling might not be to all reader’s tastes, it seems that her deft use of language and imagery makes it a very intriguing read for anyone interested in contemporary poetics. It also should be noted that the cohesiveness of this chapbook can serve as an excellent lesson to emerging writers when looking at how to structure and compile their own pieces; the particular vocabulary and repetition of images, themes and words make a great example. Cook’s Tongue Like a Stinger is a powerful, well-executed chapbook for many reasons, including the startling uncomfortable imagery that stays with you long after you put it down.
Julie T. Ewald is a writer, teacher and blogger in a constant state of transition (which you can read about at julieschatterbox.blogspot.com). Her work has appeared in journals and magazines like Apparatus Magazine, The HazMat Review and The Pitkin Review. Julie publishes a writing blog found at www.thepencilsharpener.com.