Pretty Young Thing, Danielle Pafunda, Soft
Skull Press, 2005
offices, certain dogs, human relationships, and words themselves, the
poems in Danielle Pafunda's debut collection Pretty Young Thing look
innocent enough from a distance. It's an illusion easily shattered by
sticking your nose in.
From first blush to last, these blunt,
racy, sometimes alienating lines wipe that little-boy smirk off the book's
title and assume a kind of intimacy that's not always comfortable, and
frequently cutting. Taken together, the short, mostly untitled poems that
make up the collection follow a fragmented narrative of one woman's sexual,
emotional, and expressive development in language that is full of archery
and cleverness. But it is also language born of sorrowful experience.
Looking at her hands, she's disturbed to see "the white pages / of
a new diary. A stolen diary," a diary laid open for our prurient
and prying eyes.
Pafunda's style is hard to describe. Full
of starts and stops, missing referents and truncated clauses, period after
period dropped in our path ("I saved part of the infection in a small
plastic bag. A grievance. / You didn't want me. To turn down your covers,
or generate / a low tone")—the effect is thwarting and tantalizing,
pushing us back even as we're drawn further in. Occasionally, with no
obvious division between poems, the voice seems to carry on without pause,
skimming across the white spaces and page breaks with all the smoothness
of someone stepping through an open door into another room.
A shift comes about midway through, with
a return to childhood and adolescence. And here is where Pafunda really
hits her stride. The poems in the book's second section are the strongest
in the collection, crackling with all the lust, mischief, and hilarity
of pubescent sexual discovery ("I was a body. I was a laboratory.
I was okay with that"). As the experiments in that bodily laboratory
begin in earnest, the language accelerates to a quippy, rampant tempo,
as if the words themselves were also discovering what they were designed
for. The speaker's enthusiasm is infectious, and we're carried along from
sentence to sensation, from form to feeling, to a point where everyone
(including us) is clearly enjoying themselves, and the ahs, ohs, and ouches
are secretly shared.
Of course, nothing that good ever lasts.
Disillusionment heads in, boy heads out, leaving behind "the extra
skeleton of bad news in my body." For much of the rest of the book,
grief follows grief in a sequence of darkly penetrating poems, alternately
wistful, angry, and despondent. Pafunda coolly picks away at the other
side of sexuality, all the taboos that surround it, the endless lies,
forlorn wishes, sad fantasies, and pathetic talk.
Yet somehow, out of this dejection emerges
even more desire. The desire to move on, to move out, to be touched again,
to get "piss drunk at the matinee" and "a fly new haircut."
Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood, goes a song I heard somewhere,
and you're the one I need. In the end, Pafunda's pretty young
thing may be sadder and wiser, but she asserts a powerful case for the
heart's own need to repossess the body that confines it and make it a
vehicle for love. [AW]