Pretty Young Thing, Danielle Pafunda, Soft Skull Press, 2005

[Review Guidelines]

Like doctor's 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]