Three-year-old girl riding an Arabian horse. Miragexv at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
“The Bridge 94 (Demo),” by Mobb Deep featuring Big Noyd, went unreleased for twenty years. The fact that you could make something that good and decide not to put it out says everything about Mobb Deep’s seat in the pantheon. The whole thing is a kniving, wintry blast of phonetic artistry, but the last lines are Shakespearean. The rapper is Prodigy, a twenty-year-old Albert Johnson the Fifth (Albert the Third was Albert J. “Budd”Johnson, a major early bebop saxophonist who came out of Dallas and got his break recording with Louis Armstrong in the early thirties). Prodigy will die in his early forties from problems related to sickle-cell anemia, but at the moment he’s talking about his home ground in the vast housing projects of Queens. The song is a warning to would-be intruders or, in Big Noyd’s words, “motherfucking violators.” In six seconds Prodigy draws an eerie picture of cops surveilling the block: “As jakes look over the hill, their eyes see nothing but nighttime,” while in the buildings, “due murders” happen “at an unseen right time.” Whoever is being spoken to fails to listen and gets “two to his dome so his last thought is hot.” At that point the story needs to make a pivot from “Be careful or you’ll get killed” to “You weren’t careful and now I’ve been forced to shoot you.” Prodigy:
You came as a whole
But you’re leaving
In incomplete pieces
And didn’t expect to meet Jesus
In your adolescence
Sending you back to the essence
So you can feel at home
And safe in God’s presence
Whole, home. He murders you, and he blesses you. Even in the act of taking your young life, he retains the power to confer his blessing on you, and gives it. That’s how far above petty bullshit he’s hovering. Chills. —John Jeremiah Sullivan
While reading Hannah Regel’s Oliver Reed, I remembered that Sylvia Plath poem “Daddy,” in which she explains how her father—or maybe, every father—is like a Nazi, and, in a way, how hot that is. Famously, “Every woman adores a Fascist / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you.” (It’s an amazing poem because it’s such an obvious one.) Like Plath’s “Ariel,” the poem that titles the posthumous collection in which “Daddy” first appeared in 1965, Oliver Reed is poetry about girls and horses. Girls like Sylvia Plath love horses, and Regel points out how they are like horses: pretty, glossy, usually submissive—though sometimes not—and totally disgusting. Like its central conceit, Oliver Reed is clever, darkly funny, and always shifting between shapes; its language is composed, among other things, of a collage of imaginary cinematic scenes starring, for instance, Sarah Jessica Parker and interviews with famous men. The collection is divided into sections, the titles of which seem to imply a kind of protagonist: “Sorry Gets Hooved,” and “Sorry is a Girl, Grown Up.” Brilliantly, Regel transmutates that most feminine of linguistic gestures or reflexes into a name and a character. Sorry learns about “the furnished dream of a hip bone / softly concave under pale jeans.” Sorry drinks glittery apple cider vinegar. Sorry reminds me of the “pale blogs” that first introduced me to Sylvia Plath, most of which are now banned from Tumblr for depicting underweight, underage girls in knee socks baring pale pink lines striating their thin white wrists, and generally banned from polite culture for promoting aesthetics and ideas that are simultaneously dangerous and self-indulgent. Sorry, I think, much like pale bloggers and horse girls, would be perceived as an annoying kind of girl, especially in 2022. Girls are so annoying when they apologize too much. I am sure “Men” have told her she does not need to say sorry, but Sorry keeps saying it and saying it—and keeps drinking vinegar, even though, obviously, she’s skinny enough, and just won’t stop apologizing for it, and just keeps on vomiting glitter, on her red, knee-socked knees.
The blurbs describe Regel’s poems as “discomforting,” and their subject as the “all too familiar subjugation of women.” If they are discomforting, it is because, in 2022, women’s subjugation, especially poetry about it, is “all too familiar”—like beating a dead horse, perhaps —and maybe it’s all a bit too much to hear? But Sorry just will not stop saying her name. Oliver Reed is an insistent refrain recalling what we’re told in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides: it really is very sad, strange, and specific to be a girl—which is also, as we know from Sofia Coppola’s adaption, why it is so awesome. Regel writes the thin edge between both sides of that coin. “What happens,” she says, following a scene of a horse being butchered in front of Jennifer Lopez, “is as secret as lip gloss.”
Regel cuts sharply from image to image, and her syntax is tight and brutal, somehow constrained; a grammar for girls. It is a pleasure to read. If horse girls are disgusting, it’s mostly because of how much they like being like horses—how much, like Plath, they adore “the boot in the face”—and how much they read, talk, and write about it. Sorry actually seems to be having a lot of fun hating herself. Between and through the lines of her stylish sentences, Regel materializes an awful, sorrowful need, but also a cold and perverse satisfaction.
From “Sorry Leaves the Boat,” in which each of these lines appears on its own page:
I walk with my errors
Tight like little arm bands
Along the plank
As my pigtails swing
In the loop of an apology
As I downward
My best impression of a sucked thumb
Hotness is a miserly place to wait for it
I’ll show you owning a face
Really own one.
If you ever watched that sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica that was popular in the early 2000s and found yourself wanting just a bit more beauty in its depictions of sentient robots acting out against their human creators, then Olga Ravn’s The Employees is for you. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken and forthcoming next month from New Directions, Ravn’s novel takes the form of employee statements gathered from the human and humanoid crew of the Six-Thousand Ship, who are gathering samples from the planet New Discovery following some kind of crisis on Earth. The statements range from the poetic (“I dream that I’m cooking my dress”) to the poignant (“the child hologram has without a doubt helped stabilize me as an employee here”). As mutiny and the threat of violence become a danger, these statements become increasingly heartbreaking, as the language of bureaucracy breaks down and the question of what it means to be a human—rather than facsimile of one—takes precedence. —Rhian Sasseen
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