What It Feels Like for a Girl, By Jennica Harper
Reviewed by Gillian Wigmore
What it feels like for a girl, Jennica Harper’s second collection and her first published by Anvil Press, is a book-length series of poems that immerses us in the tiny, imminently exploding universe of the thirteen year old girl. Over 120 pages, we are exposed, couplet by couplet, to the flashbulb light of emergent consciousness as it comes to the narrator and her new best friend, Angel.
Like Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid, What it Feels Like for a Girl drowns the reader in a created world, full of sound, touch and taste. But where Billy the Kid is a sere and dirty world, What it Feels Like for a Girl is a world of breasts ‘heavy like globes’, labia, and pink diamonds of skin seen through fishnet stockings, glossy magazines and the compulsive thump of a baseline. Mundane details like gym shorts, lockers and binders anchor the book in high school. Details more specific to late 1980s music videos (such as black push-up bras and sheer blouses) set the poems to Madonna’s iconic sound, which measures large in the story. In poems unnamed and broken only by sections, we see Angel and the narrator rub up against the seamy side of sex, explorers of their own bodies, their sexuality, their friendship and the push of pop culture and pornography.
The narrative, while set in the present, offers a view of events with a reflective quality that distances the book from YA literature. Harper’s word choices and line breaks keep the poem tantalizingly adult. The language shifts back and forth from simple and immediate to technical and assessing, from one and two syllable observations
“… they act like girls. Shrug,
furrow. They play the role,
write boys’ initials
in liquid paper on binders,
keep it simple – put it in
a note, fold it neatly.”
to a meditation on the penis that mixes childlike wonder with wry adult humour:
“Does it know what you’re thinking?
It watches you watch it. Like
staring at the ugly child
that doesn’t know it’s ugly.
What kind of god could do this?
What kind of pragmatic god?”
This last passage exemplifies the humour that permeates the book; Harper makes bawdy jokes and plays on words. I laughed even as I cringed. I loved the movement from naïve to knowing and recognized the hardening that happens as we come awake sexually and are disappointed in first love. It’s fraught and overwhelming and Harper’s careening couplets push us back and forth, from Lolita to MTV to little girl, plot-heavy fantasies without pause.
What could be a problematic point of view — a narrator equally knowing and naïve — is made believable because the paradigm is consistent and because it is true to the topic: thirteen is a tumultuous time, washed with hormones and misinformation, where nothing is clear, unless, in this case, it is summed up by the narrator. She says, “When you are thirteen/the world is a small room” and “Thirteen is young and old, depending/on who you know.” These are truthful statements and said with conviction. They could be off-putting except that they have an art to them, a spare turn of phrase that we agree with even if we question the source. Part two, as another example, opens with the narrator’s graduation from porn magazines to videos — “suddenly, sound” — judged with the preternatural wisdom of the teenaged girl:
“movie sex tries too hard.
It protests too much. You don’t know much
but you know a fake
when you hear one.”
We also see the narrator in English class, swooning for Keats and Shelley, and phrases such as ‘protests too much’ and the ‘falcon in the widening gyre’ make sense: this is a girl swallowing the world whole, every part she’s given, and she’s trying to make sense of it, right then and since. Even though the narrative is firmly set in high school before the turn of the century, it taps into timelessness — that unanchored feeling we all experience trying to make sense of the adult world without adult understanding. It’s easy to look back on that time and laugh at loving a pop star more than you loved, say, your own sister, but it’s still hard to figure out. What did it mean when she did that? When he said that? When I… Harper pulls off the narrator’s bold statements, but their certainty make the narrator’s admissions of confusion harder to believe — I felt told that the narrator couldn’t decide how or if she should help her friend, but I felt convinced by her confusion surrounding sex and desire. This is a danger of a direct narrative told through poetry — all the elements of the story need to be there, but the poetry can’t be sacrificed for clarity. Harper negotiates the difficulty with more success than failure.
When poetry is at the forefront and story is secondary, Harper shines. The rhymes in this long poem are delightful, sometimes regular and expected, but sometimes choppy and rough. Coupled with Harper’s tongue in cheek and the narrator’s musing we get:
“Problem is, no one means the heart
when they say heart. They mean part
head, part gut, part twat.
They mean, you get this feeling …”
“Temptation’s balance: a totter teetering.
Teeth chattering, a warmed seat.
You’re scared but dying to know.
Hungry, desperate, your breathing so
slow you’re worried it’s not enough.
Force yourself: think of air.
Not the candle’s wick.
A slick sliver. A thick dick.”
This is something refreshing: a portrait of female sexuality not undone by squeamish delivery or euphemistic evasions. Sex is fun, funny, silly, horrifying and irresistible in these poems. The poetic format allows the subject to emerge organically (orgasmic-ly?), true to girlhood, and true to nature, where a straight fictional treatment of the same thing might not ring so true. Sometimes sing-songy, sometimes crass, the poetry in this collection brings this tricky and topical story to life, messy and heartbreaking as it is.
Harper’s poems examine thirteen through the drama of a dance and its aftermath. The narrative is interrupted by an italicized stream of couplets describing Angel’s perfect emulation of Madonna and her ultimate demise at a school dance. The narrator watches helplessly as her friend becomes something larger than either of them had imagined; on the dance floor, she transforms from a know-it-all teenager into sex itself, desired by all who watch her, but she pushes it too far. There is a denouement, like in a novel, but not every strand is tied up. Harper’s hard-core immersion into teenaged desire leaves us drenched and wrung out, but it also leaves the narrator, and us, wondering about sex and self, and that wonder is where the book begins and ends. “You imagine trying to explain it//to an alien, a foreigner. Using only/small words, big gestures” the narrator says, and I understand this book that way: that Jennica Harper takes an alien time — an emergent, overwhelming time — and explains it, word by word, in a beautiful, sexy gesture: What it Feels Like for a Girl.