Four Books of Poetry by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz (A Review by Alicia Kennedy)

Write Bloody Press

Various page counts, $15 each

The titles drew me to Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s first four books of poetry: Dear Future Boyfriend, Hot Teen Slut, Working Class Represent, and Oh Terrible Youth. They promised tales of the all-important suburban childhood and adolescence, the boy obsession and histrionics and silliness of girl teendom; they suggested a deadpan exploration of the shittiness of working reality. These things are the most prevalent preoccupations of my current 25-year-old life, so I wanted to rummage through someone else’s memories. I’d been growing bored of mine.

Aptowicz is the perfect poet to turn to if you’re looking for nostalgia. She’s a storyteller, and her writing didn’t conform to my poetic expectations. Initially, this put me off a bit—why couldn’t these just be fleshed out into essays? But they’re poems simply because she’s a poet, and as I moved through these books the style and wit she brings to the form became more clear. She wins you over by being conversational and funny, earnest and accessible. She can turn a phrase that knocks you out, but for the most part it’s like you’re hanging out with someone especially articulate.

Her first collection, Dear Future Boyfriend, begins with three poems that introduce her parents, fittingly titled “Mother,” “Father,” and “My Parents.” They’re precise and loving, and set up as idyllic a working-class life as is possible. The suburban is further established in “Ode to the Person Who Stole My Family’s Lawn Gnome,” which is rich with references to a very specific kind of youth (“Did you not notice that brand-spanking new/”Fat Women Bending Over” cut-out two doors down?). The rest of the book is filled with love poems, alternately heartsick desperate and self-aware desperate. These are best when restrained, such as in “Europe”:

When I went to Paris,
I collected one pebble
for every time I thought
of you.

She was going to present them: “my love for you,/for once, was going to be something tangible: a big rattling bottle of thought.” But instead, she scattered them in his driveway.

And now I feel so stupid,
treading on top of their meaning
as I find my way to your porch
for yet another platonic breakfast.

Reading her work in chronological order makes the move from this innocence to her second collection, Hot Teen Slut, about her first post-college job as an erotica writer and editor at a dot-com start-up, more fascinating. Slut covers the adjustment to a full-time job, how weird it is when that job is looking at porn when you’re a virgin, and being a feminist who looks at porn all day. It’s quite a bit of material to work with, and Aptowicz molds it into something much more cohesive than Boyfriend.

While the trajectory of job ad to interview to first meeting all your new co-workers could be anyone’s, Aptowicz has a great eye for the humor and heart of matters. In “New Millennial Badass” she ironically boasts about the faux power being “the porn girl” gives her, the party anecdotes and ability to have ex-boyfriends inserted “into an all ‘leather daddy’ gay erotica story” before recognizing how “anti-badass” it is to not be working on her own writing “eight hours a day, forty hours a week.” It’s the struggle of all creative people with a day job, but she can bring “mangina” and “buttgasm” into it, and conclude that one day she’ll be writing:

Poetry so hardcore, that when it finally breaks
through that hot white wall of Academia,
all my readers are going to cum in unison
and only in iambic pentameter.

This absurd rally cry of the porn girl poet stuck in a 9-to-5 sets up a more excellent poem that juxtaposes porn and poetry, “Understanding the Cum Shot.” “It’s disgusting, / but necessary” she begins, eventually recognizing:

Porn
without a cum shot
is like a sestina
without a BE/DC/FA
concluding stanza.

When she is finally laid off in “Getting Off Early” (nice double entendre!), she’s on her way to Australia to give a reading. The porn girl poet, who’s so good-humoredly struggled, is now just a poet.

The third collection, Working Class Represent, is the strongest. Unlike Slut, it’s not focused on one job but is about the general struggle to make it through the days and convince yourself everything’s okay when you have no safety net to fall on. Coffee and its attendant stains are recurring images, its necessity to this grind made explicit in “Ode to My Morning Cup of Coffee.”  There’s also “Rules of Slack,” which outlines when it’s okay to not do work and to what degree. The series of poems titled “Day Job” are exquisite, the tone a perfect blend of resignation and desperation. From “Day Job II”:

Sometimes I think I just need to get away,
break schedule, shake things up,
but other times I remember:

that’s exactly what people say
when they are trying to avoid work.

Her poor fashion sense and the general poverty that causes it are points of self-mockery throughout Aptowicz’s work, best rendered in “Spring and Broadway,” about “the perils of working in SoHo”:

Fashion Week is like an M.C. Escher
drawing, with an endless line of models
cat-walking down the sidewalk, identical
black binders, Avant-garde jackets, and
those thin, thin thighs. Those weeks, I feel
like a troll, short and disheveled, hurrying
down the street in my urchin’s clothes.

In “Notes on Rejection(s)” she compiles lines from editors about her writing, where I found my own initial critique: “Focus more on language, less on story!” She combines them both wonderfully in “9/11,” though, perfectly capturing the alien nature of that day. Her own experience of eating with her roommate, watching TV like everyone else, when all anyone could do was “watch / the dust people run from the rumble.”

There are a few poems about poets themselves—“Jim,” “Sexton and Plath”—that also combine her talent for storytelling with linguistic beauty. These are breathless in their reverence; the writing itself seems to kneel, the titular working classness leaving her in awe of the fact that she’s allowed to pursue this vocation.

Oh Terrible Youth, the fourth collection, is a return to the material of Dear Future Boyfriend, examined with more focus. Again, there’s story and careful language. There are also painfully recognizable adolescent moments, told with her characteristic humor. From “Literal Portrait of the Writer As a Twelve-Year-Old”:

When you are twelve, which I was, and you are a straight girl, which
I also was, the entire populations of males from two years younger
than you to several years older proffer themselves to your hear
unwittingly. Men who read this, please know: no mater how you
may have felt you looked in middle school, I guarantee that you were
the object of several crushes—albeit some as brief as a math period.

“Benediction for Prom Night,” “The Unreachable End of High School,” and “Ignition” are wonderfully distilled portraits of the most universal high school experiences that, at the time, felt wholly personal and new.

And it’s her ability to write at this level, where personal and universal meet, that makes her memories fun and moving to rummage through, from childhood to first cohabitation. They live up to their irresistible titles.

  • Noah Gorz

    This is a great review and analysis. Write Bloody is great, too. Christin’s poems are super, even if she spells her name all fucked-up.