Various page counts, $15 each
The titles drew me to Cristin Oâ€™Keefe Aptowiczâ€™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 elseâ€™s memories. Iâ€™d been growing bored of mine.
Aptowicz is the perfect poet to turn to if youâ€™re looking for nostalgia. Sheâ€™s a storyteller, and her writing didnâ€™t conform to my poetic expectations. Initially, this put me off a bit—why couldnâ€™t these just be fleshed out into essays? But theyâ€™re poems simply because sheâ€™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 itâ€™s like youâ€™re hanging out with someone especially articulate.
Her first collection, Dear Future Boyfriend, begins with three poems that introduce her parents, fittingly titled â€œMother,â€ â€œFather,â€ and â€œMy Parents.â€ Theyâ€™re precise and loving, and set up as idyllic a working-class life as is possible. The suburban is further established in â€œOde to the Person Who Stole My Familyâ€™s Lawn Gnome,â€ which is rich with references to a very specific kind of youth (â€œDid you not notice that brand-spanking new/â€Fat Women Bending Overâ€ 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 â€œEuropeâ€:
When I went to Paris,
I collected one pebble
for every time I thought
She was going to present them: â€œmy love for you,/for once, was going to be something tangible: a big rattling bottle of thought.â€ 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 youâ€™re a virgin, and being a feminist who looks at porn all day. Itâ€™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 anyoneâ€™s, Aptowicz has a great eye for the humor and heart of matters. In â€œNew Millennial Badassâ€ she ironically boasts about the faux power being â€œthe porn girlâ€ gives her, the party anecdotes and ability to have ex-boyfriends inserted â€œinto an all â€˜leather daddyâ€™ gay erotica storyâ€ before recognizing how â€œanti-badassâ€ it is to not be working on her own writing â€œeight hours a day, forty hours a week.â€ Itâ€™s the struggle of all creative people with a day job, but she can bring â€œmanginaâ€ and â€œbuttgasmâ€ into it, and conclude that one day sheâ€™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, â€œUnderstanding the Cum Shot.â€ â€œItâ€™s disgusting, / but necessaryâ€ she begins, eventually recognizing:
without a cum shot
is like a sestina
without a BE/DC/FA
When she is finally laid off in â€œGetting Off Earlyâ€ (nice double entendre!), sheâ€™s on her way to Australia to give a reading. The porn girl poet, whoâ€™s so good-humoredly struggled, is now just a poet.
The third collection, Working Class Represent, is the strongest. Unlike Slut, itâ€™s not focused on one job but is about the general struggle to make it through the days and convince yourself everythingâ€™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 â€œOde to My Morning Cup of Coffee.â€ Â Thereâ€™s also â€œRules of Slack,â€ which outlines when itâ€™s okay to not do work and to what degree. The series of poems titled â€œDay Jobâ€ are exquisite, the tone a perfect blend of resignation and desperation. From â€œDay Job IIâ€:
Sometimes I think I just need to get away,
break schedule, shake things up,
but other times I remember:
thatâ€™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 Aptowiczâ€™s work, best rendered in â€œSpring and Broadway,â€ about â€œthe perils of working in SoHoâ€:
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 urchinâ€™s clothes.
In â€œNotes on Rejection(s)â€ she compiles lines from editors about her writing, where I found my own initial critique: â€œFocus more on language, less on story!â€ She combines them both wonderfully in â€œ9/11,â€ 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 â€œwatch / the dust people run from the rumble.â€
There are a few poems about poets themselves—â€œJim,â€ â€œSexton and Plathâ€—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 sheâ€™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, thereâ€™s story and careful language. There are also painfully recognizable adolescent moments, told with her characteristic humor. From â€œLiteral Portrait of the Writer As a Twelve-Year-Oldâ€:
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.
â€œBenediction for Prom Night,â€ â€œThe Unreachable End of High School,â€ and â€œIgnitionâ€ are wonderfully distilled portraits of the most universal high school experiences that, at the time, felt wholly personal and new.
And itâ€™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.