"juicy baby
rubber fist
red jawbreaker
gluts opera-mouthed
palate heaves
lip popper
sloppy baby
gurgle slick
gloam limpid"
in Thumbscrews
by Natalie Zina Walschots
Snare Books, 2007

Thumbscrews is the kinky, début volume of poetry by Natalie Zina Walschots, a writer who engages with the aesthetics of sadomasochism in order to generate elegant, sensual poetry that writhes inside the shackles of its own linguistic constraint. The collection consists of short poems written according to a set of euphonic, syllabic "rules," all of which might confine such verse in a manner analogous to the accoutrements of cuffs, ropes, and bonds, used by any dominatrix in order to stimulate a lover.
Walschots treats each poem as a miniature, theatrical tableau—a "passion play," in which she forces language to submit to her will, beating its grammar into a stupor of ecstatic nonsense. While the poems suggest a lyrical persona, the pronoun "I" never once appears; instead, the author imitates gagged voices unable to speak, except through a limited lexicon of sounds. The book explores the degree to which erotic desire might find itself constrained and disciplined by lingual regimes of power.
Walschots sets out to present a series of erotic, poetic scenes, each one in a "pervertable" environment (like the "back seat" or the "copy room")—venues where a girl, once corrupted by a sadist, might become a "curdled goddess." The book treats the language of such dramas as a kind of "toy catalogue" full of harnesses and handcuffs, each word becoming a gasp or a moan—an almost erotic object, with its own painful, but sensual, texture (be it a "chuckle black neoprene" or a "french grapevine braid").
Walschots strives to evoke the libidinal pleasures of such kinkiness through the listed sounds of words themselves so that, for example, in a poem like "Armament," the experience of both sharp blows and quick slaps almost arises of its own accord from the oblique, rhyming cadence of her heterogeneous monosyllables: "glass clinks mint/ rose tints/ wink crass sins/ blank tarts/ ice blinks risk/ mics hiss/ blank hits glib/ harsh bliss/ tanks swarm grit/ crisp shanks/ sharp arcs tisk/ mire ink/ gripper."
Walschots remarks: "I want to write about things that are dangerous, things [that] I find frightening, subjects that carry associated risks just for engaging with them." Walschots suggests that writers who deploy constraint rigorously in their poems do so because the resultant pleasures generated by this exercise resemble the excitement of a bound lover in a boudoir—and for Walschots, this experience of reading must evoke in us a kind of erotic shiver, like the elegant frisson of the "less than safe…."
[Walschots is the inaugural recipient of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, and anyone interested in knowing more about her book can consult an authorial interview at the following link.]

Originally Published: February 20th, 2008

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...

  1. February 20, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    I don't think I've encountered as funny a piece about poetry since Charles Bernstein read from the Yellow Pages at Super Bowl halftime!
    Thank you!
    l can't wait to point this out to Bill Knott. He'll be fit to get tied!
    (Um, this IS supposed to be funny, right?)