100 YRS OF SELFIE POETICS: On Monica McClure and Edith Södergran
Who is the girl that gives it away, that petocha “with a little purse like a puta for cigarettes and change”?
How is a lyric poem like a girl who stages for the public a private moment? Who spreads around her little book? Who brings the public into her privacy? Who thereby could be said to fake privacy?
What kind of volatile substance is the selfie when it comes into poetry, the poem’s body is too big for the selfie, the selfie’s boundaries too mobile for the poem? What is the bad relationship of the selfie and the self? How does the selfie have to keep perforating, reflooding the poem with its non-eternity, how does the eternity-yearning poem continually lose its grasp on the selfie?
What happens when the mobility of the selfie and the supposedly eternal body of the poem fitfully synch? What kind of radical light is shed by the selfie-poem, then?
In Monica McClure’s poem “Petocha,” [from her new chapbook, Mala, you must immediately go buy this little book], a powerful utterance of lyric self-location must somehow be simultaneous with a streaming cascade of dis- and re-locations; a voicing is motile with ventriloquisms; “true” speech and fake. The speaker is chiflada, crazy, figeting, fleeing, fleeting, she can’t be just one thing or just one place at once. McClure’s speaker stages herself as a virgin, a child, la chiflada, finally a petocha, a fast girl or tomboy whose sigil is her little purse, her mobility.
Yet the precisely accessorized petocha can also open her mouth and ventriloquize all the competing scripts of Latina femininity, co-amplifying into the voice of the Mother of Us All, La Virgen:
There is more time than this life
I am the mother
of Mexico, the Philippines,
the whole pinche Americas
I am Patron Saint of Unborn Children
so put down your forceps and multiply
and starve in the desert
The Mexican men say
their women only want to get married
so they’re no fun
But I’m a petocha
a girl with a lot of attitude
an international playgirl
a tom boy with a little purse
like a puta
for cigarettes and change
Among the many ways McClure’s poem sheds power is its powerful vulnerability which at times stages an amplified synthetic speaker and at others splits apart that speaker into its component discourses. The speaker restyles herself, is restyled, stages her selfies again and again; the multiplicy of selfies stages a fluid, changing speaker.
It’s important to remember that La Virgen herself took a selfie, imprinting herself through a medium of roses onto Juan Diego’s cloak. The selfie itself was the miracle and the proof of the miracle, self-minted theophanic money.
Except in the case of La Virgen’s, the selfie is ephemeral and multiple. It is made of media, and it breaks apart. It cannot hold on to its cultural space but it poses for a shutter click or a lyric poem’s length against the matrixy backdrop of technophilic and consumer culture.
The selfie poetic is a part of war culture, of surveillance culture. It trains its camera on the mouth that is speaking and it fires. Whoso list to hunt, I know where is a hide. The selfie poem stages an assertiveness, but it speaks from two side of its mouth, says two things: hunt, hide.
The paradoxical doubling up of target and prey in the selfie is the source of its risk. If selfies are narcissistic, it is because the preservation of the moment of beauty is the arresting of time is death, just like Keats hoped.
Early 20th century poets were obsessed with photography, as the Imagist strain makes most apparent. Swedish poet (impoverished, young girl, war-refugee) Edith Södergran is most famous for her poem "La Vierge Moderne" which like McClure’s poem is an effort at self-definition in stanza/snapshot form, a series of configured and fleeting claims. Another poem, translated by Johannes Göransson as “My Artifical Flowers,” also deploys selfie-poetics. It has the brevity and concision of a snapshot, and announces itself as a fake, and there in the site of the fakeness, the ephemerality, the vulnerability, it locates and makes a claim for its own sublime beauty:
MY ARTIFICIAL FLOWERS
My artificial flowers
I send them to you.
My small bronze lions
I set up at your door.
I myself sit down on the steps --
a lost oriental pearl
in the big city’s noisy sea.
Unsurprisingly for one whose stanzas entailed a self-fashioning, Edith Sodergran, who died at 31 of tuburculosis, was also an inveterate taker of selfies.
Joyelle McSweeney was born in Boston and spent most of her childhood in suburban Philadelphia. She has a BA from Harvard University; an MPhil in English studies from Oxford University, where she was a Marshall Scholar; and an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. McSweeney’s collections of poetry include...