If the number of bullyboys, bootlickers, power nerds, language goons, and slithering propagandists in society remains more or less constant, inflammations and outbreaks notwithstanding, then so—thank God—does the number of poets. And while the former, breathing heavily, go about their work of flattening and coarsening the imagination, the latter are helplessly dedicated to its renewal. They’re more fragile, of course, the poets; seething with nervous debility, in fact. That’s the point of being a poet. And they get paid less, a lot less. But they have reality on their side: Reality desires to have poems written about it, not hack verbiage or ideological jingles, and so gives the poets its best material.
Patricia Lockwood is an American poet whose prismatically witty, sexually slippery, polymorphous, and Millennially mischievous poetry—like the internet talking in its sleep—has made her semi-famous at the age of 35. Best known for a poem of savage seriousness called “Rape Joke” (we’ll get back to that), she is also at home in the wasteland frivolities of social media. Like Donald Trump, she does pretty well on Twitter. Whose tweets are funnier? It’s debatable. The Supreme Tangerine, brooding in his lights-out White House, fires off those little gobbets of world-historical petulance. Lockwood discharges blebs, zingers, and whimsicalities, and since 2011 has been delighting her followers with intermittent and surreal “sexts”: I am a living male turtleneck. You are an art teacher in winter. You put your whole head through me.
Before the election, when editors were dispatching persons of advanced sensibility—George Saunders, Dave Eggers, etc.—to attend Trump rallies and flourish their antennae over Trump fans, Lockwood hit the trail for the New Republic. And at an arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, a beautiful piece of poetically paranoid journalism was born. Melania Trump “wore an outfit best described as Sensual Band-Aid and took small, ruthlessly edited steps.” Lockwood felt it in her whiskers, and she caught it in high-alert prose: the voluptuous illiteracy of Trumpismo.
Language as I knew it had either ceased to exist, or else reverted to an automatic form. A phrase lit in a mouth was spoken, went looking for another. A different kind of thinking was happening—the kind you find around racetracks, casinos, the floor of the stock market. I had not thought politics was a physical pleasure. Feeling the air crackle around me, I knew it must be.
(Then, using the New Republic’s Twitter account, she tweeted “fuck me daddy” at Trump. Sigh.)
Lockwood’s was the best of the Trump’s Inferno pieces because she was ideally equipped for the job. First, she can handle herself in that kind of roaring imaginal space. Second, geographically and psychically, she’s from Trumpland. Lockwood was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and, as we learn from her new memoir, Priestdaddy, lived in a trailer with her family while her father prepared for his ordination as a Lutheran minister. Formerly a callow and swaggering atheist, Greg Lockwood had been converted while serving on a nuclear submarine, during a fathoms-deep screening of The Exorcist. “That eerie, pea-soup light was raining down,” writes Lockwood, “and all around him men in sailor suits were getting the bejesus scared out of them, and the bejesus flew into my father like a dart into a bull’s-eye.” He would later cross the Tiber, as ecclesiastical types say, and become a (married) Catholic priest, theologically traditional while continuing to present all the symptoms of a defiant conservatism: gun nut, Rush Limbaugh listener, devoted viewer of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. In Lockwood’s hyperbolic, admiring/horrified portrait, he is an almost wordless autarch who sits in sprawling grandeur in his underwear, displaying mighty thighs and periodically debauching an electric guitar. His orthodoxy, inevitably, is precisely what Lockwood spirals away from.
Get past its horrible hipster title (surely there are at least two bands in Brooklyn called Priestdaddy?) and Lockwood’s book is really a rather deliciously old-school, big-R Romantic endeavor: a chronicle of the growth of a mind, the evolution of an imagination. (I’m trying to avoid the word burgeoning.) Some of the most interesting stuff is about her relationship to language, to words, with which she enjoys an enviable Nabokovian intimacy: “ ‘Violinist’ was a fig cut in half … ‘Penniless’ was an empty copper outline, and ‘prettiness’ seemed to glitter.” Asked by her mother how she starts a poem, Lockwood invokes the concept of Pun Lightning, “that jolt of connection when the language turns itself inside out, when two words suddenly profess they’re related to each other, or wish to be married, or were in league all along.”
At one point in her story, having joined a fervently religious youth group, she experiments with “the gift of tongues.” She doesn’t like it. “It felt like I was sticking my finger down English’s throat.” Later, she falls in love with the man who will become her husband when he emails her some of his verses and, amid many lines about “the majesty of canyons, arroyos and mesas,” she finds “one good image”: The milk bottles burst like scared chickens. There’s the poetic intelligence at work—exacting but rapturously available, elitist as to quality but erotic-democratic as to feeling, searching with its nose in the air for the line that can sweep it off its feet.
The poems in Lockwood’s 2014 collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals—her second book, after 2012’s Balloon Pop Outlaw Black—have titles like “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” and “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics.” (When you want to say a poet is mysterious, say, “Very few tit-pics of him exist.”) Her flavor is post-porn, a kind of ironic biological burble. Are some of the poems just a little too long? They look a little too long, tiny Floridas of expression, running over one page to trail off in a few vestigially dangling lines on the next one.
“Rape Joke” is the outlier. Only Lockwood could have written this poem, but it doesn’t quite fit into her corpus. It doesn’t quite fit into literature, period. The rape joke is that you were 19 years old. / The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend. Is it prose or poetry? It goes on like this, spinning out in fragments and one-liners from the violent oxymoronic rotor of its title, then circling, trying again, flashing back, a comedian’s monologue inside a trauma ritual. She could have published it on Twitter—it would have made sense on Twitter—but she didn’t. The rape joke is you went home like nothing happened, and laughed about it the next day and the day after that, and when you told people you laughed, and that was the rape joke. The poem came to her, Lockwood tells us in Priestdaddy, in “a strong fluent flood,” the first poem she published about “the things that really happened to me, the real things.” Sometime in its aftermath, she overhears her father and a seminarian discussing a local priest’s molestation of a 14-year-old girl: “ ‘She shouldn’t have put him in that position,’ I hear a male voice say, and an old familiar wildness flutters up my chest and into my throat, sending feathers and flames into my voice box until I cannot speak.”
Poetry heals and integrates; online, things fly apart. God knows what kind of feedback Lockwood gets, the trolls and mugwumps and flickering testicular wraiths she has to contend with. I can see her in my mind, post-religion, post-family, a savvy, wounded poet hanging over an electronic abyss. But the pen that can describe a rural motel room as looking “like the place where Smokey the Bear went to cheat on his wife” is sharp enough for the occasion, for the moment. Can poetry address the massive and systematic degradation of the mental environment? Lockwood, her personae shimmering, her linguistic sensors tingling, is one of the few poets tough enough and shrewd enough to try. And it looks like we’re all going to have to try, in our own lives, in our own poems. Or burst like scared chickens.