Nightboat Books, 2016. 104 pgs. ISBN: 978-1-937658-54-0
by Reign Manzano
She wanted to make me scream, a screw-driver, a curling iron, three jars of preserves and a lighter. "This is how we love now." Electric grid my thighs.
Fleshgraphs, Brynne Rebele-Henry’s debut collection of prose poetry constructs a powerful mosaic of queer love, ravenous love, love in general; love which comprises shavings of abrasive sexual encounters, self-imposed savagery, offbeat intimacies, ruined innocence.
I use the word love, but I’m not sure if love is what Fleshgraphs intends to convey, considering its sardonic narration and often vicious explorations of the body—personal and interpersonal. It is lust that emits from much of the text. Rebele-Henry undercuts this sexual proclivity with vignettes that admit, “I flinch during needles and sex scenes.” At first, I wasn’t sure of what to make of this self-aware irony born out of the teenage writer's persistent depiction of sexual experimentation juxtaposed with the discomfort of seeing it on screen, done by other people. And then I considered how the rise of pornography could be warping the way our Internet generation views sex. Even Hollywood rarely gets it right.
Fleshgraphs interprets burgeoning sexuality in the absence of good example and tries to resolve issues our parents might be too coy to address. As a result, Rebele-Henry’s rendering of culture today is paradoxical in nature; she continuously dares to subvert traditional and cultural norms. In one vignette the speaker imagines getting high before her wedding in order to see through “a stained window lens” and another poem notes, “She snorted the last of my coke then sang ‘The Star-spangled Banner.’” Rebele-Henry also writes unconventionally on childbirth:
The birth was a slick of fluids I never knew existed…My baby’s face looks like a burned cat and I don’t want to name this cartilage watermelon, this alien kitten…Instead I let it bite my torn nipples and sing lullabies in the language of my mother that I never bothered to know.
In the absence of a mother, a nurturing archetype, maturation becomes a procedure of trial and error, of hardship, and in the most extreme cases stagnation of self occurs. The prevalence of unfulfilling relationships in Fleshgraphs, moreover, intimates an unsatisfied desire for connection. Moreover, its characters seem to reject emotional intimacy, "The junkyard is a sleet of rusted metal, he tears his knee on the fence and asks for warm milk. I wrap the remnants of a couch around his mouth so he can’t speak."
But maybe it’s coddling which it refuses to entertain, especially since Fleshgraphs bears the load of a discussion on rape, mental health, and casual drug use. Brynne Rebele-Henry reveals how, in some instances, physical trauma is subordinate, paling in comparison to psychological trauma. Freckled across its darkly comic skin are blunt protrusions of people mutilating themselves; people treating symptoms instead of causes; people living in dysfunction.
In Rebele-Henry’s wrangling of confessional poetics, sex is mostly pitiful and violent; those who’ve been deprived of intimacy find intimacy with those who’ve also been deprived of intimacy, and conventional romance is treated with satire. We are reminded that the issue is no longer just sexual animosity between men and women, it’s also sexual animosity between women, between men—it’s sexual animosity between people.
Fleshgraphs boldly creates an uncut reality of a lonely, brutal culture, and explores with eyes wide open a sadistic notion of intimacy. Rebele-Henry writes, “She asked me to choke her, to make her orgasm better, twenty-five and her eyeballs tripping out of their mascara sockets. My hands a question and then a vise. Before her neck turned blue and snapped in my hands, a bird appeared on her chest.” Though at times I too felt as if I was being choked by this voice, I empathize—identify even—with Rebele-Henry’s confrontation of a societal landscape where a generation has been forced to lead itself.
During our Internet age, people have the freedom to curate their image, their profiles, so that they may let others see only their most attractive, civilized selves. Through evocative language, however, Rebele-Henry shares the shadow desires of the unconscious mind. In this manner, what is presented in Fleshgraphs is not contrived or filtered, it is genuine.
Fleshgraphs, above all, demonstrates a strikingly expressive command of language; it’s as if Rebele-Henry took a stroll down a melting pot city and surveyed people who were willing to recount their greatest, their darkest, their most crude exploits. What she ends up with is a multifaceted account of sexuality, which continually shifts between first-person and third-person; from she to he to Cherry to Baby Jones to Cookie Monster Rob; from lesbian to straight to curious to confused to undetermined to fuck it, here's everything—because Fleshgraphs can't be pared down; it's vignettes work in synergy.
Brynne Rebele-Henry's body of work, then, is greater than the sum of its slices.