///. The presence of wasps makes me uncomfortable. The thought of them brushing against my arms has allusions to failure, and failure is something kicks and screams and bloody noses have taught me to stay away from. And so I realize that if I’m going to give an adequate response to a collection of poems titled Wasp Queen, I better know the science, The Googled God, behind the phenomena.
///. I type “facts about wasps” in the search bar, the same way I would type “examples of possessive nouns,” the same way I would type “claudia cortese poetry,” the same way I have typed “honduran children” or “persona poems” or “roland barthes death of the author” or “differences between bees and wasps.”
///. I believe in funeral arrangements, and I believe language can teach me everything it can’t.
///. I’m mindful that what I just wrote is a contradiction. It’s a (sometimes irresistible) feeling of feeling cornered or being surrounded by only negative space. Where I come from we call that humility. Another word for saying: We aren’t dead yet.
///. There are very few things in life that give me as much pleasure as crossdressing. Crossdressing has outgrown the Halloween stage, truthfully. Which is why I don’t do it as often. I’d rather subscribe to emotional ideologies that warn against overdoing activities that bring me pleasure. Lay these activities around and forget their location so they feel like surprises when I find them.
///. I am stressed out by surprises.
///. Nothing prepares me for the gigantic wasp head I find on the National Geographic website. Eyes like portable speakers. A demeanor of understanding. I read, “All wasps build nests,” and since the title of this book is Wasp Queen, I am going to imagine the queens are extra special.
///. Nest: “honest” – as in the poem, “The Mother on Timberline Lane Screams” – or “anesthesia” – as in “What Lucy’s World Feels Like” or “The Milk Bells Inside Her.”
///. These are my own emphases. I’m not just running lightly, believe me.
///. I know how much you dislike these logical blunders. But, for Lucy, the world has shifted into overdrive. In “Lucy Plays,” Cortese writes, “Where did your shame begin,” without the question mark. Because she’s past redundancy. Because in the following poem, she remarks, “To love is to suffer and to suffer is to give yourself to this world” (“Lucy Wants Red Hair,”). Lucy is a form of sacrifice. How am I giving myself to that world outside?
///. Shame: a noun. To suffer: a transitive verb.
///. The word transitive is vital for me, as an immigrant. I find out Claudia Cortese is the daughter of Neapolitan immigrants. I feel like it’s taken me so long to draw this immigrant connection, but it has to be done. As in all setups, there is a purpose to this one.
///. A sense of contentment fills my fingers. But it doesn’t last longer than a word.
///. I’m trying to find the longest and buzziest word in the spirit of this breath I’m taking.
///. Cortese’s creation of Lucy is embarrassingly real – insofar as embarrassment is that feeling one gets when ghosts have escaped from places we have repressed from the map of the mind. Real insofar as language is the mirror, therefore, the distortion.
///. In “Lucy’s World Popped Open,” an ordinary girl has “left one girlhood and entered another— // red lip-prints on mirrors, became / girl heroes, wasp queens.” So much skin is shed. A cloud of transformations. I’m watching time escape.
///. In high school, I took Italian courses and even won an award for playing a doctor in a show. In college, I took a few more. If I don’t speak Italian fluently it’s not for lack of trying. Believe me. Indeed, I’ve reacted to the world the way Lucy does in “What Her Sister Sees When Looking at Lucy – ”:
when feelings curdle so quickly
and so fully all else vanishes
and she becomes everything-at-once
like water boiling the steel skin from a kettle,
though the kettle’s shape remains so the liquid
becomes a kettle-shaped form, fluid and searing –
what some call blind rage
doesn’t mean Lucy cannot see, it means
she sees so much, sight can’t contain it.
///. I too have resorted to couplets to highlight pain.
///. I too have experienced blinding rage, Lucy. To exist as an immigrant is to thrive in blinding rage. Cortese can understand this, that trauma is a heirloom.
///. So I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. Should I take this moment to subtweet? But neither is Lucy, “A blank blue unfeeling / amid Oreos, chocolate ice cream, / last slice of pizza in the box” (“Lucy Selfie”).
///. “Wasps are divided into two primary subgroups: social and solitary” (National Geographic). Binaries are athirst. I’m thinking of Anatole France and my AP European History course where I had no idea what I was doing, so I plagiarized my first essay.
///. When people call me extroverted, I wish they could see the number of times I’ve been silenced, made helpless, crushing one language to speak another. But I can’t even tell you have an accent, they say, because they are driven to normalize. I should probably call my mother.
///. So much text wants to enter the picture: “Social wasp colonies are started from scratch each spring by a queen who has fertilized the previous year and survived the winter by hibernating in a warm place. When she emerges, she builds a small nest and rears a starter brood of worker females. These workers then take over expanding the nest, building multiple six-sided cells into which the queen continually lays eggs. By late summer, a colony can have more than 5,000 individuals, all of whom, including the founding queen, die off at winter. Only newly fertilized queens survive the cold to restart the process in spring” (National Geographic).
///. Believe me: I know the danger of using long quotes.
///. A warm place for Lucy: “a little terry cloth tumor. To live here is to be beautiful but very sad” (“Lucy Lives in Her Gauze House,”); in Lucy’s house there “are Malibu Barbies, a rust-fucked train, the gold toes of tub curling into mold. She crawls among the wreckage once hidden under water’s sun-blue sheen” (“A Dried Out River Veins the Woods Behind”).
///. I was always jealous of Barbie’s wardrobe. I still am.
///. “Solitary wasps, by far the largest subgroup, do not form colonies [Me: I’m thinking about Mars]. This group includes some of the wasp family’s largest members, like cicada killers and the striking blue-and-orange tarantula hawks [Me: If my metaphors aren’t contradictions, I’m not trying hard enough], which can both reach 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) in length. Whereas social wasps use their stingers only for defense, stinging solitary wasps rely on their venom to hunt [Björk: I’m going hunting]” (National Geographic).
///. My friend, the poet Miriam W. Karraker, reads from her work in front of a YouTube video projected on a large screen. In it, a wasp nest is excavated from the ground. The man, wearing a beekeeper suit, continues to dig with his tools as she reads. The wasps are pissed. They swarm our vision. Karraker’s work is not only magnetic; I suddenly feel her words crawling all over my skin.
///. I search for the YouTube video and find out it was filmed in New Zealand. I figure my endeavor has something to do with mathematical limits, something to do with school, and just like me, that’s where Lucy experiences the grossest insults: “At school, The Girls knock the horns from Lucy’s head, call her names that could only be thought original by 12-year-olds who subsist on a diet of Twizzlers and Saved by the Bell reruns” (“The Milk Bells Inside Her”).
///. I’ve been called wetback. I’ve been declared fag.
///. My middle school bullies modeled Kanye West’s “New Slaves.” They worried about shoe brands. They worried I wasn’t dark enough or light. I used to watch Saved by the Bell in Spanish; I could only get half their American jokes.
///. In the 1959 movie The Wasp Woman, Janice Starlin is the owner of a cosmetics enterprise. Concerned about her age – which has had a negative effect on her sales – she decides to fund Dr. Eric Zinthrop’s experiments with wasps, which have been proven to reverse aging. When results don’t go her way, she decides to steal dosages from Dr. Zinthrop’s laboratory. It should come as no surprise that her at anti-aging process is successful, but it comes at the cost of Starlin turning into a femme fatale with the features of a wasp. To fit the fantasy of every male Hollywood director, she has to die.
///. I’ve put on tight shorts to see how big my ass looks in the mirror.
///. We don’t try sufficiently to see ourselves through the eyes of animals, or half-animals, or from Lucy’s “new head” of “horns” (“The Milk Bells Inside Her”).
///. Teaching on the concept of persona, the poet Rebecca Hazelton writes, "It seems paradoxical, but writing as someone else – exploring what you don’t know – can prove an excellent method of coming to know yourself as a writer.”
///. Lucy is a persona, the intersection between poetry, research, and fiction. Sometimes, for comfort, empathy is drawn exclusively from fiction because, for them, our interior must be framed into digestible narratives.
///. Everything is confessional. Can we move on now?
///. David Bowie sings, "Lucy can't dance but she knows what the noise can do.”
///. Wasp Queen is what happens when surrealism is shoved out the hole of a realist. It’s nasty. It’s punk. It’s syrupy and crunchy.
///. Wasp Queen makes me think of PJ Harvey’s video for “Man-Size,” Sarah Kane’s plays, all of Hole’s Live Through This.
///. For Rebecca Hazelton, "Persona presents a puzzle. It is predicated on artifice, yet persona is also a very intimate form of poetry. In a persona poem, a writer often speaks directly to readers and, in doing so, forges an almost interpersonal relationship with them. It whispers in their ears or grabs them by the shoulders.”
///. I also failed my paper on Kurt Vonnegut (I pulled his name out of my teacher’s hat). I fell in love with God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, however, which I believe conditioned my heart to fall in love with Tom Stoppard’s Travesties years later.
///. Bowie sings, "Who who who died and made you material girl?"
///. Inasmuch as this text is Lucy’s new companion, an ally, another fill-in-the-blank she can complete with her truth, a critique, an evaluation, a testament, it is also a book review.
///. "It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes" (Roland Barthes).
///. When was the last time you accepted loss?
///. In an interview with the English Kills Review, Claudia Cortese talks about the origin of these poems: “While visiting my folks in Ohio during the summer of 2011, I sat in their parlor to write and a girl named Lucy started praying her mother would die in a car crash, and she pressed a Reddi-wip nozzle till her mouth filled with sugary relief, then went to bed where vampires raped her in her sleep.” In that same interview she thanks her friend, Mike, for revealing the following about the character of Lucy: “I just realized that Lucy is more than a girl; she embodies the dark energy of girlhood.”
///. What do you know about your girlhood?
///. Is this not an exercise in overcoming fear?
///. “Despite the fear they sometimes evoke, wasps are extremely beneficial to humans. Nearly every pest insect on Earth is preyed upon by a wasp species, either for food or as a host for its parasitic larvae. Wasps are so adept at controlling pest populations that the agriculture industry now regularly deploys them to protect crops” (National Geographic).
///. An important poem, appearing later in Wasp Queen, is “Lucy Fears”:
jewelweed, dung, Late Fruit Syndrome, hymens, Spanish
eyes, washrags, washing machines, pine trees, molars,
ultraviolet spots, gas stoves, humans in yard, humans with
water hose, humans that cough, human eyeballs, pocket
watches, carbon dioxide, a day without a pocket watch.
///. Wasp Queen is a character study. Episodic. A series of portraits.
///. Freud: “the problem of fear is the meeting point of many important questions” (Introduction to Psychoanalysis).
///. Roland Barthes again: "In this way is revealed the whole being of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of; the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.”
///. Lucy: light. Also: Lucifer. Also: dawn.
///. Last lines from Cortese’s “Answer Key for Origin Story”: “Do you prefer your imagination or mine. Do you want a girl for your private hurt—her actions your own. Is Lucy your daughter. Is she you.”