Ginninderra Press, 2019
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Natalie D-Napoleon’s First Blood is a systematic demolition and rebuilding of the construct of girlhood. With an assured hand, D-Napoleon succinctly expresses the seemingly ineffable. Often, her keen stylus writes afresh over and across palimpsestic earlier texts in a processing of erasing, effacing, and replacing. D-Napoleon’s aesthetic is spare but neither sparse nor Spartan, as these poems are servings of selfhood that remain generous even in the face of antagonism.
The figure of the girl has been much maligned and much mythologised. D-Napoleon strips her of both romance and mockery but does not lionize her. It is perhaps tempting to glorify girlhood in retaliation against the derision so often heaped upon this transitive state, yet D-Napoleon resists. After reading her work, the reader might easily aspire to be “girlish” or “girly,” but not because girlhood is heroized or represented as gloriously anti-heroic. On the contrary, D-Napoleon renders the concept of girlhood ordinary. This is her strength. D-Napoleon’s refusal to fight romanticizing with romanticizing makes her rethinking of girlhood acute, accurate, and appealing. In D-Napoleon’s hands, the mundane is imbued with a sense of rightness that is almost righteousness, as if the cloth of that ubiquitous insult, the “big girl’s blouse,” were endowed with the same miraculous properties as the Shroud of Turin.
D-Napoleon is masterful in her use of metaphor. In “First Blood: A Sestina” (34-35), she observes that, for a girl, “her body was not hers, a stitch / of animal, a pinch of dirt, a girl / is made of words plus liquid minus time” (34). This is rich imagery. The word “stitch” both evokes the traditionally feminine craft of needlework and connotes the neatly tiny, tidy, and uniform: she is merely one girl-stitch in a line of identical girl-stitches marching on into eternity. D-Napoleon’s poem evokes the question posed by seminal punk band The Slits: “Who invented the typical girl?” (“Typical Girls” 1979). In D-Napoleon’s dextrous hands, the sewing pattern for a girl requiring a “stitch / of animal” is transformed into a housewife’s recipe calling for “a pinch of dirt,” before it defies the laws of logic and gender stereotypes by morphing into what might be a chemical formula, mathematical equation, or principal of physics: a girl equals “words plus liquid minus time.” Take away “liquid” from a woman – menstrual fluid – and you have a girl. Subtract time from words and they gain urgency.
Indeed, words are the key to self-expression, and while they may be used to define, defile, and divide, they also have the power to liberate, as D-Napoleon avers in “Stories & Sand” (9-11):
And to / dis- / cover / and to write /
to write / in the coal mine / is the light
insisting / its way through the / crack /
that lights up the / pathway /
to dis- / covery / dis- / covery (10)
To write may be to discover or assert the self in an act innocent of malice towards the not-self. A girl who proclaims her self-identity may do so without hurting a single boy, but to be a “boy” as socially constructed seems to necessitate harming or at least somehow affecting or modifying the Other. The adage “boys will be boys” has often been used to excuse or exculpate a myriad of destructive actions.
In First Blood, D-Napoleon interrogates gender stereotypes – a path well worn, but the combinations of words she uses avoid cliché, although her sentences are often simple and sometimes comprised almost exclusively of monosyllabic words. This is evident when she writes in “The First Drug” (67-69) that a group of “guys” hid in “a boy’s closet / while he had sex / with a girl / so they could watch / she was a slut / but he was not called / a name / he was just / a boy” (68). Here, she shows not only the obvious gendered double standard, but also the fact that the concept of “boyhood” is socially constructed as comprising risk and adventure for the subject – “boy” – concomitant with exploitation of the object: “girl.” As Germaine Greer observed, a girl is not really a girl: she is a “damned whore” or “God’s police.” A girl is polarised so as never to occupy a middle ground.
Girlhood involves binaries and extremes. A boy is just a boy. Yes, there may be certain behaviours that are verboten or taboo for boys, such as crying or wearing a skirt, but there is a wider range of socially acceptable behaviours for boys than girls, and such behaviours form a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. That D-Napoleon’s poetry can express such complex ideas using commonplace and vernacular language is masterful, and the string of monosyllables in these lines, unrelieved by punctuation, beat out a steady, primordial rhythm. A Japanese proverb that loosely translates as “the sticking-up nail gets hammered down” means that if you stand out, you will be violently made to conform. It is as if each monosyllable in the lines from “The First Drug” is a hammer blow to the head of the girl.
D-Napoleon further explores the idea that the figure of the girl bears the burden of society’s sexual prurience in “Your Mother Says It Was the Books” (64-65). In this poem, a girl and boy kiss and her behaviour is reported back to her mother by “Mrs XYZ” (64) – a woman we might imagine to be a curtain-twitching neighbour in a small town complicit in the oppression of her own gender. The girl lies to her mother and denies the accusation, “because I knew / to touch my __ __ wasn’t a sin” (64). The poem ends with the lines (65):
my real name
The spaces and blanks used in the poem hint at the gaps and silences in the lives of girls who are marginalised and censored; their bodies common property. Mrs XYZ has a vested interested in ensuring the girl’s vestal virginity as she is Everygirl. The poem’s protagonist is at once anonymous (we do not know her given name) and named, like a species catalogued and classified under the moniker “girl,” as if the singular word encompassed her entire being. D-Napoleon resists, and resistance is never futile.
This is highly cerebral poetry that nevertheless hits you in the guts. D-Napoleon’s work is visceral, corporeal, and concrete even as it deals so cleverly with the abstract. There is more to this collection than the theme of girlhood. Other contrapuntal strands are woven through this melodious poetry as D-Napoleon mixes metaphors as smoothly as a maestro wielding a knitting needle to conduct a symphony orchestra. She writes of alienation and dispossession, the migrant experience, and the life of the land on which we in turn live. However, her voice is at its most urgent and compelling when she focuses on the figure of the girl. In First Blood, D-Napoleon has achieved a virtuosity that leaves the reader wondering how she could possibly better it, and happily anticipating what themes and subject matter she will explore in her future work.