I am waiting for the L train and it is very late at night. I am standing on the yellow line, the one that makes some people feel like rule breakers and other people feel like stepping off. I look down at the tracks. Glitter. Sparkling confetti covers a dense layer of trash, gilding the whole dirty scene in a layer of paradoxical glamour. A rat runs through the glitter, and I am suddenly reminded that I am on my way somewhere.
To my right a woman in her twenties is sobbing on her boyfriend’s shoulder. He is halfheartedly offering her blue Powerade while checking his phone. He says the word “babe” a lot. I once watched a similarly dressed woman throw up inside the train car. There were only about five of us onboard, and we all stared transfixed as her vomit spread like a Rorschach ink blot on the train’s floor, moving and reshaping itself with each lurch from the engine.
Reading Monica McClure’s Tender Data feels like waiting for the train at three a.m. when you can’t ignore the young girl in a body con dress and disastrously high heels sobbing next to you. Her poems feel like that moment when you realize you have overstayed your welcome at the party, when you realize that perhaps your mother was right: nothing good happens after two a.m.
In Tender Data, McClure approaches heavy topics—race, abortion, sexuality—and refracts new meanings through a unique prism of sharp wit, humor, and unwavering honesty. Most of these poems exist in gray areas—like that ambiguous hour when the train is populated by equal parts club kids headed to the last bar of their night and the early morning commuters headed to the office to begin a new day. McClure excavates these areas of in between with lines like “I want to solve the problem of heterosexual desire / like why do I love dick so much.” Her words exist on a tight rope of precarious performances—performing femininity, race, sexuality—all while a strong wind threatens to knock the acrobatic tensions off the line.
One of Tender Data’s fascinations is beauty: society’s airbrushed standards, the branding of bodies, the grotesque carnival of modern beauty practices. McClure drops fashion labels like Jean Paul Gaultier and La Perla with the same irreverent breath she reserves for Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault. She begins the poem “Luxe Interiority” with “Now I’ve just had an abortion / It’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.” While glossy magazines suggest life-changing lip glosses and miraculous anti-aging creams, McClure pulls back the botoxed veneer from today’s “I woke up like this” capitalist cult of beauty to reveal the cancer behind the Brazilian keratin treatment, the eating disorder underneath the designer dress. In “Beauty School Dropout,” she writes
I want to be so skinny people ask if I’m dying
Have you ever been on the roof of the Standard
and noticed your tatters
in the unforgiving sun
It’s densely packed lines like these that rip apart designer labels at the seams, exposing the decadence of withholding, the “timeless” beauty of youth, the knockoff purse full of prescription pill bottles.
McClure turns this eye for contradiction to gender and sexuality as well. Much of Tender Data orbits around the idealized concept of woman: the mother, the muse, the ingénue. McClure’s “I” swings from expectation to reality, subverting entrenched power dynamics with lines like “I tried to pee while standing up / and wet the lace of my petticoat.” In “Class Song,” McClure writes:
It’s too bad I dreamed of Cambridge
but couldn’t get accepted
because of two Class B misdemeanors
I wanted to be among great men
Monica hearts Philip Larkin 4evah
It isn’t just the idea of femininity that McClure is interested in throughout Tender Data, but the daily performances consciously and subconsciously reinforcing these contradictory tropes.
Throughout Tender Data this “I” fluctuates page to page—from virgin to showgirl, from angry feminist to housewife, from academic to that drunk girl at brunch. What appears to be inconsistency isn’t that at all. Rather, McClure’s “I” encompasses the deluge of mixed messages, expectations, and institutionalized misogyny that accost women each day in contemporary culture. In the titular poem, McClure writes:
Because I was euphoric from starving
I was able to use the “I” to fuck the “I” out
until it trembled
and broke into stars about my spine
So many of McClure’s poems inhabit the female body—both the internal experience and outward performance of existence—and her “I” constantly morphs to express the myriad contradictions of gender. The “I” is forever in a state of flux, performing the social constructs of race (“Hello I am brown on the inside”), gender (“I silent act and forget sometimes / to come out”), and sexuality (“I want to understand her / one woman to another / But like any man I can’t help myself”). The “I” isn’t some static image of a woman airbrushed onto the page of a magazine, or an empty womb waiting to be filled, but a living, breathing thing that can never truly be defined. As McClure puts it so eloquently, “Rights without responsibilities— / that’s the kind of humanism I want.”
While reading McClure’s poem “Hey Dick”—a list of things “Dick” is no longer allowed to say to her such as “that you’re good at anything / or that women think you’re good at anything”—I couldn’t help but be reminded of Chris Kraus’s own indefinable work, I Love Dick. Both of these books make the private public, reject the idea of some great male genius, and most importantly, revel in the contradictions inherent to living life as a woman. In I Love Dick, Kraus writes, “I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self destructive but above all public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.” With Tender Data, McClure hasn’t used language to redefine femininity, but instead used language to carve out more space for women to do the redefining themselves—whether that means being paradoxical, flip, self destructive—all in public.
Tender Data, by Monica McClure. Birds, LLC, July 2015. $18.00, paper.
Alexandra Wuest is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of The Female Gaze Is Cool (Bottlecap Press, 2015). Her work has appeared in Hobart, HTMLGIANT, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among others. She tweets at @allie_kw.