The genre of bildungsroman, since it literally translates from the Latin into “education novel,” is, by definition, limited to narrative prose. If Anne Carson chips at that barrier with her verse novel Autobiography of Red, Crystal Curry shatters it with the surreal lyricism of her coming-of-age collection, But I Have Realized It.

Curry asserts the poeticism of her text by primarily formatting it into couplets and tercets, ending every line with enjambment, and dividing each fragment in her long poems with asterisks. But she also adheres to narrative tradition: in the first arc, “Birthbed Aubade,” her speaker begins as a doe-eyed, fairy tale ingénue, who ponders: “In one dimension I might eat a poison apple and in / another I might become a comely swan or grow / my hair long in hopes of escape.” At first, she giddily predicts, “With every passing day my happiness will grow,” but by the end of the arc, she rejects the passivity of her babe-in-the-woods status:

But as I am destined to be a shape and remain a shape
I shall remain a shape willingly and that makes things
certain in a very certain and inevitable way

And I can take my agency to the mirror and tell that
reflecting shape just exactly how inevitable we’re going to be

The speaker then swings from tranquil docility to manic aggression. She mocks state control, wisecracking, “The authoritarians twinkle so dreamy,” and questions the government’s right to rule. The speaker blasphemes against cultural and moral conventions, reflecting that her favorite Christmas ornaments include “a gang rape in red glitter” and “Season’s / Greetings written in pig’s blood on a Minnie Mouse.” She declares, “I will stand at Santa Claus’s breast and drink terror.” She adorns herself with “the bloody hearts of a few enemies / and a necklace of penises.”

In the arc “C is C,” the speaker unravels a conceit in which she literally bedecks herself with her peers, boasting, “… the people I have collected are a real bracelet / I take off in the shower again and again.” Since her peers are minimized and chained to her body, the speaker tyrannizes them:

I really am fickle and will dismiss their daffodil farms
I really am insensitive and will murder their story quilts

I will shred each fragment of story and let them
swirl like nuclear tears in a hurricane

Their coffin pillows will become my first sex and
their miscarriages will become a picnic for my birthday

For I am in the center of all the quilts

The speaker eventually redirects her egocentrism inward, abandoning cruelty for hedonism, remarking that “the moral becomes more about orgasms and aperitifs.” She initially disdains her flesh: “Birthbed Aubade” begins with her disclosure that she was unwise to choose to be born; she concedes, “I admit I was stupid for choosing the body.” The speaker timidly hopes for a “well-seated / sexuality.” Once she reaches maturity, though, her sexuality is anything but “seated”— it’s leaping, it’s diving, it’s liberated. In “Summer-O-Six,” the speaker confesses:

I was never the nicest person I ever knew I cheated
stole men made her boyfriend feed me pudding on
the train licked his upper lip on the train

And I got pregnant without even having to take vitamins
and I drank sometimes and hid in the forest with cigarettes
and Frappuccinos the queen of unleashed dogs

When the speaker’s son clings to her and asks her to remain with him, she again prioritizes sex over moral obligations. The speaker recalls, “I did not stay because I wanted to go out and get fucked so / I could stabilize myself and know myself.” She values her sex life not only for its pleasures; she considers it a cornerstone of her identity. This concept of a single mother embracing and centering on her sexuality particularly echoes Olena Kalytiak Davis’s landmark piece, “The Lyric ‘I’ Drives to Pick up Her Children from School: A Poem in the Postconfessional Mode.” Just as Davis’s “i” brainstorms a sex poem and “feels the power of being a single mom in a red truck,” Curry’s speaker leaves “a million lovers in the dust” and drives “in a car with yellow teeth.”

It’s also not surprising that Dorothea Lasky selected But I Have Realized It for the 2014 Gatewood Prize, as Curry similarly tackles feminism and sexual politics. In Lasky’s infamous poem, “Porn,” the speaker watches X-rated films to fill the void in her love life, just as Curry’s wistfully pursues sex for self-fulfillment. Another of Lasky’s gems, “Kill Marry Fuck,” confronts the male gaze and its objectification of women as sexual/reproductive devices, and Curry’s speaker retorts that “women who are infertile have sinned against the universe.” She extends dogma to men as well, however, encapsulating the pressure to attain the ideal “white picket fence and 2.5 children” in the comment that “a guy who won’t marry is like an infertile woman.”

In the world of But I Have Realized It, monogamy and fertility merely indicate normality, whereas healthy teeth are a status symbol (hence the cover design). The speaker boasts, “The animals are at my command with nice teeth,” and that she helms her “own most capable government of sharks.” A toothbrush-wielding ghost insists to her that “every other venture besides dental was / futile.” This relates to the speaker’s other form of pleasure: she consumes food as zealously as she does sex (one of the arcs is even titled “Charcuterie”). She salivates over hallmarks of fine Western cuisine, such as “bûche de Noël” with “ganache all over it” and “shallot demi-glace.” A section of the arc “Bad Coriolis” reads like an ode to artisanal cheese:

Cheese does not have efficacy I think sometimes
and other times I think it does have efficacy

It is creamy and can move me to eat it
It has a bloomy rind and can get me to talk about it
It has a washed rind and can get me to smell it

I then tell the story of the famous chef who ordered
Taleggio out of his restaurant for good

It was so smelly he didn’t want it in his sight

Taleggio lived under an overpass taunting the nostrils
on our faces but especially the nostrils in our mouths

But the speaker is a producer as well as a consumer; she eventually desires to give back. Like Candide, she resolves to obtain agency over her life by cultivating her garden. She asserts, “Gardening is one of my self-actualization schemes.” She raises cows and grows blooms, remarking, “I have traded my labor for so many flowers / I have given flowers x many minutes of my life.” If produce is a metaphor for an individual’s work, food storage signifies legacy. The speaker preserves herself by imploring her lover: “… read aloud the contents of my brain / into the interior of the refrigerator.”

Although the speaker wishes to manipulate her reputation in the future, by the end of the collection, she recognizes the need to paradoxically surrender to and to take responsibility for her fate. She concludes, “… we have to keep the stars that we have which makes us / one half possibility and one half slave.” The speaker utters, “But I have realized it,” in response to the epiphany that “the universe will protect us because we are really / really moral and we’re trying to do our very best.” The formerly vicious egomaniac develops a healthy confidence, grasping that “self love is a warm and gentle sea.”

After the speaker attains the “self-actualization” she claimed to garden for, she reaches “self-transcendence,” the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at which one yearns to aid those in need. She once seethed, “My heart festers with hate for all the people;” in the book’s final fragments, she wishes to help others in the universe by resolving to “eat a little less tomorrow and / turn off all the lights and help at the soup kitchen.” She then extends her philanthropy to the reader, encouraging them to “Go unto the universe ready to accept its gifts / and give your head the ability to nod and nod … open your mouth wide and let the yes rain fill it up.”

Are bildungsromans, in the forms of poetry or prose, implicitly motivational? That may be up for debate, however, one of the speaker’s closing cheers to the reader, “Scream yes yes yes yes yes …” evidences that indeed, But I Have Realized It, is distinctive proof that poetry can be simultaneously intelligent and inspirational.

But I Have Realized It: A Motivational Poem in Little Arcs, by Crystal Curry. Switchback Books, July 2015. 96 pages. $16.00, paper.

Katie Hibner is a confetti canon studying at Bennington College. Her poetry and criticism has been published in Bone Bouquet, Entropy, glitterMOB, inter|rupture, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Vinyl, and Word for/Word. Katie has read for Salamander and Sixth Finch and dedicates all of her poetry to her mother, Laurie.

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