Review by Christina Catherine Martinez
a broken creature—defeated, exhaling fumes, grieving her.
I jinxed karma, leaving my nakedness ope open, primitive,
quaking retching, shaking.
“Timber!’ utter victims—
weary, x-eyed, yet zen.
–Phonetics by Liz Cunningham
No one likes to think that so honorable an enterprise as education is subject to trends, fads even. We want to believe that there’s only evolution, growth, but every generation or so we end up with a batch of fucked up kids, and then it’s back to the conference room.
-…and what is your criteria for deeming this program unsuccessful?
-Well ma’am, you see, we’ve got all these fucked-up kids.
Phonetics are political. At least, they were, as a pedagogical tool. My mother taught me to read, at home, using Hooked on Phonics, a direct-to-consumer educational product that circumvented the “whole-language” approach adopted by public school programs around the same time Dr. Benjamin Spock was telling parents to trust their instincts. John M. Shanahan was frustrated by his son’s slow reading progress, and began to make friendly versions of the the phonetic drills John went through in Catholic school, swapping ruler-slaps for catchy jingles as a mnemonic device. Shanahan went so far as to undermine the institution of the alphabet song. The version I sang as a child co-opted the melody of the original, with words added to drive home the sounds of the glyphs: A-a-apple, buh-buh-ball, cuh-cuh-cat and duh-duh-doll… by the late ’80s, “Huked on foniks werked for me!” entered the pop consciousness as an emblem of homeschooler backwardness.
The marriage of sound and vision is a fraught one, but I think I came out ok.
Liz Cunningham makes charcoal lip rubbings and acetone transfers of words making their smeary march out into the ether. Those learning to read lips begin by placing fingers gently on the speaker’s mouth. For words formed with trembling lips, the reader is on their own.
a bite can’t describe every fuck girls have
it’s just keeping lust made noxious
O please quit reinforcing sin, telling untrue vows
whisper xxx you zero
The best kisses are on the whole more sloppy, violent, unplanned, unrestrained, awkward, and fanciful than the dainty lipstick mark that symbolizes them. A real kiss is an ontological amoeba, a blend of action, desire, and clashing pheromones—fundamentally impossible to visualize, but we make do with the kiss mark as a devout Catholic makes do with a religious icon. A kiss mark merely facilitates meditation on the prototype of its existence.
After several failed attempts to either define or dissolve the nature of our relationship, we took a walk though the Hacienda Heights Golf Club course. At three o’clock in the morning. To talk. I forgoed Dr. Pepper lip smacker in favor of thick, gloppy, oxblood-colored lipgloss. “What’s that shit all over your mouth?” he asked.
“Defense mechanism” I said.
So we walked. And of course I couldn’t picture the words I had rehearsed actually coming out of me, so they never came at all. And of course by the end of our walk he had ducked into a public bathroom while I stood at the doorway, watching him try to scrub off the wild smears of defense mechanism from all over his face and neck.
Liz Cunningham, Phonetics, (Self-published, 2014)
Images: Cover and interior of Phonetics