Reviewed by Brad Phillips
Immediately abandon a desire for neutrality in this review of Bunny Rogers’ first book of poetry, which is actually a sculpture, or an unnameable 1.4 pound object, containing drawings and illustrations in a hardbound 232 page book, accompanied by a ribbon and two bizarre embroidered patches.
Mine has an inscription that you won’t get.
Three things – this is the first book I’ve ever seen with an epigraph that is a quote from Neopets.
“…You wish to be alone
Nor put on display
Neopets are afraid of you…”
Shadow Usul by Link1429
Neopets, Inc. 1999-2014
two poems on page 66
I can’t wait to share you
All men are cops
cuff me Im guilty
cuff me Im guilty
cuff me Im guilty
on page 11
Who am I kidding
These two poems are emblematic of what I know Bunny to be: terse, sad/funny, aloof about typos or typo-stylist extraordinaire.
How do you start to review something with bias and affection?
Like this –
In April 2012 I was in an institution in the Pacific Northwest. I was allowed to go to the library to check my email. There was an email from a Bunny Rogers asking if she could interview me. I don’t like being interviewed but she said it was for school, and I feel a sad terror for students. I answered what were rather pointless point form questions, had I ever dyed my hair? How tall was I?
Bunny added me on Facebook. I looked at Bunny. She looked like someone I would know. She looked like I knew her. I knew her. I was in an all male environment for three months. Bunny was access to a new weird female brain. Maybe that sounds awful but she knows it and it’s fine with her.
Her website is confusing and it’s meant to be I imagine. I couldn’t tell how old Bunny was, because her website was a vast archive of her entire experience growing up online. Every user name she’d ever had on any website, and photographs going back to high-school, maybe earlier. I only saw that her hair got longer, her face stayed the same. Which was a combination of invitation and accusation. Bunny knows I’m not the best person in the world, it’s why we’re friends. The stickiness of her website and constant play of roles, presentation, self presentation—morphability, attracts certain types, a lot of young women, (seemingly innumerable young women adore Bunny), art types, my type, possibly much uglier, baser types. She welcomes everyone in and leaves nothing unexposed. Also nothing is exposed. Everything is high theatrics and crushing autobiography at once. You can’t find her but she’s everywhere—I know where she is right now, tonight, some others do I imagine. Bunny allows herself to be what you want her to be for you. The poetry in this book, unless Bunny has manipulated me too, which, she’s smart and I wouldn’t be surprised, seems to be the real hangover of constantly playing at being alive.
My encounter with her writing was post-institution (I was living in a choreographed housing environment for nine months). This was when I had access to telephones. Bunny asked if I wanted to talk. I wanted to talk. I was living with longshoremen, line cooks, jailbirds—not that I didn’t like or have anything in common with those guys, I just couldn’t get certain things. I couldn’t get a woman’s voice from them. I had no money to call her in New York so she called me. Ten men in the house, the phone was usually busy, usually fifty-year-old men on the phone with their mothers asking formoney, on the phone with their ex-wives asking for money, on the phone with their daughters asking for money.
I had money. I only wanted a quiet voice. My wife was hanging-up the phone when I called. Her squawky hello was all I got. Bunny got through at one point. Her voice was something unexpected. Like she was calling from a phone next to a sea anemone, 30 feet underwater. If you watch her reading her work, she has a lilting, musical lack of affect. It’s alluring and it’s upsetting. She said something like “Bradley” – which no one calls me, which she always calls me—only my dead father and people (other types) who beat me up called me that. It was fine with her. She asked if I ever wrote poems and I said yes although I know they’re bad, I can only write bad poetry—in part because almost all poetry now is abysmal. She asked me to read her one and I did because why not. I can’t remember it, I don’t want to. She asked if I wanted to hear one of hers and I never had before. So she started – maybe ten words later she said, “Bradley?” and I realized I’d missed the poem. It was that short. It was conversational. It was essentially the same as her conversation—simple, dry, unornamented and brief. Like missing the lightning strike and your friend says, “Wow, did you see that?”
There are three ways, more of course, to look at this book/sculpture/trip wire. If you’re young, a young woman especially (if I can say that), it presents as a sincere, heartfelt book of poetry, with signs of hurt womanhood, the travails of a sexual body—it comes with ribbons, it’s sad/tragic/funny/confessional. Were I a 22-year-old woman living in a small town with dreams of one day becoming an artist and moving to the big city, it would be a treasure of sincerity, speeding unapologetic writing, speaking for a generation and a type. Such sincerity. Take the ribbon bookmark and make it a bracelet, to align you with Bunny Rogers and signify inclusion in a secret club.
The space between the first and third way of looking at this book is perhaps the way I see it most clearly.
Smash television show – Dateline: To Catch a Predator. They catch predators! A young woman with the help of a coterie of creepy ponytailed men who are internet vigilantes and work with NBC set traps for pedophiles online. The woman poses as a young girl. She knows the argot of internet chat rooms, because she’s in them all the time ‘researching’ and ‘working’ and she gets it. She’s authentic. A scenario would be like this. Notice the similarities between To Catch a Predator narratives and the heyday of pornography with inchoate preamble styles. The pizza man is coming, the pizza man is sexy. The girl does not have enough money to pay the pizza man. The pool boy is coming. He is sexy. No money. On To Catch a Predator, a witless pederast is duped into believing a young girl/boy is home alone, and wants to spend some time with an exciting adult. Typically when these men are busted coming into the home, they all seem to be carrying similar items. Condoms, wine coolers, McDonald’s, cigarettes, beer. In their minds, they have imagined (been entrapped) into believing a pre- or pubescent girl/boy is home alone and wants to just fool around. With anal sex. Inevitably the audience is shocked by the democratic array of offenders. A circuit court judge, a teenager, a lawyer, a rabbi, a hockey coach, a unemployed piece of shit living with his mother. The point that is driven home is that everywhere lurks a predator, they don’t wear trench coats, they aren’t ‘evil’ looking. It’s the horrifying normalcy that is the real threat. All men are potential pedophiles. Of course, this is true. They all back out of the story in the same way when confronted, ‘this was my first time’, I just didn’t like ‘her being home alone’ – wanted her to be safe (from people like me!). The reactions are few. Shame, fear, embarrassment. No bombast. Everyone wants to go home! Of course they do. But they won’t! The camera shows us that. Later on the host, the overly righteous 28-year-old hormonally challenged vigilante who actually does look 14, her comrades in cargo shorts, they all pat each other on the back, “job well done, job well done.” Well—if you create a job for yourself, it’s quite easy to finish it… if you have tenacity. In reality there are probably not as many 12-year-old girls inviting grown men into their home while their careless parents are at salsa lessons to experiment with blowjobs and BDSM as television would have us believe. Fear of pedophiles is rampant, it’s exciting television. Fear of pedophiles is reasonable, they ruin lives. Their own included. The point which I might be making poorly is that To Catch a Predator is classical entrapment. Bait-and-switch—offer a 12-year-old and nascent breasts, deliver 14 cops and an asshole with a microphone.
The third way is to look at Bunny’s poems, and Brigid Masons’ illustrations, as a very good artwork. Each of Mason’s drawings is of a chair or incorporates a chair. A very similar chair lost in time. Chairs are multiform, chairs can be used for masturbation, for punishment, for idleness, for suicide, for being turned into a corner, for being tied to. The illustrations are very innocent. In this way they are also very menacing. Pencil drawings by an adult women, of whimsical chairs to accompany poems about drugs and death and boredom become nefarious by association. There are many many poems in this book, two years worth, unexpurgated and unrelenting. There could be something to say about the linearity and comprehensiveness of the writing, but it doesn’t interest me. If you have a chance to make your first book, you also just want to get as much as you can in there. The poems live outside of line breaks, cadence, meter—they are full of internet syntax: h8 instead of hate, cuz instead of cause. There are spelling mistakes and stutters. That they were printed as such is obviously intentional. They satisfy both a connection to the internet, and the communicative modes of young people, as well as demonstrating the urgency to record quickly. They also, in this way, say fuck you. What I enjoy is the fuck you.
In the putative innocence of the object, the coyly evil and inviting illustrations, the book is bait. The book appears to promise access to shattered youth. In fact it aims to shatter you. Each poem and the entire enterprise is intensely antagonistic. These are poems of poems. Illustrations of illustrations—a sculpture of a book. The multiple ways to engage with this work are what make it so compelling, there is no incorrect way to interpret it. It actually is a book of poetry, and it actually is a piece of conceptual art that’s venomously hostile and loaded. As in To Catch a Predator—the invitation appears sincere, you feel you’re communing with quaking youth, and it can be that, but if you are of a certain type, you become aware of the falsity of the environment—why does the child never come out of the room, constantly telling you she’s getting dressed and to relax? The home looks like a showcase. And then the microphone, your pants are down, you’re carrying Vodka and a Big Mac – police outside the window, what will your wife think. Everything flashing. You just were worried she was home alone. And you were worried. And you were also the worrisome thing.
Beyond all of this, Bunny Rogers writes beautiful poems. Without considering her intentions, they can be heartbreaking, funny, poisonous, with twelve words, less. They may be romantic, but it’s a romantics of the utterly boring and ordinary. When we first became friends, we learned we both had been obsessed (her more and still) with the show Prison Break. In her writing these characters are real; people in her life. I imagine they are actually people in her life. In all her work there’s a purposeful conflation of real life and entertainment and social media. Characters from Neopets, herself in Second Life, Prison Break, her best friends— they’re all given equal treatment. One poem can give you more feeling for Doctor Tancredi from Prison Break than you might for Bunny’s own father in a different poem. Her ability to treat every character, real or fabricated, as an important character in her life is emblematic of a mushroom cloud of heartbreak. Like Philip Larkin she writes concisely about the nothing of how we fill our days. It’s a feat of creativity to compose poems that work as poems, in a book that works as sculpture, in a package that presents as a pipe-bomb wrapped in pink cotton candy.
There is a cult feeling to this project. Bunny attracts a devoted following, whether their understanding of her work is mistaken, accurate, or sincere in being so mistaken. In time, this book will be sought with cultish desirability as a fetish to many different needs and aspirations. I can only imagine.
Bunny Rogers, Cunny Poem Vol. 1, Illustrations by Brigid Mason (Small Batch Books, 2014)
Images: Cover and interior of Cunny Poem Vol. 1, courtesy of the artists’ website.