The landscape of Cynthia Cruz’s The Glimmering Room is that of absolute desolation and despair, a degraded Wonderland long ago abandoned. One can visualize the faded neon and weed-stricken carnival rides of nostalgia Cruz deftly navigates. In this world of entropy and regret, the speaker’s one ostensible wish is for death, the erasure of both body and memory. The characters throughout are often children excised of childhood, forged into physical husks that cannot sustain the idea of a soul. However bleak their lives may be, Cruz injects a frenetic energy that betrays a will to power, even if the end goal is that of extinction. Intertwined with the instinct for escape is a tender regret threaded throughout in the voice of a speaker who is both victim and conspirator. These poems are ripe with disintegration in an unabashedly confrontational manner.
Sexuality in its most animalian sense, the other prominent theme in Cruz’s second book, operates similarly in a visceral, stripped-down manner. However, despite the ostensible depravity in these poems, Eros is inextricably present. Cruz transgresses many taboos, often exhibiting a link between the drive towards death and the fulfillment of sexual desire. The result is a physical eroticism charged with violence. These poems, however, are not limited to pure physicality; a religious element exists in images and language throughout the collection.
According to Georges Bataille, the early twentieth-century French philosopher and writer, the root of both physical and religious eroticism lies in death. As beings seeking an escape from the desolation and inherent alienation of individual life and self-hood, we strive for the loss of self, a cohesion only truly possible in death. Bataille argues that eroticism is an active attempt to escape the anguish of isolation, an attempt that cannot be divorced from death; the ultimate end of the individual. Cruz’s poetry illuminates this connection in both transparent and opaque ways; overtly sexual imagery parallels the violent, but there also exists a tenacious life-force. A paradox exists between the longing to relinquish life and the speaker’s inability to do so. Bataille explores this paradox in his definition of eroticism, which he defines as a striving for death, which is unattainable, in actions performed during life. This duality stems from the Freudian concepts of Eros and Thanatos, the life-drive and death-drive. The Glimmering Room examines this conflict between self-preservation and the drive for destruction.
The collection opens with “Kingdom of Dirt.” This title boldly and aptly signifies the tone for the entire collection. The world we enter is one of wraiths and half-lives; the abused and self-destructive. Abandoned by society, their kingdom is subterranean and out of sight; the shadows of highway underpasses and hospital corridors. This underworld is full of degradation and disintegration yet does not offer the ultimate escape from the conscience that is only attainable in death. It is both purgatorial and hellish in nature. Its inhabitants seem to seek only escape.
The poem begins with a foretelling that the “ambassadors from the Netherworld / Will begin / Their jet-like descent. Death, / Disguised inside me, already, / As sleaze.” The speaker is naming herself a harbinger of death, an androgynous queen of the netherworld already ruined by the material world, but still existing within it. She names the various forms of death as they exist within the characters; the mentally unstable Brother Rainer with his bible and Dirty Cindy, “little / Glitter of her father’s / Spit.” Within the first page of the poem Cruz has defined aspects of death as sleaze, religion, and incest. The speaker ultimately desires to escape her role within this sordid world, preferring death to this desperate state of life.
At the end of the poem she implores the “Groom of the Underworld” to leave this realm with her for the “love-burned / orchard / Where the beautiful doomed / Meet at last.” For the speaker the afterlife is a “piss-elegant halfway house,” a burnt garden, in opposition to Eden. She is exchanging a living purgatory for an afterlife specific to the lost and degraded, the “beautiful doomed.” There is an abject lack of hope in this view of the present and future, but also a veiled tenderness. The speaker does not wish to go alone, but implores a groom to accompany her. Cruz subtly intersperses the jarringly bleak imagery with moments of vibrancy. The end of the world has a discotheque and ultimately exists as a meeting place for like souls, even if condemned. Perhaps this is not a direct reversal of Eden but a garden appropriate to the wrecked and trashed, a place where they can finally escape degradation and abandon the bodies they felt imprisoned within.
Cruz constantly defies taboos such as child sexuality, prostitution and incest. In the first “Strange Gospels” she introduces incest between the speaker and her father, as well as her mother’s involvement. In the third stanza, “At night / When the animals arrive, I am alone / As always, and tan as a Coppertone ad, / Daddy’s funny bunny girl.” The speaker emphasizes her isolation and introduces her father. The sexual overtones to their relationship emerge in the twelfth stanza, “Mommy’s got me laced in some French / Magic. Some burlesque, some circus, and some queer, Candy ass.
Now we can pretend I am Daddy’s blonde princess. Give me my / medicines, Mommy, so I can forget.” Cruz does not veil the sexual abuse or render it ambiguous. Her unabashed description of the speaker’s costume with crass language and slang furthers the sense of a lack of sympathy permeating the tone. There is also a sense of near humor in the choice of “candy ass” due to its contemporary usage. Cruz’s diction cuts directly and is so aggressively sarcastic that it is difficult to believe victimization could be treated in this manner. It is however, this tactic that renders the actions even more believable as we can imagine the callousness of the parents in this situation. The lack of subtlety defines the speaker’s voice as well as the nature of the transgressions committed against her. Just as she did not experience sympathy, neither do we, as readers, in the description of the acts.
Cruz sharpens the juxtaposition of holy and profane. This unrestrained instinct for destruction, and its direct link to sexuality, appear throughout the collection. Here we see the origin of the relationship between death and sleaze.
Image: Francesca Woodman
Angela Sundstrom received her MFA in poetry from The New School in NYC. She freelances book reviews for Time Out New York and her poetry has been featured on The Best American Poetry blog. She currently works for Mother Jones magazine. @Somatiqua