By Kelly Weber
An ominous sense of a strange, sometimes nightmarish broken mirror reality pervades Glass Bikini, Kristin Bock’s new collection. As the speaker says in “Broken Mirror”: “There is little warning / when the countdown begins. / A great mirror falls…” In Bock’s prose poems, tenderness often feels inextricably enmeshed with danger; it’s a setting where “Our arms, [are] rifles. The trees are enormous / rifles no one can wrap their rifles around.” Here the body is distorted, disoriented, transformed, broken. In uncanny poems of doll parts, scissors, and flesh, Glass Bikini explores the crisis of personal autonomy in a world that constantly strips away bodies’ agency. Here systems of control constantly violate bodily autonomy, constantly falsely assure us everything is okay. In Bock’s narratives, the wondrous gives way to the horrifying, which tries but fails to provide frameworks of understanding. These narratives, though, are an evocative even visceral attempt at agency—an agency troubled by the speaker’s transforming others into dolls or getting dragged back and forth. Glass Bikini is as unsettling as it is vivid and imaginative in conjuring these parallel agentive universes.
These tensions are exemplified in the poem “Belief Is a Default Setting,” in which the speaker in part considers the nature of narratives:
From cadavers, grow new body parts. Use architecture to reanimate. Make
rooms that have valves like doorways….
Dolls provide a framework, a narrative to explain your body. Feel a lack of control. See patterns in static, patterns in the stock market, in toast, in clouds, in invisible princesses. See meaning where there is none…
To grow a new body part from a cadaver is a standard horror genre trope—a narrative we have been trained to read—but the poem troubles such an easy reading, especially in the context of the other poems in this collection. Here the cadaver takes on sinister implications: where did the cadavers come from? How did this body die? Within what systems of control? This growing of new organs from the bodies of the dead feels like a loss of agency, especially when, later in the poem, the brain is sliced open and downloaded to create a “good representation of personality” and consciousness is awoken in the reconstructed body commanded to “bear to live” this way. This consciousness has no choice but to live with belief as a default setting. The doll provides a narrative, but such frameworks ultimately only hold the meaning the mind chooses to read there. To be a body is ultimately to have no control. Beneath the incredible imagery of doorways like valves is the unsettling truth that we have no choice within our seemingly mechanistic need to find meaning. And when the body in this poem is reconstructed, it is never clear who is doing the reconstructing and who is reconstructed: the speaker uses the imperative “Grow body parts” and provides instructions to slice open the brain, but the speaker then commands: “Wake as if from a long sleep.” The operator has become the operated upon. The framework we have to understand the poem suddenly shifts. Such shifts, and the vulnerability of the speaker or body caught at the center of them, occur again and again throughout Glass Bikini.
As a result, the speakers of some of these poems exert agency by transforming themselves or others. In the poem “Binding Spell,” for example, the speaker—a definite “I” speaker, in contrast to the speaker without a personal pronoun in “Belief Is a Default Setting”—changes their body and the body of a “you,” an intimate thou, combines them into a “we.” “I make a doll of you. I make a doll of me. I stuff us full of feathers, / fingernails and fur,” the poem opens. It feels like a return to “Belief Is a Default System”: a horrifying callback to the doll as a way to understand the body. The transformation of both the self and the beloved into dolls is a way of containing, of holding meaning. The speaker goes on to describe how they “wire our wrists, / our knees, our navels, our tongues, our flirting shadows. / I pierce your red wax heart with a bouquet of pins….I hobble you.” Intimacy is distorted and rendered as the fastening of the two bodies together, to the point that the beloved is kept permanently at a remove. Within the world of this poem, desire becomes something that can remove agency. Yet there’s a strange tenderness here, too: “I know it hurts to bear your palms to the world. / There’s no better way to reach me when I’m burning on the other side.” Despite these two dolls being grafted and bound together, the poem ends on a note of trying to reach the other and of the recognition of the beloved’s pain and vulnerability. How are lover and beloved constantly trying to reach across and close a gap between oneself and the other, in spite of this vulnerability and in spite of the ways they are already grafted to one another? What does agency look like for lover and beloved together?
Bock’s poems raise these questions as uncanny mirrors: we recognize a truth in them at once tender and unsettling, but ultimately the images remain mysterious to us. In a way, all good poems do this, but the prose poems of Glass Bikini make especially astute use of the form’s potential for fantastical realities, albeit contained within a prosy box’s unassuming form.
Other uncanny and frightening power imbalances recur throughout Glass Bikini, such as the gendered dynamics in the way a daughter is dragged “down a rock face by [her] father”; and in “Alice’s MMA Fight with the President,” where Alice falls “feet first into a hot cup of entrails” to engage in a bloody battle with the President. The title and exclamations throughout the poem suggest a kind of dark humor, but the President finally headlocking a bleeding Alice while the refs do nothing to intervene sounds like an all too familiar “wonderland.” In “Gaslighter,” the speaker offers more and more of her body parts year after year to a friend who reassures her that “No…you’re / sitting right here beside me, it’s just your head inside the bag and it’s beautiful.” Though the images are distorted in both of these poems, the realities mirrored in them are clear indeed. Intimacy often becomes a trap when agency is removed. The prose poem form itself becomes not only a way to contain these weird realities with incredible tension, but also within a familiar seemingly innocuous intimacy—it’s just an everyday prose paragraph! We hardly notice the trap full of teeth inside.
In Glass Bikini, Kristin Bock beautifully offers us poems rich with strange, monstrous imagery that both warns and reaches—reaches after, reaches toward, reaches across, like a funhouse Psyche in the underworld. Like Jose Hernandez Diaz’s prose poems in the excellent The Fire Eater, Bock’s poems use the unit and rhythm of the sentence, turning the seemingly familiar prose line into something that—like a beloved—we realize we hardly know at all, all to conjure entire strange worlds for us. Buttons, mouths, planets, static, mermaids, and drones populate worlds uncomfortably recognizable that we can’t look away from. To spend time in the poems of The Glass Bikini is to linger in a dream before waking: a strangeness that feels so completely like home.