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Language and sexuality in an uneven weave

cover of Speech Acts by Laura McCullough

Speech Acts
by Laura McCullough
Black Lawrence Press
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In her poem “What Can Happen in the Dunes,” Laura McCullough writes:

My body was fertile, then not,
then fecund, again, with language. There’s
a connection between the throat
and vagina; tighten one, they both clench,
the throat taking what’s bitten off,
whatever is more than the mouth can handle.

This poem, perhaps more than any other in the collection, summarizes the two main drives of Speech Acts, McCullough’s 2010 collection from Black Lawrence Press, which explores the connections between language and sexuality, in what seem to be ways only McCullough could imagine. In “Giving Good Bard,” McCullough’s attention to the sounds of words is impeccable:

…cock sucking’s not bad, the soft o of cock sliding
into the u of suck, the repeating K sound, the one syllable
word followed by two, and that second word a great
verb, to boot!…

Her work is flawless as she follows these two threads.

Unfortunately, after finishing the collection, I vacillate between feeling that McCullough is trying too hard and not trying hard enough. An instance of the poet forcing the issue can be found in “The Orthography of Provocation,” where, at one point, McCullough writes, “…as the rumbling nostrums / of that cement truck grinding down the road.” I have pondered this line for hours and have yet to figure out how a cement truck can have “nostrums.”

An instance of McCullough not pushing hard enough can be found in the poem, “Beauty, I Said”:

I never said that thing you said
I said that time when we were dancing
and everyone was so drunk no one
remembers what anyone said. I’m sure
I said something, but not what you
said I said…

Thematically, the poem fits because it is about a specific “speech act.” It focuses on a misunderstanding between the speaker and the beloved. But given McCullough’s unparalleled attention to the sounds of words in other poems, this poem falls flat. It is a “he said/she said” with little attention to language, sound, or any of the other elements of poetry.

If I sound as if I’m being hard on McCullough’s collection, it’s because it had the potential to be pitch perfect, if only the weaker poems had been omitted. Contemporary poetry can’t get any better than “Speaking Malagasy on the Isle of Vanilla,” which, to borrow from Walt Whitman, “contains multitudes.”

The poem starts out with a note explaining the overnight collapse of Madagascar’s economy when Coca-cola changed its formula, substituting synthetic vanilla for real vanilla. The poem interweaves geopolitics, linguistics, psychology, and biology—beautifully:

…It is not a Romantic language, but has
borrowed a little from the French who took so much.
It’s an island language, Austronesion, and plurals are managed
with a beautiful efficiency: more than one book: book-book;
more than one child: child-child. It’s hard for the Latinate
mind to imagine…

The poem ends just as perfectly:

…and tenuous like the vanilla flower
blooming for only one day, both male and female, the thinnest
of membranes between them waiting to be stripped away.

Speech Acts could have been a strong, slim volume at sixty pages. As it is, the strong poems are sometimes like so much grain lost in the chaff, and, if readers are in the habit of reading their poetry collections straight through from front to back, the weaker poems, sadly, are the ones that lay heaviest on the reader’s mind, making a collection that starts out strong much more anticlimactic than it deserves to be.

McCullough also has a 2011 collection, Panic, just out from Alice James Books.



Shaindel Beers is Contrary’s Poetry Editor.

Poetry Editor Shaindel Beers is the author of three full-length poetry collections, A Brief History of Time (2009), The Children’s War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing, and Secure Your Own Mask (2018), from White Pine Press. She teaches at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, where she lives with her son Liam.