By David Nilsen
In “The Audacious Canvas,” an early poem in Gabrielle Brant Freeman’s When She Was Bad, the poet observes the paintings of Lucian Freud and categorizes them as “anti-selfies.” They don’t depict the human body in airbrushed perfection, but revel in human ordinariness and flaw. They don’t mock the human form—”the body is the body is the body” as Freeman observes—but they don’t lie about it either. When She Was Bad is itself a sort of spiritual anti-selfie in which Freeman shows herself to the reader without lying to make herself either baser or more angelic than she is, more provocative or better behaved, more whore or more madonna.
Given the statement-of-purpose title, I spent the early pages of this 2016 collection waiting for Freeman to show her big, bad self, to be ostentatious, to give herself and her female readers permission to misbehave. She grants that permission, to be sure, but it is mostly implicit. She also gives permission to behave, or to want to be pretty, or to feel sad when a lover is gone, or to do nothing interesting at all. I assumed When She Was Bad would play against the expectation that women and girls should be calm and good, but it seems to play instead against any expectation at all. Women, Freeman seems to say, can be something very like normal, everyday people doing normal, everyday things.
She addresses these binary assumptive options in the title poem, in which she briefly deconstructs Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “There was a little girl” and exposes it as a distillation of the virgin/whore dichotomy. She finishes the poem with these simple words: “Her clear-eyed knowing: / trouble.” If the little girl in the classic rhyme was merely “very, very good” or “horrid,” we would know what to do with her. That she might be a smidgen more complex than that, that more options might be open to her than these polar extremes, and that she might be aware of the complex options before her, is significantly more troubling to a society that wants to categorize and, by extension, control her than her adherence to one archetype or the other would be.
Freeman does choose to address expectations more bluntly at points, such as in “Whore.” After several stanzas in which she graphically describes instances of her female friends having semi-public sex, she writes:
“I’m no good at keeping a straight face, not when asked
if I ever want to go back to being twenty
again and be a bigger whore than I was.”
As she wends her way through the poem, she follows up the behavior of her friends—behavior it is too easy for a patriarchal society to label as whorish—with an investigation of the curious and revealing etymology of the word whore itself, a word that includes a Latin root for she-wolf in its origin story. She concludes the poem:
“When Jen told me she fucked a guy in the bathroom, I should
have asked, did you like it? Did you bare your neck or your teeth?”
In the midst of all of Freeman’s work to undo the popular language of female transgression, the book’s most legitimately transgressive passage comes when she hints at sometimes missing a few of the trappings of good old low-grade sexism. In “T&A” she writes,
“There’s the ass, which on either sex
can make you feel as though you have no control
over your own eyes, the windows to your
soul or your libido, whichever arrives
first. And why does it become so difficult?
Remember when you could say, I like you,
you’re pretty and nice, without sounding
like a perv, without insulting someone’s
gender, without it being taken as
I’d really like to fuck you, may I please?
I guess we can’t have that back.”
This is a self-aware wistfulness awake to its own problematic nature. Freeman gives herself permission to think aloud something she’s not supposed to. No, we shouldn’t make catcalling acceptable again, but Freeman is brave enough to admit that while socially and politically this is a simple issue with a clear answer, sometimes the response of the heart and the ego is a little more complicated.
In one of the best pieces from When She Was Bad, the prose poem “The Happily Married Woman Boards the Plane,” Freeman writes about meeting an appealing man on an airplane and allowing her fantasy to run away from her. She does this through a series of admonishments to the hypothetical male passenger about what not to do so she won’t fall for him, saving them both the trouble. “Please be dumb as a bag of hammers. Please don’t order Maker’s Mark and ask if I’d care for one, too.” The poem seems to be going the direction of granting permission to forego the mundane in favor of the romantic, to go ahead and have your fun even though you’re married, but she counters this in the final lines, revealing that sometimes foregoing the romantic is just foregoing a delayed mundanity:
“Because no matter what the love songs say, I know in six or fifteen years, you’d leave your running shoes on the table one more time, your wet towel on the floor; you’d drink the last Diet Coke, eat the very last piece of sourdough bread, and leave me the heel.”
In the final poem of the collection, Freeman deconstructs Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” a jaunty old rhyme in which the titular characters trick a bunch of young, impressionable oysters into walking with them along a moonlit beach and, eventually, becoming their dinner. The point of the original poem seems to be that we destroy what is beautiful, that we don’t know what we have until it’s gone, that we go on ravaging nature and other cultures to feed the empty spot in the warm center of our own consumptive colonialism. Freeman subverts this object lesson by allowing herself to be the hungry walrus, to eat the damn oysters.
“I will not hide my face behind a slip of whisker,
A trap of stabbing tusk.
I will stand at water’s edge,
Salt dripping from my quivering chin, and I will eat.”
To translate this into the parlance of current gender politics, she could just as easily be saying I will take up space. I will make noise, I will eat, I will claim what’s mine, be it food or sex or a microphone or a position or authority. Or domestic mundanity, if I damn well choose. The options are far more open than “very, very good” or “horrid.” In When She Was Bad, Gabrielle Brant Freeman pledges to be something far more dangerous: Real.