Navigating Monster-hood in Cait Weiss Orcutt’s Valleyspeak

by Joey Lew

by Cait Weiss Orcutt
Zone 3 Press, $14, 72pp.

“We grew up in the valley under porn,” Valleyspeak begins. The line is startling and enjambed: “we grew up in the valley under porn / stars, inside cars. Mom drives us to Sunset / Boulevard to see whores.” From there Orcutt’s rhythm and frankness drive a cadence like a film noir voiceover. The landscape is gritty, the characters are honest (at least in their asides to us, the readers) and the plot is wholesale riveting.

Orcutt traffics in rawness, positioning readers as voyeurs into the life of a young girl growing up in L.A. The speaker’s admissions are revealing—of her childhood: “my mother introduces us sisters as The Whore / & The Nun. I’m The Nun…I suspect that my sister is winning,” of her mother: “mom puts the strap / with the ball between her teeth. Or: Mom / shakes the capsules into her palm.” There is an uneasiness in the speaker’s role as the sympathetic child, even as her mother and father are always disappearing or self-harming or leaving their girls in danger. We glean a hint of the speaker’s retrospective guilt when we encounter her as an adult, contending with thoughts and feelings she finds too difficult to vocalize directly. Instead, the L.A. River becomes the speaker’s audience, a way of talking to herself: “Nothing very dangerous has happened to us lately. / How might you explain that? – I explain that, L.A. River, / as Mom’s seltzer-bleached sobriety.” The thoughts that she might not want known to others she shares with the river—her boredom in safety, her identification as enabler, her remorse in failure. In one poem L.A. River is a confidant, in another, a coffin. The mutability of her relationship with the river mirrors that with her mother, an artful rendering of the ways in which we deflect when the truth is too hot to touch.

No character of Orcutt’s is allowed only one dimension, and the speaker’s parents are made sympathetic, too: “The father stands, showers, dresses, pours tangerine juice / in a thimble glass, takes a fingernail shard of Prozac, sips & swallows / backed by light….here / he loves this life,” and “Mom takes me & my sister to Disneyland, pays us each / a quarter when we spy the Matterhorn’s peak.” Orcutt establishes normalcy, whatever it might mean for the speaker, so that when it breaks down we assign her characters real, palpable blame. This is the true genius of Orcutt—there are no excuses but no demons, either. “All monsters aren’t monsters.”

The question of “monster-hood,” of identity founded in trauma, is pervasive in Valleyspeak, and Orcutt dances around it with associative leaps. She steps into danger, and then out of it, balancing the horrors of reality with how they appear from the perspective of a young girl: “March comes. My sister…is pure tan California / pre-tween. Mr. Florin tells our father / he buys young girls in Thailand. / Our father tells Mom, who spits beer // through her teeth. All men are monsters. / Not all monsters / are men. We study Loch Ness / in third grade.” From poolside to mail-order brides to the third-grade classroom in ten lines, this weaving is a suggestion about the nature of trauma: we live our lives, horrible things happen, we go back to living our lives. If we walk through it, past it—who’s to say it actually happened?

If no one else will, though, L.A. remembers. As a book largely composed of vignettes, Valleyspeak depends on the permanence of place to convey part of its narrative. If we forget where we are even for a moment Orcutt’s titles remind us—“Encino Hills,” “Northridge,” “Single Kings of the Valley,” among others. In this fixed location the reader is well-situated enough for Orcutt to bend time without fear of losing us. The chronology isn’t linear—instead, the vignettes cohere via shared scene and characters, building to an overall sense of who our narrator is, of how she became that way. Sometimes the speaker accepts a fixed future: “one is the mother you keep / becoming,” other times she fights it: “I am (not) / my future yet.” In “Don’t Forget! This Mother’s Day,” Orcutt slowly introduces facets of the speaker’s personality in the form of her obsessive thoughts centered on a fear of becoming her mother. In the poem directly opposite, “Welcome to the Moment,” the adult speaker navigates the fragile sobriety of her and her partner with a desire for children, wrapped in her complex feelings toward motherhood evident in the partnered poem. Miniature arcs like this populate each section; the organization, like Orcutt’s use of form, is intentional and precise.

Though many of her poems are free-verse, composed of quatrains, tercets, or couplets, each section also includes a sonnet conversant with Terence Hayes’ American sonnets, using a similar variant on the traditional form. Her sonnets, like Hayes’, are both narrative and lyrical; he confronts an imagined assassin while she confronts her mother’s worst actions. The constrained form helps to hem in the outer bounds of her trauma, to neaten it, as we often package and set aside our harrowing memories. The sonnets are consistent in tone, echoing each other in separate sections, while Valleyspeak’s four prose odes exhibit Orcutt’s skill in tonal variation. The first and last offer something nostalgic and hopeful, a small brightness, an opportunity to paint a scene in full sentences. The middle two are polemical, reckoning with the political, seizing on cultural capital to venture outside the confines of the book’s circumscribed world. They don’t travel far, just enough to make a comment on L.A.’s toxicity (“Ode to the Glitz”) or culpability’s slipperiness (“Ode to the One Glove”): “What’s a white woman but a good excuse for a lynching. But what if he didn’t? / Looped like a noose. The girls draw gloves in their art class. Take their / hands & then trace them like bodies. Like bodies but not bodies.”

While Orcutt’s sonnets and odes add another degree of variation to a book that is consistent in place, speaker, and characters, it’s her free-verse poems that exhibit the most formal functionality. Orcutt establishes early on her ability to blend sound play with narrative. Alliteration is everywhere: “We eat popsicles / poolside. We hear Gladys’ language, learn stories / from mom…She stole shipping rights / in the Atlantic, made millions.” Consonance quickens the pace, so Orcutt uses caesura to slow it down, to mimic breath and to represent the difficult seconds that pass in complicated conversation: “today / he asks me when I say sober time is our baby if I’m nursing / metaphors… or if I am talking /    about an actual    child    / If I would love    an actual child.” This breathiness is real anxiety, carefully sidestepping imitative fallacy with earnest tone and genuine urgency.

In keeping with her mastery of form, Orcutt’s finesse with enjambment—often utilizing both the line and the sentence for dual meaning and surprise—encourages the reader to consider and reconsider her poems, to ask themselves questions about the ways in which they have auto-completed her darkest lines. Because her work is so associative, the line breaks that interrupt individual thoughts also lend their links fluidity. We are living in the thought process of the speaker, pared down and stripped of uncertainty. “The mother’s boyfriend will break / into her bedroom, tell her no one needs to know / because no one believes anyway. // No one believes. We sleep on a bedrock, a whole / Valley built of stone.” Orcutt often uses repetition when her verses turn grimmest, as if by cuing us into our deserved disbelief, we may be made to believe her.

Of course, the horror of Valleyspeak is part of its appeal. The humanness of its characters ups the ante, leaving us with the real sense of having met them and left them at its close. Perhaps it is because the book is riddled with flash-forwards and flash-backs, with the compression and expansion of time, vivid dialogue, and the sharp setting of every scene, that it can’t escape its film-ness. Or perhaps, more aptly, its documentary-ness, the feeling that a camera is always rolling, uncertainty surrounding what has or hasn’t been staged.

This is part of what is so compelling in Valleyspeak—the sense that the interwoven narratives are not only speaking to us but each other, that there are always other layers to unearth. This style of storytelling is reminiscent of Sarah Rose Nordgren’s Darwin’s Mother, with each poem another short scene in a movie we’re trying to piece together. The quickness of the poems and their associative nature might remind one of David Baker’s Scavenger Loop, whose rapid parade of images fit neatly together. Those hoping for something more quietly contemplative a la Patrick Phillips’ Elegy for a Broken Machine or more experimental a la Tyehimba Jess’ Olio ought not look here, but for many, even and especially those who rarely turn to poetry, this book’s accessible narrative and sharp imagery make it a fantastic journey.

In part, I keep returning to Valleyspeak because while the speaker doesn’t ever appear to be hiding something, I can’t quite figure her out—and there is something about a person that bares all and remains opaque that makes our desire to know her insatiable. I suppose I am drawn to Orcutt because she devastates me. And if not that, what is great poetry meant to do?

JOEY LEW is currently an MFA Candidate at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her interviews and reviews have been published in DiodeMichigan Quarterly Review Online, and Tupelo Quarterly, and her poetry can be seen in Gravel.