In Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Stein catalogued the domestic objects that influenced her female identity. She writes, A Box, A Plate, A Frightful Release, Objects, Careless Water, Roast Beef, Mutton, Single Fish, Rooms, Buttons and a lot more. Each object relies first on its domestic connotation in order to then be re-imagined in Stein’s perverse poetic transmission of it. Stein’s buttons are simultaneously analogues and object manifestations of the female experience. Her poems both underscore the ridiculousness of glorifying the domestic by breaking with the Victorian obsession with adoring things and liberate the things themselves from our obsession with them. In liberating her objects, she symbolically liberates herself and the other women who, at the fore of the modern era, would read her book.
In Monica McClure’s Tender Data, a book of poems whose title clearly conjures Stein, McClure also catalogues objects, but exchanges Stein’s domestic objects for contemporary cultural ones. She bounces between her own lineage of female writers (Kathy Acker, Mina Loy, Willa Cather, Jeanette Winterson); cultural signifiers of the cosmopolitan elite (Cipriani, St. Tropez, Mercedes Benz Fashion week, W Magazine, Park Slope); the female healthcare debate (fertility, abortion, Plan B); and finally the average American Consumer (Coca-Cola, TJ Maxx, VH1, New York Dolls). However, Tender Data does not appear to be written with the intention, as in Stein’s case, of subverting these cultural objects, but rather is obsessed with them, reflecting society’s ongoing obsession. McClure takes us on a complex journey of objects and subjects that are desperate for a liberation poetry may not be able to give.
In “Ash Blonde” McClure writes, “it’s always been clear to me / that an object-choice / is an object-identification too.” And it is clear as well that with each object choice in Tender Data, McClure identifies a palette of objects from the contemporary female experience. She is collecting the data and critically re-purposing it for our intellectual consumption, making us hyper-aware of the overloaded object consumption our everyday lives entail, and critically engaging with the ‘selves’ (including her own) that emerge out of this frantic consumer-capitalist object identification. But this is not a conceptual piece; it’s not literally a list of objects. The book is raw with personal experience and an affectionate subject who assumes multiple social classes, races, and academic backgrounds with an ADHD-like willingness to juxtapose objects and voices.
I want to live in a kingdom of style and camp
I want to relate this smut to Vienna after the war
When finally those that really got glamour
despite their transience and poverty
with just a little industriousness could live
like movie stars in the bombed out rubble
This verse is written in the middle of a poem titled “Adderall” that begins with a preference for “addy over cocaine” and ends with “[t]here’s a child in the orphanage who needs money.” From line to line, those of the poem and the Adderall, readers ingest sharp shifts of content that both catalogue her objects and bring our attention to the competing authenticities of object created selves. When she writes “…a child in the orphanage who needs money” McClure is not making an explicit liberal gesture towards activating social change, but rather re-asserting a pop culture reference: the child on TV that we could help for just ten cents a day. The child is an extension of the subject’s own internalized Object and a recognition that we are all objects, constantly being listed, categorized, entered into any number of databases and sold. In Tender Data snorting Adderall on the subway, the desire for a possibly fictional bombed out post-war glamour, and a child orphan actually have a lot in common—each loses the subjectivity of context and personal voice, and is reduced to being another object in the great contemporary landscape of NSA databases and Facebook advertisements.
In her self-titled poem “Monica McClure,” McClure writes, among a litany of poetic descriptions, “Monica, watching herself while watching you.” Both candid and confusing, this line carries the entire poetics of Tender Data. Monica, the writer; Monica2, the internalized Object and subject of Tender Data; Monica2, the subject who is a sponge for all cultural objects and desires; Monica the self-aware writer expounding on all the cultural objects and desires through Monica2. Perhaps a comment on society itself, McClure recognizes and we recognize in her work, that we too are sponges for data. The readers are Monica2. We are watching and being watched. Reading and being read. We are all objects together.
The most personal channel readers have into McClure’s tender data bank, and the one that ties most closely to Stein’s book, is female identity. In “Dead Souls,” the female experience, so often objectified in reality, is still sacred.
Religious men will try to tell you
that every abortion is special
and to some extent I agree
I was inconsolable when I missed prom
and had to pay a woman to pretend
to be my mother so I could obtain parental consent
every citizen of this world is on trial
Her femininity cuts through the Object of all her other references and tunes into the subjectivity of being a woman. In this way, we trust the subject. We trust the subject’s personal experience with Plan-B, with abortions. “I was inconsolable when I missed prom / and had to pay a woman to pretend to be my mother / so I could / obtain parental consent.” Because of this poem’s confessional style as well as the intimacy formed between author and reader by using a vocabulary of emotion and experience, we read the poem and feel that there is soul behind it, feel that there is a real author who is breathing life into these words. Her typical female experience, objectified and politicized by society, is in Tender Data a very genuine moment. The ability to facilitate her readers’ trust in her is both effective and nauseating; effective because we are further drawn into the text, and nauseating because even in her honest portrayal of being a teenage girl and having an abortion the way so many young women do she can’t help but continue to re-immerse us in the capitalist objects with which we are so deeply familiar. In the case of this poem, TJ Maxx, Diane Von Furstenburg, Veuve Cliquot. We still want to keep reading, and ultimately we inevitably will keep consuming. The critical eye, Monica2, sees the problems of her own objectification, but can’t do anything to alleviate them. And for both Monica2 and readers experience is continually flattened by our inability to stop consuming and regurgitating, buying and selling, objectifying and re-objectifying. Women and women’s rights become the vulnerable paradigm for this kind of consumption.
In her video for “Dead Souls” online at The Huffington Post, the camera is zoomed in on her face. Monica has silvery eye shadow, luscious blonde hair, and speaks softly. The video is edited to speed up blinking, and McClure’s image is cut to disassociate from the sound of the poem. Is she a cyborg? Is she an angel? The methodical softness in her voice as she reads her work and the faux zen commercial music makes her poem sound like a pro-choice PSA. Watching this video, a sea of questions arise: Are we all cyborgs? Are we all really on trial? Why is a contemporary experimental poet who is not explicitly a social activist making PSA-like videos on The Huffington Post? When Stein wrote about “Breakfast” she interrogated the boundaries of breakfast, the possibilities of what breakfast could be and why. The ability to question poetic objects like this and gain personal understanding aligns most with Stein’s project, but here it is the reader of Tender Data, or the watcher of the Huff Post video who enacts poetic subversion and who is therefore the one left exposed and vulnerable. It is the reader who must choose how they relate to the data. Whether a reader succumbs, as Monica2 does, to the overwhelming negation of any authentic subjectivity, or subverts their subjectivity into Object in order to make a statement about how the world objectifies subjects, as in the poem “Dead Souls,” the reader becomes the exposed subject who must constantly summon an awareness of privilege, self, and culture in order to make sense of the poetry.
Something very unsavory happened to create brunette blonds
something based entirely on desire
That’s why I am so common and perfect
Everyone looks darker comparatively including me
In having it all I have shown you how to have it all
The “I” in this poem is not steeped in cultural objects, per se, but she does depend on the knowledge of popular culture to make the point that there is a deep libidinal energy, and possibly violence, to the white-girl-blonde ambitions that young women are constantly sold. We are reminded that this particular blonde does indeed have it all even if having it all comes at the price of actually having to have it. What is sold as sexy empowerment actually disempowers women. Wearing a mane of peroxide is the glorious prize of cutthroat, unapologetic assimilation and consumption that can only appropriately be measured by how common she looks. In the very desire for it, blonde ambition becomes the antithesis of itself.
Poetry has a way of allowing for the most sublime and general statements, like “every citizen of this world is on trial,” a line from “Dead Souls.” Such a grand statement is what elevates poetry to magical metaphorical realms, reveals truths, and urges all people to recognize our human similarities in a world where we kill each other over the most superficial differences. But in this case, the truth of society is that we are not all on trial. There are grave disjunctions between the citizens and refugees of this world that are persecuted and those who deserve to be. There are many people whose worlds are not composed of books written by white women and elite fashion magazines. And though this is recognized in such poems as “Blonde Antithesis” and others like it, McClure simultaneously imposes a kind of egalitarian liberal symmetry between her personal struggles and the struggles of the world; between her own internalized Object and the greater objectification of individuals whose livelihood, and lives are constantly at stake, (i.e., black bodies, poor female bodies, the earth itself, etc.). She writes, “My poverty makes me brash / now that I am free I can go / to the Diane Von Furstenberg party / sponsored by Veuve Cliquot.” We are forced to confront ourselves and ask, is the psychic poverty of the rich and dull as important as those who are really living in poverty? Perhaps their relationship is an inevitable, inextricable consequence of capitalism itself.
How can it be that we live in a world where all these layers of experience are bought and sold and so casually exist amongst each other? McClure is always demanding we ask, WTF is this society? She asks this in various ways: “Do I want to look good / or do I want to look rich and if not rich protected / and if not protected coveted.” As McClure covets her own Object, her womanhood, her multiple voices, we as consumers covet her poems, and once again we too participate in and reproduce the glorification of the worst parts of our seriously distressed world. McClure exposes our societies castration: no matter how “good” “liberal” “artsy” “small press” we may be, we have little control over our objectification.
McClure’s book is full of flair, fantasia, and a keen ear for the difference between disillusionment and defeat, but perhaps at the core of the book there is a deep longing for a world in which Tender Data would not have to be written. Where the subtle, but necessary, line between the subject’s “I” and the rest of the world could be mediated through genuine subjects instead of the self-critical Object she catalogues. Stein uses poetic experimentation to offer her readers a way out of domestic oppression. McClure uses the objects of consumer capitalist oppression to offer her readers a way into her poetry and reminds us that there might never be a way out. She seduces us into submission with no safe word and sexy as that might be, Tender Data is filled with a deep longing for freedom. After all, “There’s no such thing as capitalism / with a human face.”
Cornelia Barber lives and writes in Crown Heights NY. Her poetry, short stories, essays and interviews have been published in Prelude Magazine, Queen Mobs Tea House, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Lemon Hound, Imperial Matters and elsewhere.