Valleyspeak by Cait Weiss Orcutt
Zone 3 Press. 2017. 64 pages
Reviewed by Megan J. Arlett
If Netflix were to recommend Valleyspeak to you, it would be because you’ve watched more true crime documentaries than you care to admit in casual company. Open Cait Weiss Orcutt’s debut collection at any page to discover poems that delight in heavily pop-cultured language. Orcutt, LA born and now a PhD candidate at the University of Houston, won Zone 3 Press’ First Book Award with a world made of pools and porn stars, OJ and JonBenet, addiction and sobriety, and in the midst of it two sisters trying to figure it all out.
Valleyspeak dances along the line between truth and fiction in a perfectly dramatic, Hollywood-esque way. For the reader it is unclear who in this cast of characters is real, an exaggeration of the truth, or a representative figurehead for the world this book is trying to portray. This doesn’t matter. Orcutt is leading us to experience how both the real and the imagined have equal impact on the girls in this book. The larger events happening around them play out in their day-to-day lives in the LA valley. In the prose poem “Ode to the Glitz,” JonBenét Ramsay’s death leads the girls to “hide their lipsticks,” “wear sweatpants & sweatshirts, don’t shower for a week. Hide the goods, nobody tells them.” This “nobody” is the imagined, but their reaction to it is very real. The paranoia caused by the media phenomenon of Ramsay’s death causes the girls to see their family in a new light, to wonder “What would the father do” and “Who would the mother kill to survive?” The poem asks how what we do or don’t say impacts children, it asks us to consider how the media and pop culture images insert darkness into places we, until then, had considered safe.
Valleyspeak is structured across a foundation of sonnets and odes, an additional kind of complicating that demonstrates the deep affection for the subjects and themes of this book. The early poems in the collection give us the framework from which this world blooms. “I grow up in the valley under porn / stars,” the book begins. And isn’t this just what it’s all about? Coming-of-age, the valley, both how women’s bodies are experienced and viewed. We are quickly introduced to the speaker’s sister Podge. She “emerges / from pre-teen, grows up heart-first / like some women / just have to do,” she “maroons herself / on a foam float in our pool” and “floats off to deep space.” With this presence, we are reminded how easily siblings can become a source of both worry and self-reflection, the speaker watching and recognizing the performative nature of being a girl growing into a woman, knowing what is to come from her because she herself sees it from the other side. The speaker is simultaneously scared for Podge as much as she delights in recounting her.
One of the most compelling threads running through Valleyspeak is motherhood. Orcutt writes, “Mother is such a flimsy word / for the pack it takes to raise a child,” a thought reflected in the host of people orbiting the speaker. The speaker’s mother holds a mythic quality, as though she perfectly encapsulates the drama and cabaret of this landscape. On Halloween her “mustache is kohl-lined, clean” and “gorgeous,” she is “sober as a mom can get.” In “Hollywood” we fully see the speaker and her mother collide in their imagined roles:
I Black Dahlia my mother: meaning I dig up
in his Model T restored. I once played
By invoking the Black Dahlia we read this poem as a tragic and violent metaphor from its first line. The speaker zips up into her mother’s dress, body, life. The poem physically inhabits the claim that we all, eventually, turn into our mothers. It asks us to think if we could do any better, if we are really so perfect.
More captivating than just the motherhood-as-concept is how the speaker in these poems considers the possibility of becoming a mother herself. In “Welcome to the Moment” we are told the speaker is “totally all right, with not having a child.” The poem tries to convince the reader, the lover and the speaker why motherhood is not on the table. The speaker “can barely take care of myself,” and cites addiction as the main evidence for her argument. Does anybody end up convinced? The answer might be in the phantom baby the speaker births and watches crawl across the floor.
In “Plan B,” Orcutt returns to the imagined babies first found in “Welcome to the Moment” and depicts motherhood as a possible alternative present. Both “Welcome to the Moment” and “Plan B” strike familiar thoughts in anyone who has considered how differently their life could have turned out given different circumstances. The speaker in “Plan B” still feels the breath of this “Lost Child” on her back, summoning the neverborn baby back in the form of a burrito bump. The speaker reminds us of the familiar comparison: what were my parents doing at my age? “My mother at thirty-one / had a first & third grader & eighteen years / left of drunken days.” In this we see both the parallels and the divergences between the speaker and her mother. Motherhood is, at first, seen as a lost thing, loss so often associated with negativity. But the poem turns this around. Does the speaker really want a first and third grader? Does the speaker truly want to forego soberness to be like their lover? “Plan B” suggests that the expected path, the Plan A so to speak, might be anticipated for her but isn’t necessarily what is meant for her right now.
Sobriety and motherhood are deemed inextricable from each other in Valleyspeak. In “Spike, Javelin, Harpoon” the speaker counts the days of soberness and asks: is this the child I am nursing? The visual text of the poem enacts the splintered spearing the speaker is experiencing, as though she is trying to convince herself just as much as her lover and reader. In its insistence on metaphor, on “nursing metaphors,” turning drinking into a metaphor, the poem begins to read as an ars poetica. “I would like to declare this a child” writes Orcutt. The poem becomes as much a child as anything else and this personification is enacted when the lover suggests calling the baby “Lance,” a naming that circles us back to the poem’s title.
Despite the earthquakes, the alcohol, the heads thrown back to swallow pills, these difficulties are embedded in the complexities of familial love and a nostalgia for the LA valley. Orcutt shows that pop culture flashpoints and personal narratives are not separate, that they are deeply intertwined. She leads us from the suburbs to a far more universal experience, her book shows us what it is to fulfil the roles of mother/sister/burgeoning woman in this strange place.
Megan J. Arlett was born in the UK, grew up in Spain, and now lives in Texas where she is pursuing her PhD. She is an editor at the Plath Poetry Project and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New British and Irish Poets, Ninth Letter, Poet Lore, Third Coast, and elsewhere.