Zone3 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 physicall