Despite its overt reference to “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Girl” by April Lindner feels, as do many of the works in Skin, as if it is in dialogue not only with the Keats poem but with all of Western culture on the issue of beauty. Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme” leaps immediately to mind, if only for Lindner’s suggestion that our postmodern, media-driven conception of beauty has “shipwrecked” a generation of women, much as the Sargasso Sea of Pound’s poem has claimed metaphorical “Strange spars of knowledge and dim wares of price” from those caught in her doldrums. The difference, of course, is that for Pound, the “femme” addressed in the poem is, in her own way, the Sargasso Sea, whereas for Lindner, the female narrator of the poem is among the shipwrecked. To put it another way, “Girl” gives a voice to the “femme” of Pound’s poem, allows her to be a subject rather than an object, allows her, in essence, to reject Pound’s assessment of her and, in so doing, to assert her own identity. “God dammit, Ezra,” the poem seems to say; “Don’t blame me. You’re the one who made me this way.”
And what is “this way”? It’s artificial. It’s scripted. It’s airbrushed and Photoshopped. In other words, it’s shallow and lifeless, much like the object of Pound’s poem. Yet “Girl” doesn’t simply rail against the artificial ideal of beauty that life in the computer age has created for us. In fact, its narrator finds some things about that ideal quite attractive. Contemplating the digitally enhanced image of an online dream girl, she opines, “Hell, I want her, too/or want to be her, sometimes, in the buzz/after I’ve stared too long, my flesh exhausted/by its own weight.” This confession, however, ultimately leads to the realization that Keats, like Pound, got it all wrong. Beauty is not truth, but “the lie we carve and starve for.”
Perhaps it’s this final realization in “Girl” that makes all of the poems in Skin such a joy to read: they recognize the joy of imperfection, that our humanity lies not in the hyper-idealized vision of the world that saturates our digital landscapes but in the gritty, grainy details of our day-to-day lives. Lindner’s, after all, is a world of half-empty spice jars, bloody milk teeth, and fading physical beauty. It is a world where lovers long for the gross physicality of each other even though their minds are connected by cell phones and email. It’s a world where the bare arms of strangers brush against each other on the subway, a world of worry and (occasionally) despair, but also one of hope. We are not fallen from some perfect, ideal state, Lindner challenges us to believe. Our glory is in our imperfection.
Note: Very similar in theme and tone to Nuala Ni Conhuir’s short story collection Nude. If you like either of these titles, I highly recommend the other!