Book Review: Glass Bikini (Tupelo Press, Dec. 2021) by Kristin Bock

Glass Bikini begins with the declaration in “Overcome” that “art is extinct,” setting the stage for a startling voyage through the looking glass allowing this predicate to enforce its ominous lens over every line and every poem. That one idea – “art is extinct” – breathtaking in contemplation, sets the reader off on a quest unmoored and destabilized. It isn’t just that art is gone, but it has been made extinct: it existed because it fulfilled a purpose and now, like a species that becomes extinct when habitat and conditions to sustain life are insufficient, the conditions that nurture art, the habitat of art, have been destroyed. In other words: humanity has created a hostile environment that does not support art, therefore, does not support life as we know it.  

The horror resonates throughout and yet a DNA template exists that nevertheless contain possibilities of continued life, albeit an altered and dystopic one.  In “Creation Myth” Bock describes the formation of an “ideal monster” and ends with: “then find the ribbon within the figure, the gesture at its center and pull.” I take the ribbon to be DNA, that double helix in the nucleus of all cells that determines the formation of a creature and contains the instructions for the building blocks of life. Later in “Prometheus Report” Bock asks: “Do you have the M-T-H-F-R mutation?”  The unfortunate acronym, M-T-H-F-R, is an actual gene mutation and she goes on to say that her sister has the mutation but she, the writer, doesn’t have the trait and goes on to discuss specific genes and what they do. The information of our genes is heavy with the implications they have for our lives and health. The implications of this particular gene mutation is thought to be associated with inflammation, autoimmune disease, and blood clotting disorders. This reference to DNA corresponds to the “red velvet rope” of “Overcome” as well as the ribbon in “Creation Myth.”  The “ideal monster” is a probable reference to Frankenstein, the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley creation. 

“How rabbits took over the world” is perhaps a central concept to this dystopian vision. In a scene reminiscent of deformities from the 1950’s drug, thalidomide, Bock describes babies being born in pieces and randomly coalescing: “One species sported a head, a lung, and a huge, inverted foot with eight toes…Herds of one-eyed livers slithered over hill and dale…” Eventually, “baby ears nested inside each other to form beautiful fleshy dahlias. Rabbits…thrived on the soft, sweet lobes…grew as large as humans.” This surreal vision reflects the toxic state of the environment and creates a spiritual imperative to reconnect to nature and consequences. Poems throughout the book engage with the images of dismembering that present a disquieting deformation but also urge to a re-membering, a reuniting, an impulse toward wholeness which is the origins of the word of “religion” (religare, Latin root to tie or bind).

In the section Into the Woods, every poem describes a dismantling or devolving.  In “Gaslighter” a so-called “friend” gives the speaker a beautiful purse which causes dismemberment and eventually her body parts end up in the purse. Subsequent poems describe other dismembering and disruption of the body, emotional connections, and relationships.  Dispassionately, she describes scenarios where no one or no thing can be trusted to leave anyone or anything whole.  

A giant pair of scissors “Clicks quickly up the street” in “Sculpture Garden,” the first poem of the section Wonderland, and is equally haunting and threatening. This speaker becomes enamored of a pair of scissors that stocks about the streets and she is caught in the thrall of its spinning and clicking: “Its spine is straight and strong, unlike mine which is full of eggshells.” Where the blades of the scissor comes together is like a crotch, a dangerous crotch, which has a correspondence to the book title, Glass Bikini.

The image of a ‘glass bikini’ conjures a rigid yet vulnerable and risky element of clothing. In “On the day of your wedding” the speaker says: “I’m riding a carousel horse / in a glass bikini cut // from the radioactive plains / of the Forbidden Zone.”  I imagine that this refers to the Bikini Atolls in the Pacific Ocean made of volcanic eruptions (hardened volcanic matter being glass) where the US detonated 23 nuclear bombs rendering the island uninhabitable with the poisoning effects of radioactivity. This links back to DNA, genetic damage, mutations, illness, and deformity rendered and resonant in other sections of the book.

The section entitled Uncanny Valleys searches for an “architecture to reanimate.”  All sections use a reportorial voice, presenting scenes without emotion, sense of loss, or mourning.  

In “Everything coming up rifles,” images of a proliferation of rifles coming up like flowers in a garden create the image of new growth and flowers being antithetical to the death cult of guns. The previous strong imagery of genetic material provides an odd pairing of death and life. Unlikely pairings of life-affirming and life-annihilating images emerge throughout the book.

The last section, The looking glass planet, is a diary of re-emergence and starts off with a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: “The wounded deer…to gaze upon the arrow which had pierced it, and to die” captures the self-awareness required to face humanity’s woundedness and move forward. The importance of Mary Shelley, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, calling out the hazards of mechanization, “reanimation,” and the motherless creations that follow in the wake of human innovations in technology, cannot be overstated as the predicate of Bock’s work here.  

The devastation, disfigurement, and abandonment of the poems leading up to the last section is intense and unrelenting. The final section eases up a bit, but with the same dispassionate accounting. There is still treachery but lighter images of balloons, a Sunflower Restoration unit, and “taking hold” also appear. The spacing is sparse with often only one to two lines on a page in this last section which creates an opportunity for the reader to take a breath and decompress. On Day 6 she says: “I turn my stitches to the moon.” There still are dangers and denials, but Day 80 hints at promise: “A tiny golden contraption on my knee… Inside the contraption, a soft pink gear pulsates.”

The vision in Glass Bikini is dark and challenging, yet, relevant and timely.  

Cheryl A. Passanisi

Cheryl A. Passanisi is a nurse practitioner, poet and singer who has published poems in Tupelo Quarterly and the American Journal of Poetry. Her first book of poetry was published in June 2020 entitled: Geraniums from the Little Sophias of Unruly Wisdom. She lives on the San Francisco peninsula.

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