Elizabeth R. McClellan

Elizabeth R. McClellan is a lawyer and Rhysling-nominated poet. In addition to The Legendary, her poetry has appeared in Apex Magazine and Goblin Fruit. Her favorite cheese is Brie, her favorite meal is brunch, and her favorite bloodthirsty mythical girl gang are the Bacchae. Depending on how well she likes you, she may, in fact, give you some sass.

Coal Ash and Confessional Poetry

Review of Hot Teen Slut, by Criston O'Keefe Aptowicz

Context and Confessional Poetry

Coal Ash and Confessional Poetry (July, 2014. Issue 44.)

For Chris Martin, who defends rivers with the same fervor as defendants.

Ten days after another snowless Christmas 
I was talking to my friend about 
the coal ash spill up Kingston way. 
 
I will attest for the record (in the many 
psychological show trials the 
“first thing we do let’s kill 
all the lawyers” crowd would like 
to subject us to, broadcast live, for preference): 
 
going to law school makes your brain 
act funny, or at least brings on 
a weird awareness of your own 
funny little ways of processing. 
 
Studies show that people can’t visualize 
large numbers of anything—past 
a certain point, your brain drops zeros, 
treats one and one hundred million 
as close enough for government work 
 
Science learned this for posterity by asking 
people of presumably good conscience 
how much they’d donate to save 
 
80, 8,000, 8,000,000 birds 
coated in oil and dying. 
For the bigger numbers, 
the deviation in amount 
is statistically insignificant. 
 
Even our dollars­and­cents­neurons 
can’t parse out the difference. 
 
Your brain did not evolve to 
visualize eight million birds 
dead at the hand of the latest 
big stupid greedy disaster. 
 
In this regard my brain and yours 
are the same: I have not yet learned 
to see the immensity  
of eight million birds, 
 
even with all this extra 
education. Law thinks far too little 
about science’s strong evidence. 
 
I wonder how many people I know 
who think they can visualize a million just fine, 

when all they’re seeing is all the zeros
on the check when they win the Powerball. 
 
What I have learned to think about 
is what the damages should be 
 
for a loss so huge my puny ape mind 
must count higher, because it can’t 
see bigger. I confess to killing 
 
defenseless critters with a ton of metal 
because I was careless, had the music up 
loud, didn’t dip my brights. I hold 
 
all the times I nearly wrecked 
to avoid splattering some 
furred and frightened thing 
up before my conscience like a shield. 
 
The coal ash spill is still killing small things  
in large numbers, years later.   
 
The news didn’t make a pile 
of the rabbits and birds and lizards, 
and all those choked and stinking fish 
heaped bigger than our imaginations 
can stand. They showed us 
satellite photos.  Look. 
Look how big.  From space 
this is still too big to mourn.
 
 
The twenty­four hour 
news cycle went on, 
let our Biblical floods of ash and water 
 
pass mostly without comment 
in favor of minute coverage of 
the latest political shenanigans. 
 
Two years later, further South, 
everyone saw the island of oil 
no one can walk on, the big oops 
of a leaking world­wound 
bleeding all over the cable news, 
 
cried why why why to the 
oiled gulls and dead seafood, 
ignored the answers we’ve had 
since 2008 if not before ­­ 
 
I remember Exxon Valdez, you see, 
back when the destruction was distant, 
before it came home to my backyard.  
 If I killed as many dogs with my car
as mammals choking dead where progress 
didn’t bother cleaning up its toys 
they’d find a way to take my license off me. 
 
If I ignore a speed limit I might take 
someone out, maybe cause the kind 
of pileup that makes the regional news. 
 
When industry hits the gas pedal, 
revs the engine, the news takes its 
promo shots of the carnage from space. 
 
It is hard to argue for the sense 
in this system, to always have damages 
sitting in your conscience like a 
 
shiny­suited shoulder­devil fresh off 
midnight­broadcast personal injury commercials 
 
reassuring you we have a way to fix this 
when you know what tort reform has done 
to that threadbare vision of making whole, 
like you could stitch up that scar, buy back 
that beauty with a big bag of cash.  
 
I remember the time when I was nine, 
found actuarial tables to read, my dad 
explaining how we value life for lawsuits, 
 
the body's components segmented up 
like the planned cow into  
dollar amounts for partial loss.   
 
It was later he told me about the factory workers 
who know what the tip of a finger is worth,  
decide to go for it, to fulfill whatever 
 
desperate need can make you weigh 
the risk/utility of sticking your hand 
into a blade or crushing weight on purpose. 
 
I was too young then to picture 
how little a thousand dollars is 
against electric bills, water heaters, 
transmissions and kid’s shoes. 
 
Now damages walk with me, console me 
when I cross the street that at least 
if someone jumps the light, makes 
 
jumbled meat out of this body, there’ll be 
a check at the end with a string of zeroes 
even if I’m not breathing to imagine them.  
All the country music stars are doing 
benefits for the flood, have no time 
for Kingsport choked in slurry, for 
last decade's tragedy left  
to baffle future archaeologists. 
 
There are days I wish our tourist department 
had police powers, could go snarling upstairs 
to environmental and commerce 
saying Listen up, assholes— 
 
In the absence of an income tax 
we are still your money­maker. 
We film your commercials that show the Yankees 
how pretty Tennessee is this time 
of year, every time of year, 
 
so they come for the leaves 
the black bears, for music until dawn 
 
floating over the mountains or the rivers, 
for priceless chances to see the stars 
that can't shine through as clear up there. 
 
A scar in the earth you can see 
from space is not the image 
we’re going for, so cut the shit. 

 
Everyone’s accountable, however 
you diffuse the responsibility; 
whoever pays the damages, 
there are other reckonings, 
 
dependent as they are on a long run 
as unfathomably distant as the last in a row  
 
of eighty­eight million dead birds 
laid end to end to end.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y46WIVkAs_c&list=UUOAlvPI1slVtZ_lMb7Z4Nzw

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Review of Hot Teen Slut, by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

As serendipity would have it, the morning Katie Moore asked me to write The Legendary's review of Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz's Hot Teen Slut, I had actually brought the book up to the drowsy Sunday morning remnants of a Saturday night birthday party. While we ate cake for breakfast and chatted, I told them how I brought the book to one of my law school classes when I showed up early, not even thinking about the content. When my class partner asked what I was reading and I answered her, she gave the most precious "Oh?!"—the kind of heartfelt exclamation for which the interrobang was invented—whereupon I had to tell her the whole idea behind the collection so she didn't get any strange ideas. Two hours after telling that story, Katie asked me to review the book. When you are a poet who talks to lots of poets, strange and excellent things tend to happen in your life. True facts.

How do I love this book? Let me count the ways. My first read was hurried, gulping, excited—the way falling in love with a poetry collection usually is. My read for this review was more slow, thoughtful, sensual. My love affair with this book is going quite nicely. I should have listened to my friends when they told me this book was right for me, giggling when I said "sass," telling me to hurry up and just read it.

The Listing, the collection's first poem, appears at first glance to be a totally standard doesn't-tell-you-shit-about-the-job advertisement. I cringed a little, wondering how a book Katie Moore insisted I must read could start with a "look I made prose a poem" piece. A valuable lesson in first impressions—Aptowicz changed one word, and I started falling in love. She rattles off the broad outlines the book will fill in, like you do when you've first started seeing someone: her company tells her in her job interview she is working in the porn section of this company's web portals. She has no real experience with porn except as something "boys like." She's a virgin.

I love I'd Like to Thank the Academy, her poem about getting the job, because my own graduate program is full of where am I going to get a job oh my God and has been since first semester. The stanza where she (tearfully, I imagine, given the title—I hear the whole thing in the voice of the classic Sally Field acceptance speech) thanks her NYU job placement officer for the honor of getting the job rang true to me. As a law student, I got what a particular giggle out of this:

[America's ] laws prevent employers/
from asking questions/
during job interviews/
such as:

Hey, seeing as this is a job in porn,
we have to ask: have you ever
actually had sex before?

The poems follow Aptowicz through her first day, the always surreal nature of job training writ large in her setting ("It's important to remember there should be porn/on your screen. So don't be embarrassed at all"), the people she meets at work, in quick succession: Jamie (who "has a ton of kids" and is happy to be passing over the responsibility of checking porn sites on the weekends to someone who doesn't); Jordan; Will; and The Guy In Charge of Sports, the unnamed dude who gets the longest poem in this short series of introductions because he applied for her job, but wanted it a little too much.

On first read, this was when I realized that I was reading a poetry collection that was also a unified narrative. If this were a romantic comedy, this is where everything would go into slow motion and the telltale music would start. My temptation is to tell you why I loved each and every one of these poems, but I want you to get the chance to read them for yourself, to fall in love in your own way.

Aptowicz turns the faintly ridiculous language of porn ads into poems, mixed with others about her boyfriend, her struggle to pay rent, her co-workers laughing at her because when you're the porn girl you cannot ask the office "why is my desk wet?" without inspiring general hilarity. There are poems that meld the faintly ridiculous and monotonous dialogue of porn with the monotony of office life until you will want to snort your midmorning coffee out of your nose, wondering how and why you're still slightly horny.

No love affair is complete without a few moments where you realize that however much you love the other, the two of you differ on some things. For instance, I don't believe the first woman to consent to a titty-fuck "was an idiot," and I don't think people who don't fuck to pounding bass are "pussy." But New Millenial Badass made me forget those moments of discord. While I've never worked as the porn girl, I understand being the "resident troublemaker" and badass. The poem re-empowered me, the way a good partner should, reminding me that, like Aptowicz, every paycheck I deposit from my day job buys me a little time to write "[p]oetry so hardcore," even while I share her blues in Back to The Basics that the language I write in for money all day tends to infect my creative work.

No lovers have the same experiences—but Hot Teen Slut makes me want to listen to Aptowicz's stories even after hearing them before: going into the office to work just so she doesn't have to watch porn for work when her long-distance boyfriend is at her place for a visit; the real reason for the cum shot; the sass revolution; her thesis as to why more people should read Nietzsche; the time her mom made her explain her job to her aunt at Christmas; the vibrator race-off across the conference table at the office; how after he broke up with her, her long-distance boyfriend discovered and got to name a new dinosaur. (I'd be pissed about that too; her "pissed" comes out in Cristinisabitterbitchosaurus Rex, a poem that's better than any dusty dino foot ever chipped out of the ground by a guy who dumped you); the gay porn videos she had to deal with at work the next day that, by some small miracle, contained a bottom with the same name as the ex.

Aptowicz sprinkles the collection with a few classic poetic forms, like a present you'd never think to buy yourself but your partner would pick knowing it's perfect: a pantoum of questions boys ask her about her job; found orgasm haiku; Ass-Sex Sestina, another found poem derived entirely from pop-up ads (the same pop-up ads she frantically got her IT guys to make less pornographic for her mom's weekend visit). Just as suddenly, she launches into a pages-long, thought-provoking poem in paragraph form in I Could Make Money Off Those Tits, a piece that pulls together all the questions of porn, exploitation and feminism that the collection hadn't thus far addressed. After sharing the heartening information that her time as the porn girl hasn't destroyed her desire to make out, this chapter of Aptowicz's life closes with a scene fit for an indie film: before she was laid off her job, her boss collected enough cash from her co-workers to convince her to perform her porn poetry for them, triumphantly declaiming from the top of her desk, like a remake of Dead Poet's Society directed by John Waters.

As you can perhaps tell by this point, you should buy Hot Teen Slut, and read it, and think about the questions it raises, and laugh a whole lot, and love it, and find out why sass makes Katie Moore, John Hancock and I laugh so hard when anyone uses the word (and we live in the South, y'all, we hear that word a lot). Just do it. Yeah. You know you wanna.

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Context and Confessional Poetry (April 20, 2011. Issue 27.)

I like babies and little kids, more than some people
   but goddamn, children's laughter out of nowhere
   (in the night, when you're not expecting it) is creepy.

I don't like slugs smeared like nightmare goo on my
   summer-bare feet, I could do without them in
   my cat food and roses.  Slugs will eat almost any 

vegetation; if I knew their metaphor for plant perfection, 
   I could cultivate it, broker a treaty maybe,
   bargain with rampion like Rapunzel in reverse

but I don't speak slug, so I squeal, and wear sandals
   when it rains.  Lately I have been thinking
   about context, the background, the presumptions

and near-silence on which we build a world.  Children laugh
   at inappropriate times and don't understand why
   they shouldn't tell jokes about Beethoven decomposing

during a funeral visitation, or how the sound 
   of their giggles echoing in enclosed spaces at ten minutes
   til midnight is off-putting.  For that matter,

the slugs probably don't enjoy dying on my carport
   in puddles of rain, without ever reaching the earthly delights
   of kibble,  the rosebush that only gets enough sun

on the right side.  I justify this because I don't enjoy it either; 
   I justify my spine-tingling tension at youthful voices because
   my older sister used to make me watch movies she was scared of,

which in retrospect I don't regret, but hasn't helped
   my paranoia of things out of context: topiary animals,
   stray balloons, mismatched architectural details, frogs out of water.

I'm sorry I stepped on you, I'm sorry I hated you for laughing.


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