Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Such a Pretty Face,” by CB Follett

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I first heard this week’s poem at the launch reading for then Marin Poet Laureate Joseph Zaccardi’s anthology Changing Harm to Harmony: The Bullies and Bystanders Project. Larkspur Town Hall was packed, and the contributor readings were received with audible gasps and more than a few tears. Some poems were written from the perspective of bullies, some of bystanders, and some, like “Such a Pretty Face,” were stark testimonies from the bullied.

The anthology’s bullies, as in life, are multifarious: swaggering schoolyard boys, husbands, fathers, employers, teachers and other girls. Any kind of perceived “difference” can be a bully trigger it seems, with issues of race, gender, mental health, and economic and social status all playing a part. One area of difference less openly addressed, though, is the bullying suffered by people whose body types do not conform to the starved standard of perfection demanded by our popular culture.

CB Follett takes the issue head on in “Such a Pretty Face” and also exposes the abuse that can take place not just between schoolkids and strangers but also within the womb of the home. In her poem, the bullies include not just the usual cast of suspects (corner boys, classmates, and construction workers) but also the speaker’s aunts, uncles, great-grandmother, mother, a sister or cousin, and a grandmother whom the speaker clearly loves.

Coleridge famously defined poetry as the best words in the best order, and we can see the importance of diction (word choice) and sequence (order of release of information) in this poem. A more obvious sequence would have been to start with the bullies farthest from the speaker’s emotional core—say, the construction workers—and move inward through more distant to the very closest blood relatives, but Follett’s is a more subtle approach. Her poem opens with the “aunties,” then cuts to boys on the street, classmates, and construction workers, winding up finally in a thick tangle of relatives.

What is the effect of this sequence? After the opening image of the encounter with the aunties, the poem seems to replicate a child’s typical school day: walking to school (taunted by corner boys) spending the day there (shoved and tittered over by her classmates) and then walking home (catcalled by construction workers); that is, tormented at every waking moment. The effect is cumulative, creating a closed world with the speaker at its center and the taunts seeming to come from everywhere all the time, like running a gauntlet. And there is no respite at home where the speaker is bedeviled by all her relatives, even her mother who serves starvation rations in effort to enforce dietary restrictions. In the lines I found most devastating—the last two—a grandmother loved by the speaker seems at first to provide affection (“opening her arms, happy to see you”) but then delivers the coup de grace signaled by the poem’s title. I admire how the lens of the poem tightens here to capture the moment that most wounds the speaker, using direct dialog with carefully chosen words and specific imagery (mostly of animals or food) to capture, without flinching, the stark insults the speaker suffers.

When the “aunties” are introduced, their clucking like “a barnyard of hens” makes them seem innocuous until we notice them “assessing” the speaker’s body as if she were “Clementine, the Flying Pig.” The animal imagery sharpens with street boys making “a loud chorus of oink sounds.” At school, other boys shove the speaker, and girls whisper “like monsters under the bed.” On the way home, construction workers “whistle like mockingbirds.” Animal imagery describes not just how the speaker’s tormentors see her, but also how she sees them. Words like “aunties” and “clucking” set us up to expect affectionate fussing and then underscore the shock of what the aunties actually are doing and saying. Pig imagery extends through the poem, moving from something imposed on the speaker to something projected by her on her Grandmother, “snorting, like a sow rejecting the slops” when she takes her granddaughter shopping for lingerie. The words are chosen with painful precision to communicate the de-humanization suffered by the speaker.

Editor Zaccardi says that the point of his book is “to bring about change and harmony” through restorative justice, the hope that bullies can be redeemed and forgiven. It is hard to imagine this speaker being able to forgive her tormentors, but surely a first step is in educating bullies into the awareness that they are bullies and then, hopefully, engendering empathy with their victims by showing the full extent of the pain caused by their words and actions. This is where Follett’s brave poem most succeeds; who can read that last line without feeling the agony of the little girl who heard it? Not me.

 

Such a Pretty Face

The aunties lean in clucking, a barnyard
of hens, better, a stewpot of them.
The aunties pinching your cheeks like Granny
            testing the plucked chicken.
The aunties, their eyes moving down your body
            as if assessing Clementine, the Flying Pig.
Boys on the corner, pointing like Uncle Sam posters
            making a loud chorus of oink sounds.
Boys in the school yard with grimy hands
            playing push you, pull you, shove you over.
Girls in their Barbie Doll sweater sets, with their
            whispers like the monsters under the bed.
Construction guys across the street whistling
            like mocking birds
Grandmother taking you to the lingerie department
            and snorting, like a sow rejecting the slops.
The aunties singing of their daughters, Loreleis
            on a river bank.
The aunties whispering to Mother, like leaves in a wind.
Great Grandmother moving her antique chair
            like an auctioneer gauging value.
The swimsuit saleslady, always across the room
            as if a barrier had risen.
Uncle Bob grabbing your thigh as if he’s kneading bread.
Uncle Bob mouthing off like a gibbon in a tree.
Mother serving a smaller portion like a family in poverty.
Janie refusing to loan you her sweater like a dog in the manger.
Grandmother opening her arms, happy to see you, saying,
            “Such a pretty face.”

First published in Changing Harm to Harmony: The Bullies and Bystanders Project, ed. Joe Zaccardi (Barking Dog Press 2014) and reprinted with permission of Barking Dog Press.

 

Follett_4-20-15CB Follett is the author of nine books of poems, most recently Of Gravity and Tides (2013) and several chapbooks, most recently Wind Rose (2014). At the Turning of the Light won the 2001 National Poetry Book Award. Follett is Editor/Publisher of Arctos Press and publisher and co-editor (with Susan Terris) of RUNES, a Review of Poetry (2001-2008). The Poet Laureate of Marin County, CA during 2010-2013, Follett has received numerous nominations for Pushcart Prizes, a Marin Arts Council Grant for Poetry, and other awards and honors and has been widely published both nationally and internationally.

 

 

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