Book Review: THE DEAD GIRLS SPEAK IN UNISON by Danielle Pafunda

The Dead Girls Speak in Unison by Danielle Pafunda. Atlanta: Coconut Books, 2014. 88pp. $14.00 paperback.

The premise of Pafunda’s sixth collection, The Dead Girls Speak in Unison, raises several questions: why in unison? why “girls”? how did they get dead? and to whom are they speaking?

We don’t often see choral speakers, but speaking in unison gives these “girls” collective presence, forcing us to face gender violence. Several of the poems suggest lives (and their ends) in violence: “Be tied to us./…// Some with one wrist/ bound to the other/ and both to the ankle” (17); “We all died// boot to throat” (43). A history of stolen girls, they stretch back into myth, their songs evoking the betrayed mermaids of Eliot’s The Waste Land, girls left “down the well/ under the bridge/ where all your brides swell” (34), victims blamed for any number of reasons: “If your wife is vain,/…// if her father rent her out,/ if her uncles clutter her basin,/ if she hold a doll like it live…” (65).

Yet the use of “we” simultaneously points to the erasure of their individual voices, just as “girls” points to their infantilization, a failure to recognize them as women, a failure to recognize them at all:

It’s happy death day.

It’s the day on which

every dead thing

becomes a girl.

Most of us were girls

in life, but all of us

are dead girls. (52)

But the girls gain a certain power in this. In an essay for Volta, Pafunda writes, “[I]n continuing to become or occupy the category girl there may be some radically subversive potential…. The girl is uncultured and unrefined, crude and raw (though like much raw food, teeming with live active cultures, possessed and pungent).” This quote informs the numerous images of meat and decay throughout – raw girls who bypass maturity, who are as rank and offensive as possible: “What we once went squeamish/ ewwwwing from, it turns out/ composes us” (29). These girls flirt with danger, a postmodern Death and the Maiden:

We used to do it, too.

Put finger to planchet and hope

for something even sluttier

to reveal its shuddering self

on the rod, skittering.

We used to yes or no it.

As though it wouldn’t make us blind. (32)

To whom the girls are speaking is more slippery, as is their tone of voice: “you” may address society, their murderers, or other girls; they threaten and/or welcome; their rage is equally terrifying and “as ineffective now as we were in life” (37). I’m wary when they say, “You don’t know where to turn/ so follow this arrow// and we’ll take you in” (56). These unrefined girls are deeply unsettling.

I want to take the unusual step in a book review of reviewing the actual book. Coconut’s books are small, only 5.5 inches squared. But the shorter page design of their books works particularly well with this collection: it allows the spare lines of these slight voices more heft, filling more space, yet still frames the poems on the page such that the white space surrounding them provides resonance. The effect is beautiful and thoughtful, subtle. Through its design, Coconut Books has amplified Pafunda’s voice(s), and the project offers a strong unison. Well done.

–Review by Heidi Czerwiec

Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor of North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent collections, Self-Portrait as Bettie Page (2013) and A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster (2015), and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets (2015).

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