Patricia Young employs something relatively rare alongside the compelling voice and well-honed images in her poem “The Hicock Girls in the Front Pew Address the Platypus,” which won Arc’s 2009 Poem of the Year contest: fascinating scientific fact rubs up (literally) against the poem’s metaphoric play. The consistent doubling that pervades and structures the poem gives formal resonance to the already ironic and humorous juxtaposition of exterior, pious setting with internal, desirous voice.
Everywhere the poem enacts a coupling, a formal realization of the girls’ desire to physically couple; their longing for this contact launches itself into the poem’s white space with the enjambed line ending: “You’re the nearest thing //.” The twinning of metaphor and scientific fact, which flows through the poem as biological “address” to the platypus, comes to a crux across a couplet break as well: “Metaphorically speaking, // we lay an egg.” Metaphorically speaking implies a birthing of desire and of physical movement, while biologically the egg invokes ovulation, a transition into a state of womanhood—with accompanying adult desire—for the titular “girls.” Both readings coalesce here in the same meaning. Perhaps the most subtle and evocative coupling occurs between the words that end the prevalently enjambed lines: “eye / prowling,” “new / skin,” “Evolutionary / shuffle,” “rhythms / speaking,” “venomous / genes,” “throats / young.” These linguistic pairings suggest a deeper physical undertow, veering toward the dangerous, animalistic physicality not fully ascribed to the speakers until the poem’s end. The sexuality expressed at the ending is also presaged by images such as, “Our dresses stick to our skin” (a coupling of fabric and body), and the contrast—and obsessive awareness—of the girls’ bodies with the preacher’s, as they join together on a single line: “and fidgeting. The preacher’s body sways…”
The poem’s couplet structure enacts the most evident formal doubling. The fourteen couplets even carry the suggestion of a doubled sonnet: for with that number, the ubiquitous form cannot help but flutter its eyelashes. The first person speaker inhabits a plural gaze (another twinning). The ghost of a sonnet is also relevant because the sexual transgression expressed in Young’s poem goes beyond the ironic lust for the priest in church, to challenge poetic gender conventions. The poem explicitly interrogates categories of gender—“Just 2? Male and female? No other / fabulous possibilities, no other variations on human?”—while enacting a scene of transgression not only in its setting, but also in its depiction of young female desire, with a male now the object of the female gaze. The Hicock girls invert the oft-assumed male’s lustful gaze directed toward a female beloved.
Through all this, the platypus flits and swims, with its lizard and bird genes and mammalian fur, a transgressive coupling in itself, a creature of science and metaphor, of “fabulous possibilities.”
The Hicock Girls in the Front Pew Address the Platypus
(from Arc 63 Winter 2010)
How we dismissed you as a beaver-tailed prank,
declared you a hoax, later cited you as proof
of God’s sense of humour. How that humour
has lately been lacking. At long last you’ve given up
your secrets and 2 million years is a blink of His eye.
How you excite the zoologists, up at first light, prowling
the gum tree forests, searching for clues. The new
preacher rails on and on. Our dresses stick to our skin.
The holes in our stockings melt like cheese. Evolutionary
relic, how your genetic code sequence is a slow shuffle
across Kangaroo Island. You’re the nearest thing
to a missing link. How explain God at the moment
of your creation—drunken sailor, madcap boy, genius
clown with a goofy touch? Your complex chromosomes—
5 X’s and 5 Y’s—mean what? How 25 theoretical sexes
is no laughing matter. This we sit straight-backed
and fidgeting. The preacher’s body sways to the rhythms
of his own voice. It rises. We rise. Metaphorically speaking,
we lay an egg. Strangest of creatures your venomous
leg spurs contradict webbed toes, your lizard genes
are flighty as a bird’s. Just 2? Male and female? No other
fabulous possibilities, no other variations on human?
How jealous we are! That growl in our throats
is the lust of small furry mammals. He’s young,
raw, the man at the pulpit. God help us, we can’t stop
seeing him from 25 angles, having him 25 ways.
How our reptilian brains sink into mud.
Our 4-chambered hearts steer us like rudders.
Lise Gaston’s publications include poems, essays, and reviews in Prairie Fire, The Malahat Review, Lemon Hound, and Matrix. She lives in Montreal. Patricia Young’s most recent book of poetry is An Autoerotic History of Swings.