Nancy Lee’s first full-length poetry collection, What Hurts Going Down, paints a landscape of rape culture that is both matter-of-fact and horrifying. The poems reveal this world through an array of personal recollections, second-person invocations, and third-person narrations, varyingly detached and vivid. Rape culture, or the normalizing of sexual aggression and exploitation, is a subject of visceral, if mundane, recollection: a hookup on a basement bear-skin rug (“Girl with Bear”), an encounter in “a bar by an off-ramp” (“Ms. Clairvoyant”). But it is also a sedimentation of echoing encounters that effortlessly parallel coming of age: “my childhood bed, the guest room / bed, the bed in my college dorm / and the futon in my first apartment” (“Analysis”).
The collection takes its title from a line in the opening poem, “Four-Eyed Girls,” when “something / that hurts going down” is a shot ordered by the speaker and her friend while they are passed over by “prospects” who “grind hope / into anything blond.” The speaker and her friend are passed over by the men in the bar just as broader society devalues them: she explains that in movies, girls like them appear “floating / in rivers, folded in dumpsters, / naked, nameless.” “Naked, nameless,” they are both valueless and still sexualized; but nonetheless in the bar, they are pursuing sexual desire, “flash[ing] white / cotton panties,” and ordering “something / that hurts going down”—the violence that always accompanies sexuality as they know it.
This futile expression of agency sets the stage for a complexity that emerges in full force when Lee employs the collective first-person “we” in some poems past the beginning of the collection. As “we,” the female speakers are recast from victims of sexual exploitation and aggression to sexual beings whose desires are shaped by the predatory environment that reared them. “Hen Night” depicts the collective first-person speakers gang-raping “that guy” after a night of “tiaras and shooters [and] the lubed grind of male strippers.” This monstrous femininity is capable of emerging in female-coded collective spaces like bachelorette parties and weddings, where “bridesmaids / rig rope for a groomsman piñata” and “orgasms muffle the DJ / and the mewl of men crawling through blood” (“He Can’t Handle Those High, High Bitches”). Female empowerment does nothing to dissolve the exploitation of rape culture; instead, rape culture has transformed female empowerment into something just as monstrous as male domination.
Among a balance of poetic modes that includes adolescent narrative vignettes and high-concept fantasies of collective female violence, Lee shares some poems which could be narratives from her own life as an author and teacher of creative writing. The poetic “reality,” however heavily re-imagined, is as bleak as the fantasy: authors “send threats to [their] agents” and “scribble—on windshields in lipstick, // on our office floors in piss, on bathroom walls in blood” (“For the Next Person Who Asks”); a “keynote speaker insists, / there are no bad people in this field / just a few bad women” (“Keynote”). Whether re-imagined through colourful settings and original characters, or distilled more closely from personal memory, What Hurts Going Down is a collection of poems written from lifelong, unending experience. The poems are saturated with the dark, twisted, fascinating realities created by a warped but irrevocable twinning of violence and desire.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.