(REVIEW)‘My god, girlhood’: on Savannah Brown’s Closer Baby Closer
Maria Sledmere assesses the poetics of parabolic experience, second-person, girlhood and chemtrailling diary entries in Savannah Brown’s third collection, Closer Baby Closer (Doomsday Press, 2023).
The internet keeps aggressively recommending me therapy. I’m bombarded with videos of chatty girls in their early twenties telling a webcam how much some app helped match them with the perfect therapist. At some point in the past few years, my research into digital femininity, coupled with cloud-based documents teeming with frantic diary entries and 3am google search breakdowns, has backed me into this algorithmic corner. In preparation for this review, I’ve been watching Savannah Brown’s YouTube channel and caught in-between videos with the bombardment to Get Help, Download The App, Get Matched with a Therapist ASAP.
Everything you need is online. The question of getting therapy, posed in the interpellations of advertising, is the atmosphere in which I digest content, react and begin nurturing my little hairball of critical thought. It’s this sticky, affect-to-text vapour that wants me to be the needy, lost collocation of the ‘sad girl’ in search of enlightenment. Meanwhile, I watch videos that deconstruct the very notion of identity, and being online, in thoughtful, playful and considered monologues. Then I see the ad again, hey there sad girl, and I shrink. The hairball lodges in my throat.
I first heard Savannah Brown perform live last November, on the sold-out Glasgow leg of her 2022 New and Selected Poems tour. What I was struck by was the poise with which Brown could be both vulnerable and utterly in control of the situation without losing the slip charm of the awkward fact that this was, well, poetry. Poetry that a whole bunch of fans have come out to see. That’s intimidating! I was unsure if this was closer to stand-up comedy, spoken word or the poetry of rockstars, whose names we blush to mention. I mean, it was all and none of those things.
Honestly, if I was to compare it to anything I would talk about early Phoebe Bridgers shows, where dark and introspective songs are interspersed with sarcastic wisecracks and anecdotes of embarrassing encounters. Savannah Brown offers something singular and smart af. I felt like the trust her audience had in the situation was ‘whole-bodied’, like they’d grown up with Brown’s poetry and come to know themselves through it.
Closer Baby Closer dropped on Valentine’s Day and is Brown’s third poetry collection, published by Doomsday Press. It’s a book that exhales the self-reflective exhaustion following a breakup into sumptuous textual ecologies of incidental speech: dashed off with a frankness that speaks directly to camera, while saving a few side-eyes for the future. There is lyrical intimacy but also a sense of caper; as if our speaker, in dissecting daily life, whisks us on some adventure while apologising for the effort. Poems which relive the story of cellular reproduction are also about the casual tragedies of human experience, as in ‘Everything is very complicated’, where ‘Your betrothed’s old unrequited love / attends the function and your teeth leap from your head’ and the slightest notion of ‘the mind outliv[ing] the body’ sparks vague arousal. Even the more absurd scenarios, described with a maximalist offhandedness, feel oddly relatable. The book trades in these dreamlike, confessional archetypes, which are themselves indicative of content surfeit, desire’s drift.
Even with digital overload, there’s still the body. The book is full of witty aphorisms such as ‘The body is a coalition / of incompatible miracles’, serving as a high-cal compensation for life’s let-downs. I too crave the splendour of such revelations! What I love about Closer Baby Closer is how casually it swishes its lyrical sleeves, without compromising on the insistent tug of the ‘you’ and ‘I’ and everything revealed of it. Just as people argue what the difference is between ‘Instagram poetry’ and ‘poetry on Instagram’, people argue whether a poet who cut her teeth on YouTube is a YouTube poet or a poet who happens to make YouTube videos. Brown’s poems gnash their teeth at this tireless debate. Open wide!
Walt Whitman once wrote ‘I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world’ (Song of Myself, 1855). The Wilhelm scream is a stock sound effect of a horror scream that’s been in circulation ever since the 1951 film Distant Drum, dubbed by Wired as ‘Hollywood’s go-to shriek’. There’s a poem ‘Wilhelm’s yawp’ in Closer Baby Closer that I like to think of as the disembodied, hoarse exclamation of an agèd Whitman sounding out through the lyrical catacombs which lead us to YouTube, ‘you articulate madman / you void-sucking poet you! you! you!’ (Brown). And what’s a canon in American poetry if it isn’t meandering, from Whitman’s yawp through to the self-declarative howls of the Beats or the cries of the so-called confessional poets — Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath? And to be the girl-poet-inheritor of all this canon, throwing Harold Bloom a wink?
This is all in the mix and more. ‘Wilhehm yawp’ is a tightly justified block of poetry with little air-holes in the form of space key caesura:
think satin miniskirts
only for this miracle you consider the multiverse
and make poor decisions
There’s a visual parallelism between ‘miniskirts’ and ‘multiverse’ which positions verse multiplicity in the scant ripples of a garment: think poetry, think world, think blink and you’ll miss it. For an attention deficit reader like me, the quick jumps from which this ‘you’ can recognise a garden of forking paths and still ‘make poor decisions’ is highly relatable content. The use of second-person reminds me of a Nell Osborne’s poem from her pamphlet The Canine Redeemer Has Entered the Bungalow (2021). A delectable arrow-to-the-heart satire on dating coach advice:
You are a smart and sexy addition to the furniture
Your personality is absolutely dripping
with wasted algorithmic potential
'Confidence with the Opposite Sex'
Osborne’s anaphora of insistent ‘You are…’, around which the poem is structured as a scroll/cascade, makes that ‘you’ an objective vessel, continuously emptying itself even as the speaker fills it with affirmations. Just like the object-cause of Joe Goldberg’s desire in Netflix’s You, the othering that takes place is itself insatiable. Brown’s ‘you’ in ‘Wilhelm yawp’ is whipped into a frenzy of cosmological proportion: ‘you synthesise elegies / […] you become the great sound / that wraps round the moon you articulate madman / you void-sucking poet you! you! you!’. What if a pronoun was a semi-permanent exclamation? In The New York Times, Andrew Delbanco said of Whitman: ‘The shape of experience […] is parabolic; he wants to catch it on the rise, to seize and hold the moment of peak desire just before the downward turn to release and dissipation’. This kind of hedging to find lust’s perfect eclipse is a pretty good tactic for glimpsing ipseity as itself relentless poetic illusion.
I’m also thinking of Catherine Wagner, in Nervous Device (2013):
If recombinatory guises suit you, prosody whore, make them
‘Arrived Detaching Toward the Union’
I’ve been trying to think about the lyric self as a luxurious surprise. I was too tired to show up to the poem so I sent over my void instead. Having a personality IRL involves a lot of trying on masks to get something right for the situation, and when it slips we see the labour of that being and doing. Instead of obsessing over authenticity versus persona, as in ancient debates about pop stars, what if we admit to being that ‘void-sucking’ point of the ‘I’ which incessantly defers itself in every utterance: I! you! me! who! you & I!? every time we sing or speak. What did you expect? With that nod to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ in ‘madman’ I can’t also help thinking about Mad Men and the magic of advertising which articulates and interpellates us as voracious consumers with an endless appetite for the void. I can’t speak in numb language beyond elegiac synthesis (remixing archetypal sadness to suit a New Romantic mood): melancholy for the unidentified thing that I lost, strange that I’m even (feeling) anything. Can you have a poetry of the following phenomena: decision paralysis, psychological spiralling, executive dysfunction? Brown’s multiverse is raggedly, luridly stitched into the pleats of her poems. Maybe it’s not just a high thrills cinematic trope but actually how it feels to have a brain in the twenty-twenties. Cue scream.
From TikTok’s ‘That Girl’ phenomenon, to monetised wellness trends and all-pervasive cultural obsessions with youth, fertility and innocence, girlhood is continually posited as this precious, essential fruit with a shelf-life. A sexually desperate woman in her thirties in a regrettable Bill Forsyth movie is described as enticingly ‘ripe’. Savannah Brown is clued up on the problem of patriarchy’s cultural obsession with the ‘ripe’ woman and (presumably) the green and ‘unripe’ girl. Take the poem ‘My god, girlhood ripened’, or her smart collage riffs on the infamous Bezos ‘alive girl’ sexts. I think of the title ‘My god, girlhood ripened’ as a creepy comment that would crop up on an innocent selfie that exists in the future dashboard of my feminine life. Of course the poem leaves open the possibility that this is my paranoid reading, and in fact ripening is just an innocent metaphor for growing up. But is it also the feminine gaze of seeing yourself at the risk of that observing gasp, ‘My god’, the Big (Br)Other? Many selves pass through the poem, ‘soberly walking through / the family planning aisle’ or ‘streaks across sites / bent on the protection of her just-/-erected loneliness’. It’s a sort of birthday lament: look in the mirror and comment on yourself as she will be tomorrow:
Now I’m older
so the sort of young that knows
things Like hurting someone first feels like flying And only people
who don’t write die Just grin and bear
it suburb sugar we’ll get you
outta there Oh I only want to write
about tomorrow Tomorrow
I’ll be wiser and scarier
and so much harder to trick oh
it will be the best
and only day of my life
(‘My god, girlhood ripened’)
There’s a refractive effect of voices coming in at different holes: the caesura of stopped digital moments, entropic residue of ‘wasted algorithmic potential’ (Osborne). Ageing is relative, especially with the promise of internet archival permanence, which is also its paradox of constant presentness, in which you are always a bit older and so a new way of young and it’s all without context. Which is to say, your young self screams in undeletable postings from an age ago, and you can’t subdue the mutant green of her. Our bodies are porous and so let in oxygen, change and process. There’s another reference to birthdays in ‘Wilhelm yawp’, so perhaps Closer Baby Closer is a book concerned about the flimsy ceremony of growing up versus maturity’s depths of self-reflection, where you can frankly admit that the experience of wounding someone is ‘like flying’ (same adrenaline to melancholy ratio).
In ‘My god, girlhood ripened’, the speaker tries on different expressions, almost sounding like soundbites from movies: ‘we’ll get you / outta there’, ‘grin and bear / it’. We don’t know where exactly the suburbs are or what ‘it’ is that is so terrible, but the poem is pregnant with the problem of girlhood as this seemingly unextinguishable thing that is nevertheless poised on the brink of terrifying expiry. The paratactic laying-out of different memories and scenarios becomes more sinuous as we draw towards a conclusion which leaves us with the speaker as this entity who lives and thrives on the attention paid to her only in the poem’s duration. Come closer!
‘THE HOTTEST GIRL IN THE WORLD!!!!!!’ (v. good poem title) was an impossibility anyway. With efficiency and wit, Brown critiques the equation of woman and nature at the heart of patriarchy, ecocide and its attendant side-effects. In her hottest girl poem, Brown does a kind of hot girl summer for the all-available cool girl ready to be blanched and snapped into global warming: ‘She is vividly sexy and precious and dying / like the coral reef as photographed for Playboy’. Nature and femininity can never be sexy, ripening and dying enough! The metonymic and cynical switch of nature photography for Playboy shoot dramatises the capitalocene's ceaseless striptease of imminent catastrophe. The dangers of fixing femininity and nature on such a spectacular, essentialised pedestal. How this itself is an unsustainable ethic of care and attention. See also: Rayne Fisher-Quann on getting ‘woman’d’.
Words themselves can be precious: the little unripe fruits of desire and identity. The word ‘precious’ occurs again in the book in the poem ‘New year’s, overstimulation’. The speaker refers to Juliet (presumably of Shakespeare) as a ‘precious little / bitch’ dying over and over again in ‘wasted time’. The poem muses on desire and its attendant suffering:
possession can mean that something is yours
or that something is living inside you.
cherry wound wants to be filled, apologises
for its glint.
Lyric poetry could be said to have an overactive adrenal gland, overly-sensitive pain receptors, a tendency to be suffused sensorially to the point of paralysis. What I love about Brown’s book is that it puts the spirit of post-internet jadedness and overexposure into a kind of ‘nightflayed’ abstraction that is nevertheless relatable in eternal poetic scenarios. Breakups ARE gothic horror. Love IS that feeling of ‘something is living inside you’, fallible and enduring (just read Gillian Rose). Can you vom it out if you created it? Cultivating a personality DOES involve algorithmic entropy, but it still feels personal. The ‘cherry wound’, so abstracted, has a life of its own. Poem bakes it into a pie. Poem metabolises your diary entries into ‘chemtrails in the night’:
OH YOU DO LOVE THEM YOU DO JUST NOT
IN THE WAY THAT LETS BOTH OF YOU LIVE
(‘Notes on your dramatic exit from the house party’)
Poem lives forever, even if its speaker dissipates over and over in the long-tail of vaporous articulation. Poem says ‘I’m so in love with you it makes me want to die’ (‘Poet (derogatory)’ as in to say, you’re such a fucking poet stfu, stop being so dramatic, but ‘Anyway, we know words always win’. Yay, lyric extremity. This book is delicious, pixelated, paradoxical, angelic, demonic, heartbroken, quirky, empowering, quantum, analytical, performative and very, very interesting. We might call it anthropocene gurlesque with a cheeky shot of meta-sincerity. Its centrepiece ‘Nightmare Stations’ is a many-paged sequence of apocalyptic friction (cribbed from an abandoned ‘speculative horror novel’), all ‘lovers’ noise’ transmitted in telegraphic narrative fragments (‘me and I looked at each other for a season’) and body snatching (‘some other thing had stolen our bodies’, ‘it won’t know it’s being devoured’). There are many screams eclipsed in this book. Brown looks at the scream from the shadow side of its silent aftermath, as in the poem ‘Call and response’ which is enclosed in brackets like that ‘dangerous supplement’ of errancy and scandal (see Derrida’s Of Grammatology – chapter on Rousseau, masturbation & confession).
The screams and yawps of Savannah Brown, however, are not pure nihilism, indulgence or terror. They clear space for genuine curiosity about human feeling and behaviour, even when the starry void is involved. They might be like therapy, or convalescence, or everyday speech; but fundamentally they are living, breathing, snarling poems. Just like rain is a kind of ‘gossip’ (‘Everything is very complicated’) and leaves behind the petrichor stench of what’s still fresh in the soil. They’re all around us. I’m really excited to see what grows!
Text: Maria Sledmere
With thanks to Ian Macartney for reading an earlier draft of this piece.