In a strikingly insightful self-introduction to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, science fiction master Ursula K. Le Guin posits, “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” Kristin Bock’s full-length poetry collection Glass Bikini rewards both predictive and descriptive interpretations, showing us as much about how our world is as how it might become. Comprised in the majority by prose poems, Glass Bikini evokes the world-building of science fiction, the fairy tale, the dream narration, the prophecy, the parable, and the personal anecdote. Each poem hangs as a translucent mobile that exists as a superposition of all these forms, uniquely catching and reflecting each by rich variations in imagery and voice.
What is true within our dreams? Often, nothing. Sometimes, the pastiche of images or dialogue within them is laced with a powerful emotion that emerges from the network of individually meaningless pieces. The whole of a dream is sometimes not more than the sum of its parts, but it is always an entirely different entity. Breaking down each poem of Glass Bikini, its sense units don’t assemble by a logical scheme that’s congruent with quotidian modes of, say, making an argument or telling a story. We don’t arrive at the end of one of these poems necessarily feeling that we have arrived at the end of a structure that we recognize, though we do recognize that there was a structure. Much like the “beautiful, fleshy dahlias” made of “baby ears” featured in “How Rabbits Finally Took Over the World”, each poem is an evolved, individual creature that is the way it is because of the logical scheme particular to Bock’s poetic imagination.
Though Glass Bikini is redolent with tones of other genres, Bock’s collection is, above all, a collection of excellent poetry. Bock casts daring and unexpected collisions of words with impressive grace. Is Bock just making up combinations such as “salt-shaker shaped like an outhouse”, “sloppy double suplex”, and “pole-vaulting robot”? Absolutely! Is there an art to each of them? Absolutely.
In Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes, we encounter a similar coupling of the absurd with a striking matter-of-factness of tone. In the parable, “Before the Law”, Kafka writes:
Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.” Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. [...] The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years.
As with Bock’s poems, the result is a collection of small, ephemeral, floating realities. As with much that we encounter in our contemporary lives, there is the feeling that we’ve glimpsed something profound in the shimmer—or have we? What was it? How do we know? What’s actionable when untruths are uttered by authority figures with the same straightforward confidence as truths? When sometimes the most alive that we feel is when we’re asleep?
With multiple section-leading epigraphs by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, many of the poems in Glass Bikini bring to mind the idea of a Franken-poem, one in which broken fragments of language are reassembled and electrified by a deft imagination into forms that are, indeed, poetic—and that contain something of the monstrous. Bock does not shy away from the grotesqueness characteristic of our usual notion of monstrosity. In “Get Back”, the speaker finds their “brother lying in the hall. One eye whirling in its socket. His arms and legs are fleshy knobs, red and swollen like the walls.”
Bock is not merely throwing words together in combinations we’ve never seen before. Yes, she is often doing that in a virtuosic display of creativity, but also doing so in a virtuosic display of craft. This is what makes the difference between the aesthetically sophisticated grotesque and the merely gross. This is part of why the poems succeed as genuine poems, much as Dr. Frankenstein’s monster was genuinely human. As in Mary Shelley’s iconic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, we are left with the conclusion that it is not just Bock’s “huge, inverted foot with eight toes” and “joyful lynchers” that are monstrous, but also their creators.
I often found myself asking the question while reading Glass Bikini of what counts as monstrous in our own times and in our collective memory. What monsters are we on the path toward originating? Will they be monsters or the norm relative to the world they inhabit? Following Bock’s lead, I offer my own little prophecy:
Keep your monster hidden. It is shameful. If you have a monster, best if you also remain hidden. You will be punished for mingling with human society, even if you are human as well as monstrous. We keep you around to keep the system going—the one that works in our favor, on balance. What we do not foresee is that when our system degenerates more than it grows, you will have learned what we did wrong. When the world becomes monstrous, monsters will rule.
Which monsters are those? Bock has a few ideas. In “The Gift”, Bock spins a myth of origin, demise, and rebirth, where, after the undoing of a society, “In the morning, trees in the shapes of beautiful dark vaginas had grown higher than the spires of churches.” Crucially, to my view, Glass Bikini is much richer and more insightful than a thinly-veiled rant against patriarchy. A key piece of this richness is the counterpoint that violence is not only a male trait and that not all women are safe. In “B-movie”, Bock closes with the harrowing image where “the heroine, played by my mother, kills me with one hundred thousand kisses, putting an end to anything born from wonder.” As with the knight-slaying rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we can self-destruct with our stereotypes and expectations of gentleness.
If we look back at our world through the lens of Glass Bikini, we see a realm that doesn’t know where it’s going—and knows it. Will there be a time of militarized peace, in which we all have a gun but no feeling of safety? In which even “coloring books are thick with rifles?” Will male leadership outgrow and destroy itself, leaving a power vacuum that requires a fundamentally different—and perhaps feminine—approach? But it is also descriptive of our present-day social predicaments in a way that is refreshing and absolutely necessary; femininity is not just a victimized minority or moral cause to be contemplated when we have a few minutes and are feeling generous; it is a vital physical and sociopolitical force. It is an essential player in the contemporary crises of our time. We will suffer for any discounting of it.
Glass Bikini succeeds as both beautiful poetry and cutting social commentary because of its wild inventiveness and therefore obliqueness. How does writing prose deliver a new experience? By exploding expectations of the form—by taking the reader “down a throat of stars”. By disorienting and sweeping away a reader who might be so sick of the mundane that the only way to rediscover it is as the anomaly within nightmare. In this way, Glass Bikini might be unlike every other collection of poetry that you’ve ever read, and that is a very good thing.
Julia Gibson is a multidisciplinary thinker, creator, and problem solver aspiring to contribute to a more understanding, compassionate, and functional world. After studies in violin performance at Manhattan School of Music, she completed a BA in Cognitive Science at Brown University, a bike ride across the United States, and an MSc in Mathematics at McMaster University. She now works as an aerospace engineer for Rocket Lab in Toronto, Canada. Blessed and cursed with poetic impulses from early childhood, her first full-length collection of poetry, Two Doors, was published in 2019 by Clare Songbirds Publishing House. Other of her poems have appeared in Vallum, Prairie Fire, the League of Canadian Poets‘ daily e-series, High Shelf Press, and Wild Roof Journal. You can find her space on the web at julia-gibson.com.