Larger than Life

Phoebe Stuckes, Platinum Blonde

Bloodaxe Books, 64pp, £9.95, ISBN 9781780375021

reviewed by Nina Hanz

‘Their heavy footsteps, out of tune with the timbre / of my stilettos. I wasn’t wearing stilettos / but I think you will imagine that I was’. In ‘Bleach’, the opening poem of Phoebe Stuckes’ debut poetry collection Platinum Blonde, these lines strike upon two key themes which unravel throughout the book. First, they introduce the object of scale, mass and excess: the heavy steps of a wide gait, the light timbre of a quick shuffle, this also occurs earlier in the poem, ‘I liked the blonde but it was too powerful’ and, ‘in the night. Men love me too much’. Weight, size and surplus are present in these poems. And as they tussle between immense composure and the undoing of spilling over, the poems begin to articulate the difficulties women face in a world where they are often told not to take up too much space. Secondly, and building on the first point, there is an acute awareness of the gaze, the alertness to the assumptions one makes on a mere glance.

Phoebe Stuckes leans in on these assumptions and multiplies them. ‘I think you will imagine that I was’, calls out the reader for making certain assumptions about her appearance. Stuckes seems skeptical of the reader, but perhaps this comes from a place of experience — or a willingness to share in this discomfort. The poem continues by moving slowly down from the chemically striped hair on the protagonist’s head to the protagonist’s feet ‘firmly laced / to the earth’ and ‘always ready to run’. In doing so, the reader is forced to size her up, to check her out. The reader must follow this gaze, the way that men might look down upon a woman’s body, but this time Stuckes is in control of what we see.

This image, the self-image, being documented in the collection is about the external world and the internal, offering a glimpse at the private by ways of the public. Insecurities are felt as gender stereotypes are teased out, sometimes to be absorbed as part of an overly romanticised obsession and other times to be brushed away by characters that are unashamed of their emotions, failures or mistakes. In the midst of this battle of selfhood within young womanhood, Stuckes’ writing engages with expectations of women to shirk, enlarge, reduce and modify certain parts of their bodies or behaviors. As she is aware, not fitting in to these expectations automatically makes one fall into the literary category of the unruly woman, modernised in the collection as the ‘mad chick’, the ‘other’ woman or just the ‘whimsical girl’. Stuckes therefore imbues a delicacy to her characters, despite their brashness, their loudness and all their performative eccentricities. The woman, the women, of these poems are charged and honest, and their generosity of the self begins to destroy the flatness of our projected misassumptions of these wild woman. In ‘Supermoon’ Stuckes explains:

...I think everyone I’ve slept with

is precious and important. I want to call them all up
and hold them against my chest like a bundle of daffodils.

It takes a serious heft of my self control
Not to run through the streets barefoot every day,

This poem in particular embodies an authentic tenderness. It is aware of the self, but also unafraid. Avoiding any shame, it demonstrates closeness and care while taking on a Plath-like form which further heightens the poem’s sincerity. Struggle, though, is still present.

Many of the poems deal with violence and loathing, done by others and the self. On entering their complex interior, we see an exhaustion, a tiredness of living life in these conditions. ‘Supermoon’ continues, ‘or walk into the ocean and let her take me’. The poem speaks of the enormity of the moon, the ocean, and life. For the protagonist, these become so overwhelming that their magnitude creates its own consumptive gravity beckoning the protagonist to run, to be pulled in completely in the ebb. Because of their ability to encompass a range of emotions and desires, the poems convey similar attraction in themselves. Read as if boundless to honesty, we must be witnesses to it all; ‘I am/broken/heart-aching/cutting myself/trying to pick it up/yes I am too much/foolish’. ‘Pangea’ is one of the poems where we see the protagonist’s undoing, splitting away from a feeling of whole-ness. Still, she persists — serving as a reminder for many that what some may view from afar, the outside, as strength comes from an enormous struggle.

While at times the poems can feel too heavily planned or calculated, Stuckes creates a deep self-awareness and divisive aesthetic, especially when writing of indulgence. In ‘Thus I became a heart-eater’, lust is temporarily fulfilled by a ‘glossy red and obscene’ doughnut. Once again situating herself in the public space of the street, the protagonist eats this sugared treat in three bites. Contemplating the doughnut’s heart-shaped presence the poem reads, ‘how / when I was young I wanted to be called / Valentine, the bringer of love’. Glazed in self-disgust yet unwavering in her cravings, desire swells to a grotesque size yet Stuckes still preserves its appeal. Carefully crafted, the poem feels so binge-worthy because of its circular and wrapped-up narrative; the closing lines ‘then I swallowed and sucked the sugar / from my fingers, like a disgusting child at a fair’ feel as though they trail perfectly back to the title, ‘thus I became a heart-eater’. With a healthy dose of composure, this circular shape mimics not only the doughnut’s form but gives the reader a sense of satisfaction as well. This performative aspect makes the collection larger than life but for me also utterly, relentlessly human.

As an aesthetic in itself, Platinum Blonde explores what it is to be overwhelmed — by pain, beauty, heartache, vulnerability. The characters Phoebe Stuckes writes about break out of their one-dimensional origins and develop into complex, flawed, lifelike subjects. She writes with a hyper-focus on the image, albeit with irony and consciousness, as a way of cherishing the self in a crushing world.
Nina Hanz is a German-American writer and poet based between London and Essen. Her most recent publications include This Is Tomorrow, MAP Magazine, The Double Negative and Vogue CS.