Emily Rose Cole won the 2014 Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry for the poem “Self-Portrait as Rapunzel,” selected by judge Jeffrey Ethan Lee. Her poem considers the relationship between Rapunzel and her mother and how a person accepts or rejects various aspects of abuse or isolation because of the attention or even affection that might accompany them. The poem, included in her new chapbook as “Rapunzel Learns to Build,” is startling and delicate, but with a deep resolve and grit at its core. Cole’s Love & a Loaded Gun approaches many familiar characters in unfamiliar states of resignation and agitation. These poems force the reader to reevaluate expectations and assumptions about the figures we like to think we know.
While the premise of the collection suggests Anne Sexton’s Transformations, the figures treated throughout the collection come from all manner of sources; only Rapunzel is shared among the Grimms, Sexton, and Cole. The remainder of the poems concern figures from myth and fable, but also comic books, film, and video games — media that are literally two dimensional in their presentation of characters. Flat characters in our shared stories allow audiences to tailor characters to best speak to or for themselves. Here, Emily Rose Cole shows us what she has brought of herself to these characters: wit, rage, and tensile strength.
A shared quality in many of these poems is the characters’ emergence from a few significant male shadows: those of King Arthur, Clyde Barrow, Superman, Zeus, or Mario (the video game plumber). No longer diminished by their male counterparts, Cole’s speakers often express anger at, awareness of, or frustration with their situations — and the men that accompany or abandon them. Tellingly, the collection is dedicated to “every… woman who’s ever been made to keep her mouth shut.” We cannot ignore these long-silent voices, Cole tells us again and again.
These poems reveal secrets about the characters that sometimes illuminate and sometimes complicate their sources — often the poems do both. The title of the collection comes from the final poem, “Black Widow Explains.” In it, Natasha Romanoff shares her history and shrugs off any interest the reader has in her work. She tells us that there is no real trick: “It’s not hard to be a spy. All women are made of muscle / and trauma.” The speaker tells the reader how to use sexuality to subvert and exploit expectations. Her offhanded manner suggests that her work exists on a continuum that most women find themselves on at various points for various reasons.
Cole reminds us that women often approach challenges differently from men. In her poem, “Your Princess Leaves the Castle,” Mario’s damsel in distress, Princess Peach vents:
For years you’ve solved every problem
by stepping on it. It’s simple for you: pulverize
the henchmen, emasculate the boss, watch me
swoon. Well, joke’s on you, Mario. I quit.
Lois Lane and Guinevere reveal bedroom secrets that show their somewhat magical or alien lovers as more human than not. Leda, after being raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, decides to leave town and “pursue a new hobby: take a shotgun / to the edge of a lake and shoot at every shadow of wings.” The anger and frustration these characters express, being beholden to predictable too-familiar men, is felt throughout the collection.
Though we may have originally found these characters supporting more familiar figures in stories, they have a great deal to say for themselves. They finally defy and emerge from the flatness of the page or screen to speak. Emily Rose Cole recognizes how important the teller of the story can be, and in Love & a Loaded Gun, she brings her own savvy gusto to these compelling voices. In providing such deep interiors for these characters, she forces the reader to look around at other stories and the other characters not examined here. How many flat, unconsidered female characters still have stories to share?