At a reading I went to last week, a young writer named Amelia Gray took the stage and announced with a demure smile that she was going to read some “threats.” Some were humorous: “I will gather your oldest friends at my home and we will have a conversation. You will hear us talking but when you come into the room we will stop talking.” Some left the menace to the imagination: “Try to kiss me. See what happens to your lips.” Some were vividly violent. “Your face is sealed with glue I have boiled in a vat. ... Trust me when I say this: I exist to ruin you.” She read each cheerfully off a tiny slip of paper, which she would then toss onto the stage behind her.
The atmosphere was instantly charged. What was this—prose, poetry, neither, both? At first there were some quiet chuckles, then open laughter at the end of each outrageous expression of anger. “My truth is a sucking chest wound. The field doctor will apply a makeshift occlusive patch crafted from cellophane, aluminum foil, and duct tape. You are far from home.” The laughter was both shocked and relieved. There was something electrifying in the spectacle of this sweet-looking woman blithely reading off her visions of brilliant mayhem. Afterwards more than a few people mentioned that they wished they could have kept one of the slips of paper. What would you do with a souvenir threat? Carry it in your wallet like a talisman and brandish it at surly cashiers? I wanted one too.
The dramatic impact of these “threats” made me realize how unusual it is for poets, and women poets in particular, to express anger. To the extent that such things can be generalized about, there is a distinct style of contemporary American poetry that tends not to range dramatically in mood. For the most part it is serious, elegiac, wistful, perhaps with a sideline of dark humor. It coolly offers images and observations; it does not judge or rabble-rouse or incite revolution. This is why the work of Sylvia Plath still feels incendiary today: not only for its brilliance but because its brilliance cannot contain its fury. “I eat men like air”—when was the last time you read a line like that in The New Yorker? (Or in TNR, for that matter?)
But the other reason the audience responded so favorably to Amelia Gray, I think, had to do with the contrast between her appearance and her words. This is what many successful female comedians, from Joan Rivers to Sarah Silverman, have always known: if your lines are threatening, your face had better not be. A Piece of Work, the new documentary about Rivers in which she manages, extraordinarily, to come across as a largely sympathetic figure, demonstrates that, as her looks have altered with age, her brand of comedy has become far less cruel. In her early appearances with Johnny Carson, 40 years ago, she looked like a fifties housewife, her hair gelled into a bouffant or piled in curls atop her head, her gestures as elastic as her facial expressions. But when she opened her mouth, her girlish voice delivered the most incendiary insults. Now her look is much tougher: she favors designer suits, her hair is ironed flat, and her tautly lifted face gives little hint of what might be going on beneath the surface. And her jokes are no longer challenging. “I love sex because you can do other things,” she says in one recent routine. “You can iron, you can read a book, you can get your email on your Blackberry…”. Or, famously, on how to find Osama bin Laden: “He’s on dialysis. There is one outlet in all of Afghanistan. … Follow the cord!”
What if Amelia Gray were to disguise her beauty with dumpy clothes, a wig, big glasses? Or if she delivered her menacing lines—“I could quite literally devour you”—in a tone that sounded like she meant them? What does true, sincere, gut-wrenching anger even look like anymore—can it be marshaled without the accompanying doses of irony to soften its edges? In an age that worships even-temperedness and deflection, a little righteous fury seems like it could be a necessary correction. I’d like President Obama to stand up before a room of BP executives and proclaim, “You are the acid in my guts. You are the pile of sand behind the curtain of my memory. You are the fish on the hook of my ugly heart. You are the tie around your own neck.” If he could do it without smiling afterward, that would be truly subversive.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.