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Microreview: Claudia Cortese’s Wasp Queen

Wasp Queen by Claudia Cortese (Black Lawrence Press, 2017)

Lucy—Cortese’s recurring character, our “wasp queen”—permeates this collection with stingers and Barbie heads, gauze, shopping malls, cul-de-sacs, wisteria, Ohio, Oreos and Ring Pops, Rainbow Brite, mirrors, fire, swear words, period blood, milk teeth, “the popular girls,” dirt, chicken fingers, Cheetos, lawn elves, masturbation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dirty Dancing, ribbons, rot, and milkshakes. Through these repeated images, Cortese invites us fully into Lucy’s world, wants us to be her friend, to make pinky-promises and eat a caterpillar with her.

The poem titles immediately engage and set up Lucy’s escapades in Midwestern suburbia—with titles such as “What Lucy’s World Looks Like,” “Lucy Selfie,” “What Lucy’s World Smells Like,” “What The Girls Named Lucy/ What Lucy Named The Girls,” “Lucy tilts the mirror of the CoverGirl compact between her legs.” The cover image of a slit filled with swarming wasps implies a vagina, a peek inside Lucy’s world of girlhood, viscera, aliveness.

I am deeply impressed by the risks here in form—Cortese explores Lucy from many angles, in many shapes on the page. Here, we have prose poems, contra-puntals, lists, sonnets, origin stories, couplets, poems that read as flash fiction, poems with movement all across the white space. The interactive “Lucy Mad Lib” is particularly fun and self-reflexive on the poem as a made-object:

She hates herself because ________ (proper noun). Each time Lucy looks in the ________ (not mirror: what else reflects), she thinks ________, ________, ________ (expletives). She remembers watching ______ (suburban nature image: Note, the pastoral. Note, white flight. Note, mother stands in lamp-glow she sees her at the window. Note, dog blood darkens) and feeling ________ (sentimental noun) and ________ (violent noun because sincerity terrifies). She combed ________’s (girl name) hair, she washed ______’s (girl name) power-pink jeans; they ________ (sexual verb) and _______ (verb of your choosing): don’t tell.

By including these fill-in-the-blanks, the reader is encouraged to participate in the creation of the poem, to think about language as a material to be played with. Wasp Queen reminds me why I love poetry—it reminds me of the possibilities and the pleasure to be found in form, imagery, speaker. I am truly enamored with this collection. I read it from start to finish on the night it arrived. My bedside table was covered with pink glitter, markers, nail polish, candles, a rhinestone headband, spoon rings, and lip gloss. As I read, I felt that Lucy would like my room, would like me, that maybe I could be Lucy. Lush, girlish, spunky, and super cool, the poems in Claudia Cortese’s Wasp Queen are something to behold.

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