Review: MANHATER by Danielle Pafunda
Review by MATTHEW MAHANEY
Manhater is a book in three sections. One could argue that these sections are distinct, each with its own speaker inhabiting a unique, post-human world. However, the more I read, the more I began to view Manhater as an account of Mommy V’s evolution, in which her self-image shifts from (1) an independent, solitary hunter driven by basic instincts to (2) something “ugly” in need of “a shave” and “a diagnosis” in order to fit into the world to (3) someone too smart and too tired of “the desire spectrum” to feel anything akin to shame for her actions or her hybridity.
In a recent interview, Pafunda talked about the Gurlesque, vampires, Plath, projects, obsessions, and whether Mommy V is indeed the speaker for all three sections (short answer: maybe).
“Mommy must eat.”
Manhater’s opening line has me picturing bears, has me hearing David Attenborough narrating an episode of Planet Earth. Mommy V is instinctual. Is primitive. We must remember this. We must be prepared. Mommy V is clearly going to have to do some undesirable things, is going to make us uncomfortable with her actions. But no matter what we witness, we must remember. Mommy must eat. She must survive.
I am reminded of Planet Earth repeatedly while reading Manhater’s first section, which chronicles Mommy’s search for various forms of sustenance. We see Mommy V “under the pines… / looking for a likely bleed, a gush suck.” Next “Mommy stands in the clearest pasture” where “she can smell the hotlings” and where “she’s alive with vermin, venison, pests.” I picture dark paws swatting smaller creatures, non-nutritive nuisances frolicking all around.
Soon “Mommy’s pelvic floor is roaring again.” “In the park, she meets a man… / [and] gives him a sure thing. / She gives him her favorite disease. / And death.” Here I imagine Attenborough’s wry commentary about how the male knew what he was getting into, while onscreen a female insect kills and devours her mate, depositing her newly-fertilized eggs in the damp, dark pocket of his carcass.
Now “Mommy’s jam-packed with cookie-ookie.” “A new treasure brews in her gutter.” But when it spills out, “Mommy’s brood wails. It’s never warm enough” for “her brood, the hotlings. // She keeps her back arched / so that only the tips of their blades / screech against her.” I see a tired and overcrowded walrus shifting her bulk to accommodate her half-blind young. I hear their ceaseless whines, feel their violent sucks.
Pafunda shifts to the first person in section two, which begins with Mommy V announcing that her “illness is visible.” Rife with medical invasiveness and an unsettled/unsettling interior, this section is reminiscent of Pafunda’s previous book, Iatrogenic: Their Testimonies. Mommy V complains, “Lately, my illness agitates / just beneath the skin layer… // My muscles flare, bullish, / contracted, I accompany them / above the bed.” As I read, I too feel “thick with teeth” and “electronic with grit” thanks to Pafunda’s signature syntax, sound, and style.
“Technicians,” “veterinarians,” and “faith healers” probe, interrogate, and conference in corners, though no productive exchange ever takes place. Mommy V droops with shame as the sessions take their toll, and in the section’s final poem she laments, “I’ve outgrown my chemical youth, / and will have to wait until someone has the good sense // to stuff my pillowcase full of rocks, / and lead me out of the room.”
But section three sees the wildness of nature force its way into the sterile offices, interrupting Mommy V’s treatment sessions to remind her of her origins. “There are birds at the windows. / Or roaches!” “There are vermin here.” I’m smiling as Mommy V revels in the return of spring, in being “wrong, ice pick wrong.” Fed up with the world’s need to diagnose, to describe, and to fix, Mommy V spends the final act tossing out insults and demeaning rhetorical questions, most of which are aimed at nameless “ex-lovers” who didn’t fit the bill. Mommy V knows that problems will persist but no ex-lover ever has/had the answer: “I can’t have an orgasm / large enough to solve my problems. // To solve any problems.” By Manhater’s end, Mommy V is back in her element(s) and back in charge. She leaves all the ex-lovers “with their mmm$$$ / around their ankles” while Pafunda, as always, leaves me looking forward to her next book.