I make a point of buying the newest volume of the Best American Poetry series whenever I see it on a bookstore shelf. There's never been a bad one, but the overall quality does vary with the tastes of its annually rotating guest editor. At least once in the best volumes, and several times in the iffier ones, I'll read a poem for the second or third time and wonder how the hell it got published in Ploughshares or Tin House or one of the more esteemed Quarterlies to begin with, to say nothing of how it ended up between the front and back covers of a book claiming to represent the acme of American not-prose.
Patricia Lockwood's "Rape Joke," which I first read in The Best American Poetry 2014, is not one of those poems.
Patricia Lockwood (1982 – )
The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.
The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.
The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.
Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. "Ahhhh," it thinks. "Yes. A goatee."
The rape joke is that he was seven years older. The rape joke is that you had known him for years, since you were too young to be interesting to him. You liked that use of the word interesting, as if you were a piece of knowledge that someone could be desperate to acquire, to assimilate, and to spit back out in different form through his goateed mouth.
Then suddenly you were older, but not very old at all.
The rape joke is that you had been drinking wine coolers. Wine coolers! Who drinks wine coolers? People who get raped, according to the rape joke.
The rape joke is he was a bouncer, and kept people out for a living.
The rape joke is that he carried a knife, and would show it to you, and would turn it over and over in his hands as if it were a book.
He wasn't threatening you, you understood. He just really liked his knife.
The rape joke is he once almost murdered a dude by throwing him through a plate-glass window. The next day he told you and he was trembling, which you took as evidence of his sensitivity.
How can a piece of knowledge be stupid? But of course you were so stupid.
The rape joke is that sometimes he would tell you you were going on a date and then take you over to his best friend Peewee's house and make you watch wrestling while they all got high.
The rape joke is that his best friend was named Peewee.
OK, the rape joke is that he worshiped The Rock.
Like the dude was completely in love with The Rock. He thought it was so great what he could do with his eyebrow.
The rape joke is he called wrestling "a soap opera for men." Men love drama too, he assured you.
The rape joke is that his bookshelf was just a row of paperbacks about serial killers. You mistook this for an interest in history, and laboring under this misapprehension you once gave him a copy of Günter Grass's My Century, which he never even tried to read.
It gets funnier.
The rape joke is that he kept a diary. I wonder if he wrote about the rape in it.
The rape joke is that you read it once, and he talked about another girl. He called her Miss Geography, and said "he didn't have those urges when he looked at her anymore," not since he met you. Close call, Miss Geography!
The rape joke is that he was your father's high-school student —— your father taught World Religion. You helped him clean out his classroom at the end of the year, and he let you take home the most beat-up textbooks.
The rape joke is that he knew you when you were 12 years old. He once helped your family move two states over, and you drove from Cincinnati to St. Louis with him, all by yourselves, and he was kind to you, and you talked the whole way. He had chew in his mouth the entire time, and you told him he was disgusting and he laughed, and spat the juice through his goatee into a Mountain Dew bottle.
The rape joke is that come on, you should have seen it coming. This rape joke is practically writing itself.
The rape joke is that you were facedown. The rape joke is you were wearing a pretty green necklace that your sister had made for you. Later you cut that necklace up. The mattress felt a specific way, and your mouth felt a specific way open against it, as if you were speaking, but you know you were not. As if your mouth were open ten years into the future, reciting a poem called Rape Joke.
The rape joke is that time is different, becomes more horrible and more habitable, and accommodates your need to go deeper into it.
Just like the body, which more than a concrete form is a capacity.
You know the body of time is elastic, can take almost anything you give it, and heals quickly.
The rape joke is that of course there was blood, which in human beings is so close to the surface.
The rape joke is you went home like nothing happened, and laughed about it the next day and the day after that, and when you told people you laughed, and that was the rape joke.
It was a year before you told your parents, because he was like a son to them. The rape joke is that when you told your father, he made the sign of the cross over you and said, "I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," which even in its total wrongheadedness, was so completely sweet.
The rape joke is that you were crazy for the next five years, and had to move cities, and had to move states, and whole days went down into the sinkhole of thinking about why it happened. Like you went to look at your backyard and suddenly it wasn't there, and you were looking down into the center of the earth, which played the same red event perpetually.
The rape joke is that after a while you weren't crazy anymore, but close call, Miss Geography.
The rape joke is that for the next five years all you did was write, and never about yourself, about anything else, about apples on the tree, about islands, dead poets and the worms that aerated them, and there was no warm body in what you wrote, it was elsewhere.
The rape joke is that this is finally artless. The rape joke is that you do not write artlessly.
The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you're asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you.
The rape joke is that you asked why he did it. The rape joke is he said he didn't know, like what else would a rape joke say? The rape joke said YOU were the one who was drunk, and the rape joke said you remembered it wrong, which made you laugh out loud for one long split-open second. The wine coolers weren't Bartles & Jaymes, but it would be funnier for the rape joke if they were. It was some pussy flavor, like Passionate Mango or Destroyed Strawberry, which you drank down without question and trustingly in the heart of Cincinnati Ohio.
Can rape jokes be funny at all, is the question.
Can any part of the rape joke be funny. The part where it ends ——haha, just kidding! Though you did dream of killing the rape joke for years, spilling all of its blood out, and telling it that way.
The rape joke cries out for the right to be told.
The rape joke is that this is just how it happened.
The rape joke is that the next day he gave you Pet Sounds. No really. Pet Sounds. He said he was sorry and then he gave you Pet Sounds. Come on, that's a little bit funny.