Published in 2007 by the Mercury Press, Booty: Hurricane Jane and Typoon Mary is a witty, sexy and collaborative effort that combines the language and slang of pirate culture. Drawing upon everything from prairie oysters and surf and turf to salty dogs and trollops, Booty explores the cheeky sexuality of language, sometimes mischievous, usually hilarious, and always breathtakingly sensual. From the ardent to the coarse, it is about everything plundering and ravishing, expressed through a lexicon as playful as it is luxurious and dense. It’s also a stalwartly feminist sexuality, full of power and pleasure, taking on gendered slang and sexualized language with ease, confidence, and a great talent to subvert. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s review of Booty places it brilliantly in historical context: the book appeared at the moment during the U.S. election cycle when Hillary Clinton was being considered as the primary democratic candidate, and the news was full of gendered language and the always problematic dissection of her femininity. He sees the text in this context, and therefore as “two interweaving books of poetry that incisively confront and critique the ways in which language is used to commodify and legislate gender.” Even the playful is political, and Fitzpatrick’s keen look at the subversive work that Booty is doing stands to both contrast and complement the pugnacious joyfulness of the text itself.
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I’m writing this as the presidential primaries in the U.S. roll along and amidst all the punditry lies an undercurrent in political discourse that radical and activist journalists have picked up on – when you listen to the way that many of the participants in this year’s race talk about the Democratic primary, the question of Hilary Clinton’s gender comes into play and is often referred to with a troubling misogyny. The language comes subtly, but in infuriating doses: uppity bitch, damsel, she-devil, emotional. The long list of unconcealed barbs thrown at Clinton reads like a who’s-who of sexist stereotypes. How, in 2008, do we combat these disheartening and horrifying attitudes? Good question!
Early in her half of Booty, the collaborative book of poetry written with Brea Burton, Jill Hartman asks, “Is the language we use / the language we use?” and, as both halves of Booty move toward their conclusions, it seems that Burton and Hartman take this as an informal thesis for their project. What Burton and Hartman do in Booty is write two interweaving books of poetry that incisively confront and critique the ways in which language is used to commodify and legislate gender. The two halves of the book – Burton’s “Typhoon Mary” and Hartman’s “Hurricane Jane” – intersect physically and politically, taking wildly different paths through the same field of discourse. Continually, both writers throw the language of gender into question in incisive, thoughtful, and strikingly funny ways.
Largely composed of prose poems full of pun-filled lists and often-sexualized wordplay, Burton’s “Typhoon Mary” sails on a rougher sea than Hartman’s “Hurricane Jane.” As if in a dream state, Burton moves her heroine through a storm of culture, hanging language on a constantly shifting narrative built on an “aesthetics of water.” Burton’s language is caustic without losing the tragic heart of her pirate tale. “Typhoon Mary” co-opts the language of female as object (“beauty booty pouty looty”) to take power (“any man who touches her thigh is going to get cut”) enacting exploitative revenge fantasies that never quite take shape. What we get is a figure in conflict. “She is captain hook, she is the little mermaid.” She is both vessel and captain. She desires both power in the system and escape from it.
Likewise, Hartman’s “Hurricane Jane” ends with an escape of sorts; like Burton ends her haunted voyage with a glimmer of hope (“when she goes down with the ship, she begins again”), Hartman ends with an escape from shame (“no figs / no leaves / no figs / and leaves / she’s off”). Hartman uses the images and language of burlesque and belly dancing much in the same way Burton does with the language of pirate narratives, though Hartman’s language tends to be lusher and features less of the rapid-fire punning and wordplay that Burton employs, which isn’t to suggest that the two respective writers’ sides of Booty are negatives of each other. Far from it. What I am trying to suggest though is that “Hurricane Jane” aspires to a seriousness that is downplayed in “Typhoon Mary” in favour of sinister flights of fancy. Despite their differences, both halves of Booty work from a position of disgust with the language used to describe and inscribe women, all while trying to broker peace between the “masculine” and the “feminine”, between the ideas of justice and care (“you were right to talk about love / did you expect me to talk about war”).
In that spirit, Hartman adopts an I/You stance throughout her pieces that plays with expectation and dialogue to explore both the push and pull between performer and audience in burlesque and the tensions and conflicts between “man” and “woman.” So much of “Hurricane Jane” looks at how we act both physically and linguistically and how much this veil of preconceptions that surrounds our notions of gender affects and conditions us. Hartman’s language is physical and sensual and deeply steeped in conflict. The idea of war comes up in both halves of Booty, but it appears more explicitly in Hartman’s work (“call it a crusade”) giving Booty an overarching sense of a war not being fought for property but liberty; a war that appears in largely overlooked arenas, including, keeping in mind the double-bind of the title Booty, the ongoing battleground of language where campaigns are fought in blind spots, subtle nuances, and physical gestures.
Booty is a necessary work, not only because it is beautifully composed in unmistakably fun and humanely thoughtful ways, but because it dares to take up arms in a battle that too many assume ended long ago. Booty dares to, if you’ll pardon the expression, “flip the bitch” in order to suggest that our current conceptions of gender and sexuality are still flawed and that a lot of the time, unfortunately, “the language we use / is not ours.”
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Ryan Fitzpatrick’s review of Booty originally appeared in filling Station #42.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is a poet and critic living in Vancouver where he is pursuing his doctorate at SFU. He is the author of Fake Math (Snare Books, 2007) and 21st Century Monsters (Red Nettle Press, 2012).