Lauren Brazeal’s first full-length collection, Gutter (YesYes Books, 2018), tells the story of a young woman, who identifies herself early in the collection as “Little Mohawked Squatter Punk,” living on the streets of Los Angeles. This collection challenges all my expectations about storytelling in poetry. The narrative emerges from a strange combination of forms, everything from sestina and villanelle to letters, instructions, erasure, checklists, and more.
Brazeal’s speaker moves through a harsh urban wilderness, all “glass / storefronts poised to shriek if a brick’s thrown through them” and “double-jawed parking structure[s]” (Dearest 3rd St. Promenade). Every moment is fraught with peril. In Dear Father (Shopping With Your Family at Four, on a Saturday Night, on 3rd St., Pretending Not to Stare), the speaker tells us she has “a lean red hound waking up in [her] stomach” and that the “hunter within [her] / is stalking.” The voice in these poems uses everyday language to create striking, visceral images, and I found myself utterly immersed in her world.
A few other characters permeate the book: Mouse, Robby, and Mr. Black. The collection opens on a letter to Mouse, including the heart-wrenching observation that “people scream at fire because they don’t know what it is // —they haven’t learned to sleep in it.” These lines set the tone for the book’s examination of survival and suffering.
In With Robby: White House, Gray Shutters, Rosebush the speaker relays a scene that demonstrates what she’s willing to do to survive as well as a sharp contrast to her usual surroundings: “I stop to admire the sinkful of plates / the dish of cat food / beside a dish of water.” The speaker inventories what she will take with her and what she will leave behind: “two tins of salmon, not the onion / not the artichokes, the box of breakfast cereal / not the bowls… the slick/ loops of pearls, not the pill-shaped / pillows on the bed.” In the middle of the list, the speaker says, “Not the little girl’s room,” a line I find surprising and tender even after countless readings.
The Mr. Black poems are heavy with violence: “Please please please / unsheathe and find me thick / enough to take in each new penetration. // Love me with your handle, open palmed / love me with your mouth, the blade” (Girl Two Ways, For Mr. Black). These characters do what great characters in fiction do—create tension and depth, offer insight about our protagonist.
These figures also serve as a grounding force in a narrative made from such unusual pieces. This book keeps readers guessing with every turn of the page. A Week of Meals for Little Mohawked Squatter Punk: Bingo Edition is exactly what it sounds like. It’s bingo card including squares like “Grab and dash a sample plate from the food court at the mall,” “Cheese? From the dumpster at the tapas bar,” and the repeated “Sleep for dinner.” The darkly funny To Jennifer Love-Hewitt: I Saw You at Fendi Last Week—I Was the Little Mohawked Squatter Punk Panhandler is framed as a “TRANSMITTED FACSIMILE // RE: Los Angeles County case #24789. Letter was found balled up and tied to a padlock, found thrown through the southernmost window at Love-Hewitt estate. Status: Unsolved.” Brazeal has an amazing ability to put the voice of her speaker in any container, and the result is beautiful and illuminating.
Lauren Brazeal’s Gutter is one of those books that will haunt me. It’s an incredible accomplishment in so many ways: a powerful voice, an unforgettable story, and a profound exploration of survival.
Logen Cure is the author of three poetry chapbooks: "Still," "Letters to Petrarch," and "In Keeping." She's an editor for Voicemail Poems. She serves as an English faculty member at Tarrant County College and earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She curates "Inner Moonlight," a monthly poetry series at The Wild Detectives. She lives in Dallas with her wife and daughter.