A Review of Catherine Pierce’s The Girls of Peculiar

Pierce Girls of Peculiar

A Review of Catherine Pierce’s The Girls of Peculiar

By Jennifer Dane Clements

Catherine Pierce’s second poetry collection, The Girls of Peculiar, resurrects the gangly and awkward ghosts of adolescence, in turns honoring and questioning those young spectres. Indeed, it is impossible to read The Girls of Peculiar and not consider one’s own unglamorous coming-of-age, from the sensation of “a globe welling up inside” to “that red ache that came from lying/to our mothers.”

For me, The Girls of Peculiar harkened back to the brick school buildings and blue carpeted halls where my own teenage years were spent. But Pierce’s words ring universal:

Last year you weighed more. This year you’re as tall
as you’ll get, and there’s a boy whose eyes are poisoned
marbles. You’ve photographed him again and again
but you can’t get the poison right. You’re sixteen.
You say this again and again but you can’t believe it.
(Fire Blight)

I went to a high school built by women, for women. There were the things we were told, that we were strong and intelligent and the leaders of tomorrow, and would not be stifled by gender inequity. We were taught by incredible women and introduced to women who defied the expectations of the world. We were bound to the women who had walked those carpeted halls before us, phantoms of girls past that we, like our predecessors, were destined to become.

We never cooled
with twilight. We were busy prowling
by the river; sending our lit eyes into tree hollows,
beneath parked cars.
(The Delinquent Girls)

And there were the things we knew that we didn’t have to say, that perhaps our parents and teachers didn’t wish to acknowledge. Some of us had eating disorders, or inflicted self-harm, or saw shrinks for diagnoses we didn’t have to secure medications we didn’t need. We identified as adults in ways that ranged from noble to naive. We had sex with older men. We pulled all-nighters on school grounds with the strange and forbidden blessing of our teachers. We hung out in rough parts of town, oblivious to how our uniforms marked us as young and entitled and unattainable in ways we couldn’t know. We wielded our small rations of power in a dozen micro-rebellions a day, then tucked in our shirttails and learned algebra.

We were all flavors of adolescent girl kept in one place, and nothing has quite captured that dynamic as accurately as The Girls of Peculiar.

But I’m so tired of the small steps–
the pentatonic scale, the frequent flyer
hoarding, the one exquisite sentence
in a forest of exquisite sentences.
There is a globe welling up inside of me.
Mountain ranges ridging my skin,
oceans filling my mouth. If I stay still
long enough, I could become my own world.
(Because I’ll Never Swim in Every Ocean)

Poems like “Dear Self I Might Have Been,” “Before the Reunion (Her Lament),” and “Postcards from her Alternate Lives,” look backward, from a vantage point informed by several decades. Resisting the nostalgic, they instead acknowledge the difficulties of youth, moving into the “long highway days of your twenties” and beyond. Each of these poems serves as a postscript to old yearbooks, answering the question of what we’ll become: One girl writes speeches for the First Lady. One girl married the bus driver. One works for the CIA. One remains a virgin at 30.

For some of us, the school-age moments feel lifetimes old; for some of us, as close as this morning’s latte. But The Girls of Peculiar has nothing to do with wanting to return to those days–its poems are elegies, truthful monuments to the myths, the expectations, and the anxieties we carried in youth.

This is every house on your block
lit from within, each bedroom window
shining with safety and you outside
in the icing dusk, knowing nothing
will ever warm you….
The Future? This is The Future
If you were here, you’d know that.
(The Girls We Were)

Twelve years past high school, I am tempted to wrap a copy of The Girls of Peculiar and send it to my school’s newly appointed headmaster, the first woman to oversee the school in decades. Pierce’s collection seems the briefest and most comprehensive reminder of how burgeoning adulthood feels to “the delinquent girls,” and “the quiet girls,” and “the drama girls,” and then all of them together–a manual of understanding and a call to empathy.

Let these strangenesses be like the impossible lizard’s
tail: gone forever, because how could it be otherwise,

and then reappearing, iridescent and blood-warmed,
because how could it be otherwise?
(For This You Have No Reason)

And what could be more vital to someone newly charged with overseeing all of those girls, and all of the peculiars in which they–for the moment–reside.


Catherine Pierce, The Girls of Peculiar. Saturnalia Books, 2012: $14.00.


Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. A writer of prose and plays, she has been published in WordRiot, Nerve, and Psychopomp and has had plays produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and elsewhere. Clements currently works at a theatre-service organization and serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. More at jennifer-dane-clements.com.

Rites of Passage

Spin the Bottle. Photo credit: Flickr user atsealevel.

I’ve been asked to explain a bit about the personal essays I often contribute to this blog. I wrote most of them for the popular “Readers Write” feature in my favorite literary magazine, The Sun. Each month they propose a topic like “Rites of Passage” and invite readers to contribute their own stories. Of the submissions they receive—sometimes as many as a thousand—they publish the most interesting. An abridged version of this essay appears in the current print edition of The Sun (June 2011).

Rites of Passage
By John Unger Zussman

In seventh grade, my peer group began to play kissing games at parties. Spin the Bottle, Seven Minutes in Heaven—tame stuff, in retrospect, but to me it seemed intimidating and immoral and I wanted no part of it. Entering adolescence shortly after my father died, I had no adult male hand to guide me. (I did have an older friend who breathlessly explained that babies resulted when the boy peed into a little hole in the girl. I knew that couldn’t be right.)

It’s not that I wasn’t interested in girls; I was desperately interested, and spent many nights agonizing over how to get them to like me. No, it was sex I wasn’t interested in, even when I got the story straight. I had absorbed a strict moral code from my mother and was convinced that sex before marriage was wrong. I was after girls’ admiration and love, and I believed I would win that by respecting them.

I didn’t leave the parties when the games began; I would simply not partake. For a while, my best friend felt the same way, and we would watch awkwardly from the edge of the circle. But soon, he succumbed too, and I was left to uphold my moral code alone.

(Years later, I asked my mother what she thought of the way I abstained from those games. “I thought you were dumb,” she told me bluntly. Thanks a lot, Mom. Now you tell me. All I needed was someone to explain that girls were sexual beings too, and that they were just as curious about exploring those feelings as I was, if not quite so driven or tormented.)

By the time I started dating in tenth grade, I had decided that kissing, at least, was permissible. My dates and I spent hours necking, in my car or in their living room, at summer camp or youth group retreats. One girl, bored with kissing, urged me to go further. Her previous boyfriend had a serious disease, she explained, that had pushed them into early intimacy. Despite her clear invitation, I was immobilized by impending guilt.

And so the task was left to Wendy, my girlfriend at the beginning of senior year. Exasperated after yet another marathon make-out session, she took my hand and placed it gently on her breast. That act of mercy opened the floodgates, and for that, Wendy, my wife and I are forever grateful.

Copyright © 2011, John Unger Zussman. All rights reserved.