Locally Made Panties
By Arielle Greenberg
Gold Line Press
Reviewed by Caroline Crew
If I were to use the word "fat" would I make you uncomfortable? What about "plus-size"? What if I were to ask you to measure your guilt in relation to the amount of underwear you've contributed to landfills? Can I tell how much my bra cost and how much less I get paid because I'm a woman?
Would you be uncomfortable? Would there be awkward laughter? Would you be confused?
Arielle Greenberg's Locally Made Panties locates itself within this litany of questions with startling honesty, wit, and a seriousness not often afforded to the "frivolity" of fashion. Opening with "New Bras," Greenberg firmly positions us in the weird space around bodies, the tense space in which they meet the world:
I had to go buy some new bras because my old bras
were all stretched out. Also, my old breasts were all
This concern with surface runs throughout Greenberg's collection. Like Frank O'Hara's all-encompassing vision of New York, Locally Made Panties' vision democratically embraces the minutia of feminine presentation, whether it's cheap earrings, skirt length, or the complexities of moving through the world as a woman: "A dirty secret is sometimes I do feel a bit hotter / when I get street attention, but it is still unwanted." What's interesting about this unrelenting cataloging of experience is how fundamentally quotidian these details are to me as a woman. The revelations, however, of fashion faux-pas, of the wrong haircut, the right neckline (finally!), and Weight Watchers, create a dense and perhaps alien language to the uninitiated.
It's difficult to avoid bringing Judith Butler to the table with a book like this. The scope and constant gaze of Locally Made Panties brings into focus the absurdity of gender's cultural inscriptions on female bodies. Greenberg often comes back to the concept of "The Look"— this almost mythical uniform-like wardrobe that might finally make us the perfect presentation of the woman we are. In "Poet's Looks" we move through these uniforms as seen on other women, coming to the heart of this anxiety at the piece's close: "It is her Look. // I often think about how I would like to have a Look." There is a tension between the belief that there is a possible, almost utopian stability of identity offered by the right "signature look" and the constant cacophony of cultural expectations of femininity. Greenberg explores her own history of looks in "A Brief History of Fashion Faux-Pas," casting her critical reflection of the cultural inscription of getting dressed onto herself. Ultimately, despite the "rules and strategies that help me go out into the / world feeling confident, pretty, interesting, comfort-able. The Real Me," the promise of the signature look ultimately fails. There is no stability—"maybe a year from now I will think that all / these new rules and strategies were utter failures." No "Real Me." Yet it's the process of this failure, the supposed "frivolity" of fashion and its trends that Locally Made Panties refuses to relegate to whispered tones.
There is a distinct sense of stealth to Locally Made Panties. For a book about form, about presentation, the language here is surprisingly sparse. Quite unlike Greenberg's linguistically playful and stretching poems, the formal pitch of Locally Made Panties occupies a different space.
More flash non-fiction than prose-poem (if that distinction is at all helpful), these pieces are consecutive, a one-sit read that keeps pulling you through its questions. In part, this urge to keep those pages turning is a result of the book's undeniable deadpan humor, as in "Volunteerism":
There is a war on, for god's sake.
Plus there is poverty.
And the earth is falling apart because we live on it.
None of which is helped by buying or packing or
wearing cute outfits.
There is levity, here, for sure. But Greenberg goes further than simply employing humor to enable more "difficult" subjects to come to light. When these moments do come, as in "Salt in the Wound," in which it is revealed "There is a reason I was pregnant then full of milk but / not breastfeeding, and the reason is my baby died," these crushing moments are resolutely incorporated into this same tapestry of the female body, decrying our cultural impetus to separate female pain out from the constant demands of female presentation:
At my first Weight
Watchers meeting after my stillbirth, I cried while
telling my story. I said something like, "I'm twenty
pounds overweight because my baby died. It's not
like I've been sitting around eating bon-bons or
The unadorned nature of these sentences builds on the familiarity of tone, but resists confession.
And this is where the stealth gathers momentum. This stealth subversion, though, sparkles even on the sentence level. The exclamation point, a grammar tick often written off as the preserve of teenage girls is reclaimed as part of the project. Similarly, the matter-of-factness that runs throughout the collection is bent on exposing the "guilty pleasures" that "smart" women are supposed to keep secret. Even further, Locally Made Panties is bent on refusing to reflect on these things shamefully. Take "Buddhism": "I am not yet there yet with the non-attachment. My compro- / mise has been to try to at least practice mindful shopping."
Greenberg breaks through the silences feminists are supposed to keep about shopping and diet goals and reality television by actively pushing declarative sentences that state the reality of these questions with a glorious certainty. "Let's Get Right Down to It" functions in this mode which could also be taken as a microcosm of the book's project:
Fat is a feminist issue.
It's deep. Really. Think about it.
I came to no conclusions.
I am a feminist.
I would like to be thinner.
Every other page of Locally Made Panties is an echo of conversations I've had in the restroom, in a TJ Maxx fitting room, in texts that reveal my life as lived on my body. If my phone pictures were to be hacked and released, I would most likely be more ashamed of the abundance of bikini pics sent to my friends while shopping than I would be of any nudes. This is a shame that Greenberg refuses to keep quiet about: "Because yes, I'd like to like how my body looks / naked, but mostly I care how I look in clothes."