What can conceptual poetry—a poetry of repetition, found text, and intentionally unoriginal writing, which indicates social relations by gathering, repurposing, and collaging language rather than by composing it—clarify about those relations? Aesthetically, critics of conceptual poetry have argued that the entire project spelled out a nihilism about poetry, or even human creative capacity. To give the critics their credit, Kenneth Goldsmith, a prominent conceptualist, himself decreed in his introduction to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, co-edited with Craig Dworkin, that the internet had brought about the end of the need to write new poetry. Goldsmith argued that with the sheer volume of text created daily on the internet, one could simply compile text and not have to engage with the subject.
There are a couple of questions at stake in this debate—in particular, whether a poetry of found text is necessarily opposed to the project of rendering in clearer detail social relations about, by, and between subjects. Fetal Position by Holly Melgard (Roof Books, 2021) asks us to reconsider these decisions and pronouncements, even the post-mortem on conceptual poetry itself.
The first poem in the book, entitled “Divisions of Labor,” uses a stream of sounds compiled and transcripted from videos of women reenacting giving birth on YouTube. The meditative quality of the listed words, when spoken aloud, begins to almost mirror Lamaze breathing exercises. The poem shines most when it breaks up these qualities, with an almost stuttered speech:
This stuttering speech gives the reader a moment to pause, and re-orient themselves. The voice speaking is not a singular voice, but rather a cacophony of pregnant wailing. This fascinating shift from the image of a singular birth, to a multi-layered soundtrack of births, turns the found utterance from a writing constraint, to an exercise in social voyeurism. It takes an almost solitary subject, and places the subject in an echo chamber with dozens of other women experiencing the same thing. The delivery room changes, but the vowels remain. The poem uses the alphabet to structure itself, bringing to mind the ways a mother teaches her child language, through the found utterance.
Trisha Low’s The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2015) comes to mind when discussing this found speech. The first section, “The Last Will and Testament of Trisha Low,” combines all of the writer’s suicide notes from early childhood through her early 20s, appropriating the language of both the note and the legalese used to craft a will. These documents function both as a living will and as a confessional experience of the life of a girl and a woman moving through a world that feels as though it wants her dead. The violent near-deaths of Low’s speaker, and the violent reality of the labors that Melgard’s speakers must perform, form parallel lines. Melgard’s distance from these topics, through the lens of transcribed videos, provides us a different but equally compelling view of social relations between subjects we have no personal connection to.
In the next section of Fetal Position, Melgard explores the gore involved in childbirth. Continuing her use of the found utterance, Melgard describes the poem “Child Birth” as “pornographic descriptions of what it feels like to be inside of a woman cut up and re-ordered to form a composite narration of vaginal childbirth from the fetal point of view.” Drawing on a technique developed first in Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette, Melgard’s poem uses quotations to break up each phrase, but forces them to function together as sentences, causing a deliberate, slowed down effect when reading, almost like a baby gasping for its first breaths of air before it cries out. The poem uncomfortably reminds us of the sexual nature of childbirth, using the found dialogue of porn to position us in, not only the delivery room, but directly inside of the birth canal:
“What it felt like when I was inside of her” “The way she felt when I was inside of her” “- I mean,” “I never thought the stories were true until it happened to me.” “What it felt like to cum into her” “And when I came out of her”
Sidestepping a romantic description of giving birth, Melgard shifts the reader into a crass and sexualized space where all subjects involved are either fucking or fucked into a new stage of life. The reader is forced to move past their initial squeamishness to linger in a moment of erotics. It’s uncomfortable, but the found utterance almost forces one to remember the fucking that took place to bring them into being, and the fucking that continues to bring them pleasure as an adult. The “baby” describes its bloody and painful exit from the birth canal as a build up to orgasm, perverting this moment almost beyond recognition.
From unbearable pleasure and pain, to an uncanny overheard phone call, the next section of the book, “Student Labor,” continues the pun on labor that Melgard uses to structure the book. She positions the reader as a spy, listening in on half of a reconstructed conversation between a student worker and a professor:
Oh hi. Yeah, I’m good. I’m good. I’ve been really Yeah, it’s been good it’s good so I’m good. Yeah. Well
Yeah, well I’m so glad you called, because I was just about to
Well no not yet. Not yeah no, sorry about that. I don’t have that part yet but
Yeah. No, I still haven’t
Oh no but that’s ok. I did get that, yeah. But you know I still haven’t gotten the
Yeah no, I’m just in the middle of getting it now, so
Exactly. Right. Yeah, so I’m almost done now. But you know I
Well, no. It’s just been taking me a little longer than I
The poem crackles with a humor so painful it’s actually sadistic. There is no moment during the poem without a cringe-inducing flash of recognition. Melgard leans directly into the cringe-inducing moment to a skin crawling degree. There is something so perversely comedic about enjoying the suffering of another worker, even when laughing along with them. Melgard uses these modes of transcription to turn a formal exercise into a sadistic and comedic centerpiece.
Melgard’s role as the compiler of these found utterances is one of seduction, towards a forced self-betrayal in many cases. As a reader, you can either laugh and distance yourself from these transcribed speeches, or you can identify with the once removed subject of each poem. She uses this dark humor as lure, an essential and often missing part of conceptual projects. Where writers like Goldsmith implored poets to ignore the subject, Melgard instead asks us how much we’re willing to laugh at the conditions that directly lead to our suffering.
Melgard’s poem “Catcall”, entirely composed of gender flipped and quite literal catcalls, reinforces this tactic:
Jesus Christ, look at this guy. Yeah. Look at him over there with his small butt. Look at that baby butt he’s got going on. Look at him go.
Hey you, little bud, let me get your littlest fun cute guy bod. I want your bod, little one.
This use of found speech comforts and disturbs us. Once again, Melgard uses this uncomfortable eroticism to provoke us. By using a rabbit-duck effect to give us a false sense of comfort, we are confronted with the usually repressed eroticism directed towards men. We are forced to identify not with the subject, but instead as the person sitting next to a cat’s owner. Listening and politely laughing as their descriptions of their cat become more and more sinister, and more and more comical. We are forced to sit and acknowledge that he is in fact the littlest huge tiny cute guy. We are not held hostage, but we are implicated with our laughter. We are forced to sit and think about the irresistible butt.
Melgard refuses to taunt at every corner, avoiding a typical conceptualist mode of cruelty towards the subject. Instead, we are given the chance to be in rooms we would otherwise never have access to, rooms full of laughter and blood and fucking and cats. We may laugh and suffer alongside the speakers of these poems, but at the end of all of the utterances strung together, we are left with the image of a cat’s soft butt.