Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Kissing Dead Girls: Daphne Gottlieb

Written by Josie Schoel
I didn’t want to like this book. The concept of engaging in romantic entanglements with iconic dead women initially felt contrived and forced, but Daphne Gottlieb's poetry collection, Kissing Dead Girls is so fierce and unapologetic, that I was left reassessing my own ideas about pretty much everything. If there is anything a poem should do, it should shake the ground you are treading, maybe even blow a huge hole in it, and force you to step right in, look around, and then guide you back out again. With the exception of a minute few, every single one of Gottlieb's poems and pieces of flash fiction have this kind of effect. Her work has the power to dismantle a personal reality and then put it back together again. I know this sounds a bit like military training, but in Kissing Dead Girls, it's art.

I didn’t want to like this book. The concept of engaging in romantic entanglements with iconic dead women initially felt contrived and forced, but Daphne Gottlieb's poetry collection, Kissing Dead Girls, is so fierce and unapologetic that I was left reassessing my own ideas about poetic integrity. If there is anything a poem should do, it should shake the ground you are treading, maybe even blow a huge hole in it, and force you to step right in, look around, and then guide you back out again. With the exception of a minute few, nearly every single one of Gottlieb's poems and pieces of flash fiction have this kind of effect. Her work has the power to dismantle a personal reality and then put it back together again. I know this sounds a bit like military training, but in Kissing Dead Girls, it’s art.

Kissing Dead Girls is exactly what it implies in the title, stories and poems about elaborate love affairs with dead girls, local girls, family girls and women who, over the years have become icons (Marilyn Monroe and Frida Kahlo, to name a few). She also fabricates relationships with girls who have been shunned by society and then mythologized, such as Lizzie Borden, the New England spinster who killed her parents.

Daphne Gottlieb doesn't bring these girls back to life, nor does she travel back in time to when they were alive. Rather, she focuses on loving them in their death. And this is where the magic happens.

Her poems are strongest when she is evoking that liminal space between death and life, love and sex, and sometimes beauty and horror. She does this flawlessly in “Everything She Asks of Me,” which starts with the line, “So, I’m dating Marilyn Monroe.” Her casual tone coupled with the absurdity of the idea creates a kind of dissonance in the mind of the reader that manifests in a suspension of disbelief. What I am really trying to say is simply that I will go where Daphne wants me to go. The poem then continues in this absurdist vein as Marilyn goes onto ask odd, unanswerable questions such as, “Are you only beautiful if someone else thinks you are?” The questions are somewhat cliché, particularly coming from Marilyn Monroe, who was thought of as a tortured soul who believed her only value was in her head of blonde locks and her luscious curves. Here, Daphne walks close to that line of cliché, but doesn’t quite cross it. Her saving grace seems to be self-awareness and a healthy dose of quirk. For example, when she writes, “Do these sheets make me look fat?” the absurdity of the question forces us to look at the complexities of body dysmorphia without having to conjure the usual images of bathing suits and prom dresses.

The only issue I have with Kissing Dead Girls is Gottlieb’s sometimes too-neat, icing-on-the-top last lines. More often than not, it seems her poems, which tend to be quite moribund and dark, end in a kiss. Of course this makes sense on some level because it is the title of the collection, but it feels almost too easy and too clean. She exposes all this mess, blood and guts, truly profound feelings of loss and expectation—and when it all ends in a kiss, I’m left feeling a bit cheated. Maybe she is employing some kind of literary irony I can’t quite read, but her work would be more effective if she did this about 50 percent less. It is always nice when things end with a kiss and a hug, but it just doesn't seem all that realistic. But then again, it isn't all that realistic to be kissing dead girls to begin with.

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