Blood Medals, Claudia Cortese Where did your shame begin.

Blood Medals, Claudia Cortese
Thrush Press, 2015
Available on the Thrush Press website.

It’s no secret that adolescence is a tumultuous time in a young woman’s life, fraught with conflict, punctuated with daydreams of escaping the confines of an existence that’s at turns overwhelming and insufferably dull. In the center of this time of transition, Claudia Cortese gives us our heroine Lucy, who lives as much in an imaginary mindscape as she does in a pedestrian teenaged life, all lunchboxes and locker rooms and catty peers. A girl in transition, Lucy’s world is defined by movement and the feeling of being stuck-between. While many authors use this subject matter to explore the difficulty of fitting in with a peer group, Cortese deftly writes Lucy into the unseemly, shadowy, oft-repressed moments of adolescence: the grotesque, the perverse, the contrary. Lucy flies in the face of her normalized peers in order to cement her identity formation.

The Lucy poems come out of the gate swinging, beginning with “Lucy lives in her gauze house,”. With the opening line “a little terrycloth tumor,” we are immediately thrust into Lucy’s adolescence, her rich alternate universe where her eerie strangeness exists in stark contrast to the conventional norms of school-aged girls, their postures and preening. Lucy’s world is one that would make Kathy Acker proud – full of sickness, decay, and filial love (“Lucy loves her sister more than her Cyndi Lauper tshirt.”) Even her language and responses seem Acker-esque: Lucy’s reaction to the teenaged imperative to normalize is to move even farther into her unabashed weirdness: “Lucy would say, I love my gauze house more than my mother”.

Cortese presents Lucy’s small-town life in all its essential sameness to enhance the sense that Lucy could be any of us. No matter the location, every town has the sense of something unseemly lurking just beneath the surface. Everywhere, always, “the molestors file in” to the local park at nightfall. Indeed, trauma, molestation, and their subsequent moments of dissociation seem to factor prominently into Lucy’s development, as in “Lucy Wraps Salmon”:

In her sleep, a man binds her wrists and tulip trees unpucker their leaves in the wind.

Whether or not this is the reason for “the hurt that curdles in her throat,” is unclear, but her wish for a defensive scream seems telling. See “Lucy tells the boy to suck”:

Lucy demands Santa stitch her a skin of bees, that her screams be not sound but solid: a stinger that stings and stings.

The poem cleverly inverts Lucy’s own sexual exploration, cruelty, and manipulation as it progresses – Lucy as tormentor winds up as Lucy the helpless child asking Santa for a source of power. These turns are not uncommon in Blood Medals, as Cortese inventively experiments with diction and imagery.

For instance, in “Lucy’s world smells like”, Cortese starts the poem in the manner of the Language poets, focusing on sound in a layering of assonance and half-rhyme: “Tongue-soot, the root / chalk of rot,”, and then moves into pointed imagery:

Cleveland. Lucy wishes for wisteria and walnut leaf––powdered babies lined up like calendar days: wishes for a star, a clover, air without seeds,

She then goes on to draw the reader out of Lucy’s escapist fantasy by hinting at an experience of the uncanny, one that lies beyond articulation. As she does so, she moves into precise language that distinctly evokes Lucy’s teenaged world, both pedestrian and unique, specific and pointed like the memory of adolescence itself:

if I say coke’s post-drip bitters, I’ll get close. Also––high school showers, their pubic mist the first spritz of Nasonex steroid’s chemical singe––

Each turn serves to make Lucy and her world more real – indeed, the beauty of Blood Medals is that Lucy shines as a character the reader could have been or could have known – a peculiar girl with an odd inner life and a vulnerable heart. As a reader, I found myself rooting for Lucy to stay unabashedly weird, to never quite fit in. Her world, in its Acker-esque violence and perversity, is far more interesting – and more sinister – than than the one I grew up in.

Emily Pinkerton is a San Francisco-based poet and troublemaker. You can find her on Twitter as @neongolden or at Her favorite color is fog.