Katie Fuller’s debut chapbook Valve is a vivid, unsettling examination of feminist identity, power dynamics, and autonomy in an internet-tinted world. Within this beautifully crafted, hand-stitched collection are 13 powerful pieces designed to make the reader re-evaluate self-identity, using the lens of American pop culture. Reminiscent of Alice Notley’s piercing observations in Margaret & Dusty, Fuller’s speaker navigates her world with a painful sense of awareness in herself and her surroundings, well-suited subject matter for this incisive and demanding poet.
The chapbook opens with the speaker exploring her body in a dual-columned, mirror-like composition:
at the top
This theme of examination threads the collection, this awareness of the body, of naming its parts, of assuming ownership and control over it. In a stunning juxtaposition involving corporeal confusion, the speaker ends the opening poem by incorporating the famous “nipple scene” from the television series Mad Men, where a character removes a body part and presents it as an offering to his stunned female coworker.
This bloody episode underscores the speaker’s search for identity as she faces repeated contradictions in her understanding of, or quest for, self. The second poem is more than a terrifying admission: “I AM DEATHLY AFRAID OF THE INTERNET AND / I AM ON IT ALL THE TIME.” This confession highlights contradictory, sometimes self-destructive, tendencies, and our inability to extricate ourselves from them. And from here, Fuller deftly displays her ability to encapsulate the struggles her readers face as they experience the harrowing circumstances of their lives.
The speaker quotes the beginning paragraph of the Hippocratic Oath, invoking ancient gods in an attempt to humanize and soften the harshness of reality. The archaic names (Apollo, Hygeia, Panacea) hearken to a time when people experienced meaningful communion with powerful, outside sources. Then, in the poem “props,” Fuller generates and expands the narrative arc beyond the mythical to the everyday, writing:
the knife to cut the bread with
the screwdriver to twist the screw in
the knife to leave behind
This duality represents relationships between objects, but, more importantly, discusses elements of power and control certain objects seem destined to wield over others. The speaker then further explores definitions of power, control, and identity, writing, “I wish there was something I could take to make me forget that you will / read this // I say this although I want you to read this [.]”
Similarly, Alice Notley, in an unnamed poem in her 1985 collection Margaret & Dusty, explores the ambiguity of the power paradigm in relationships, writing,
All my life,
since I was ten,
I’ve been waiting
to be in
this hell here
all I’ve ever
still do. (14)
Notley’s work here fits perfectly within Fuller’s understanding of the power dichotomy in human relationships, a theme her speaker proceeds to fully explore through the movie Blue Velvet.
Fuller’s speaker does not provide critique on the film but, rather, the power relationship between female lead Isabella Rossellini and her male counterpart Dennis Hopper, as well as the director David Lynch. She examines this paradigm, stating, “In an interview about her role in the movie Blue Velvet Isabella Rossellini / uses the word ‘embarrassed.’” The speaker focuses on this humiliation not only through her verse, but also employs a critique of the picture as seen on a Siskel & Ebert movie review, in which Roger Ebert bluntly voices his contempt for the film’s abuse of Rossellini.
Further inspection of the theme, however, underscores the speaker’s struggles to maintain self-identity. She writes, “I just took an online quiz called ‘who are you.’ // I am a man in my thirties with a few children.” Later, she defiantly states, “I think that when Dean Stockwell sings ‘In Dreams’ by Roy Orbison during / Blue Velvet it is a mother fucking revelation. // I am not a mother and I am not fucking.” She then elaborates on the theme of self-determination as she further ruminates on the movie:
I get upset when I hear Isabella Rossellini say she thinks Blue Velvet failed
because of her bad acting.
I get upset because I don’t think she was bad. I don’t think she was acting.
I guess she gets to decide.
And immediately afterwards, the speaker ponders the naming conventions of female genitalia, concluding, “I guess I get to decide that. // I guess I get to decide.”
What ultimately makes Valve such an engaging and important collection is its willingness, its ability, to face issues of self-identity and what Margaret Atwood called “Power Politics” on such a personal level. In the final piece, “props II,” the speaker reassesses her understanding of power as originally defined in the earlier poem “props:”
the line of the body draws
the line that is /
the body/the undone body [.]
What emits such poetic authority is the writer’s unwillingness to conclude, to summarize, struggles people have with self-identity, as well as their unequal relationships with power, with the powerful. Valve is insightful enough to understand the conflict is ongoing and will not be solved with a collection of 13 pieces. She openly admits to the ongoing nature of the conflict. Simultaneously, however, Katie Fuller recognizes the inherent value in the battle, the worth of being able to define ourselves outside the power paradigm, outside of its faceless influences, outside anything, anyone, but our amazing and suffering selves.
Notley, A. Margaret & Dusty. St. Paul, MN: Coffee House Press. 1985.
Siskel & Ebert. “Blue Velvet Review.” 1986.
Paul David Adkins lives in New York. His collections La Dona, La Llorona, Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath, and Operational Terms and Graphics are published or forthcoming from Lit Riot Press. He served in the US Army for 21 years, three months, and 18 days.