A cup of fine tea: Kristine Ong Muslim’s “Preface to a Pornographer’s Dirty Book”

Kristine Ong Muslim’s “Preface to a Pornographer’s Dirty Book” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #9 of Cha)

-This post is co-written by Tammy Ho and Jeff Zroback.

Kristine Ong Muslim chooses an unusual topic for her poem “Preface to a Pornographer’s Dirty Book”. The poem is exactly what the title promises, although one cannot imagine that an actual pornographer would include such a revealing piece at the beginning of a published ‘Dirty Book’. For those seeking to escape into the fantasy of pornography, such a preface would be likely to turn them off.

The piece begins with the persona’s (presumably the pornographer’s) cynical view of love as merely ‘foreplay waiting to happen’ (L1). To put it bluntly, then, love is little more than the opportunity for consummation or at least this is the view that he seeks to put forward in his work. Many readers we think are likely to assume the pornographer is a man and indeed, the use of ‘wives’ and ‘daughters’ later in the poem suggests that he is. However, imagining the persona as a woman is a nice thought experiment and gives the work a different twist.1 For example, which gender you choose may affect how you read the following lines: ‘and girls, girls are nothing but paper / and twigs and filthy river water / under a woman’s skin’ (L2-L3).2 These could be the thoughts of a misogynistic man or those of a self-loathing woman who makes a career exploiting her own gender. They could of course also be simply the cynicisms of an opportunist. However you read the lines, Muslim’s writing here is effective. She sees through the eyes of the pornographer, who reduces the girls to things, imagining their flesh as ‘paper’, their bones as ‘twigs’, and most disturbingly, their blood (and other body fluids) as ‘filthy river water’.

As the poem advances, the pornographer begins to describe the process of capturing sex. In the photo shoot, he lets the subjects ‘smolder before me like / golden skies from forgotten afternoons’ (L5-L6). The cynicism of the opening lines slips into the fantasy required for pornography. The phrase ‘golden skies from forgotten afternoons’ gets to the heart of this matter, suggesting as it does a space between fantasy and memory, a time which the consumer can imagine having experienced without actually having done so. Pornography works best if you can realistically imagine yourself in the situation but know you never have to.

But the pornographer hints at the fact that his craft is not only an illusion but a deception: ‘First, I do no harm. / I tell viewers their favourite side of the story. I expose / mouths filled with the whimpering / of dead gods’ (L7-L9). In these lines, Muslim successfully dissects the truth: that the viewers of pornography see what they want, while ignoring the dirty secrets of the business. They focus on ‘their / favourite side of the story’, both the fantasy of the situation and the desirable portions of the portrayed bodies. Yet, if the viewers looked closely, they may see that the girls’ whimpering mouths not only speak of sex but also of their dead gods, in other words, their loss of innocence.

The final lines continue this exploration of the relationship between the production and consumption of smut, extending it to the personal lives of its readers. There is a nice double meaning in ‘I render spines curved / in half-light’ (L10-L11). The pornographer could both be talking about manipulating the bodies of his subjects but also the twisted books themselves, produced in the ‘half-light’ of morally dubious circumstances. The moral implications come to a head in these lines: ‘mirrors repeating / what can otherwise be forgotten / in the bedrooms we only see in our minds / when our wives and our daughters are sleeping’ (L11-L14). The pornographer uses the mirrors to heighten the sexual acts being portrayed. However, within the poem, we also realise that the mirrors break the fantasy by reflecting back on the viewers. In their reflections, they are implicated in the process and reminded that the girls that they see in the bedrooms of their minds are not unlike their wives and daughters, that they are made of flesh and blood too.

1 There is a female pornographer in Sarah Waters’s neo-Victorian novel Fingersmith (2002). Also see “Why are many pornographic novels written as if by a woman?”.
2 girl, n.6: A prostitute.” (OED) e.g. 1772 BOSWELL: I picked up a girl in the Strand; went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour.

René Magritte. “Dangerous Liaisons”. 1926. Oil on canvas. 72 x 64 cm. Private collection.

Kristine Ong Muslim’s  [website] work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications worldwide, including Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal, Beeswax Magazine, Boxcar Poetry Review, Fifth Wednesday, GlassFire Magazine, Grasslimb, Iodine Poetry Journal, Narrative Magazine, Ottawa Arts Review, Pank, Quay, Riddle Fence and The Pedestal Magazine. She has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize and twice for the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Rhysling Award. Her book A Roomful of Machines was reviewed in Issue #13 of Cha


3 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Kristine Ong Muslim’s “Preface to a Pornographer’s Dirty Book””

  1. yamabuki Says:

    “Girls are nothing but paper”
    What a horrific image of girls as objects
    Yet we see this all the time in our lives
    In movies, television, and the Internet
    We paint ourselves in shadow and light

    Pornography seems the objectification of Sexuality
    We are taught this objectivity from an early age
    We are taught to objectify nature as children
    This is what schools and language teach us
    This is the basis of scientific analysis

    We learn the process of objectifying almost from birth
    Language objectifies the natural world
    Science formalizes this process into a kind of religion
    Where subjectivity is a kind of blasphemy
    And the soul is banished to non-existence

    But what of the soul that lives all around us
    Psyche continues as the soul of humanity
    In modernity we seek to analyze the soul
    To find a science of the objective components
    Even as we deny the soul’s existence

    What we have done is repress into the unconscious
    That which we fear and hate in ourselves
    This is the hell realm where we send our devils
    But the problematic devils and demons don’t disappear
    They are still all around us hiding in the shadows

    What then is the pornographer’s art
    Though not all pornography is art
    Still we must remember what art is
    Art shows us what we would not know or see
    And often times breaks past the censor’s taboos

    Art that shows us what we already know
    No matter how beautifully crafted
    Mostly seems banal and insipid
    But show us our demonic creations
    And we come alive in fearful horror

    We condemn pornography with our right hand
    And bring it back as spectacle with our left.
    For we are creatures of light and dark
    And the more we repress our devils and demons
    The more they return from the shadows of night

    april 2011

  2. Bob Bradshaw Says:

    Tammy, you do a great job here with your analysis. It’s a fine poem, by a poet who never disappoints. I like the way the poem diverges suddenly from ‘twigs and filthy river water’ to:

    I let them smolder before me like
    golden skies from forgotten afternoons.

    This double vision of the narrator is fascinating. The sudden change also tells us something about how easily the speaker slips back and forth across these two borders. It also speaks to the confidence of the poet, who doesn’t feel a need to ‘bridge’ these moments.

    Thanks again for both the poem and your discussion of it…best

  3. Kristine Ong Muslim Says:

    Thank you, Jeff and Tammy. You’ve raised fine points regarding my work. Especially this one: “The pornographer uses the mirrors to heighten the sexual acts being portrayed.”

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