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