Hayden's Ferry Review


What is 'The Grotesque' Anyway?

In an effort to more fully explore ‘The Grotesque,’ the theme of our most recent issue, I asked a few of our contributors to give me their thoughts. Here’s what they had to say…
Elizabeth Wade (neé Buckalew)
As a child, my younger brother once dismantled the family VCR, eager to see how it functioned. It’s a common desire, I think—the longing to understand how things fit, what makes them tick, why they work they way they do. It’s a common desire, but it’s not one I share as passionately as other people. Rather, I find myself much more often drawn in the opposite direction, to the aberrant, the broken, the grotesque.
My conception of the grotesque stems from architecture, where the term refers to non-functional statuary. (The forms designed to drain water are gargoyles; the ones without rain spout capabilities are grotesques.) A myriad of other definitions of the grotesque exist, of course, but this one runs closest to my own sensibilities: for me, the grotesque is an aberrant body—one that does something other than what it is intended to do—and that aberration proves startling, often disturbing, and sometimes even beautiful. Or, in Tolstoy’s terms, normal bodies are all alike, but every grotesque body is grotesque in its own way. That difference intrigues me, and it shows up in my writing.
There’s a rich tradition of the grotesque in literature—the works of Flannery O’Connor and Sheri Reynolds come to mind—but it’s not for everyone. Many people find an interest in the grotesque rewarding only to the extent that it reaffirms the normal—it’s okay to study psychopaths if doing so helps us identify future offenders and prevent more crimes; we look at disease to learn how to prevent its dissemination. When I tell people, truthfully, that one of my summer jobs in college involved picking up roadkill on Kentucky backroads, I get one of two reactions. The most common one is disgust, mitigated only slightly when I provide some context for the statement (the farm where I worked was partnering with an equine research lab in trying to trace the transmission of an equine neurological disorder, and we needed samples to see if the hypothesis—that possums were carriers—was right. Using animals that were already dead was more humane than setting traps.) But occasionally, if I’m lucky, I meet a kindred spirit, someone who needs no rational explanation for my peculiar activity. “Wow,” the person will say, “that must have been really interesting,” and I’ll know I’ve found someone who appreciates the grotesque.
Trina Burke
When I try to pin the notion of the grotesque down in definition, things become slippery. Off the top of my head, the grotesque is a vague notion of the bodily, the unpretty, the not-elevated, the not-to-be-discussed—i.e., mostly defined by negation, which seems appropriate. In other terms, the grotesque is that which we do not wish to look at. It is the funhouse mirror version of ourselves, exposing our discomfort with deformity. It’s the nervous laughter that fills the gap between the ideal and that which exposes all the ways in which we are not ideal.
I’ll admit that when the word “grotesque” is invoked, my ears prick up. I am immediately alert. It’s like hearing your name come up in someone else’s conversation and knowing that they are not speaking well of you. Even though you know it’s bad, you still want to hear what they are saying. In a similar way, the grotesque encompasses those freakish, otherly characteristics that make us uncomfortable because we fear their presence in us. And that discomfort is precisely what interests us. It feels dangerous to acknowledge something that you would otherwise wish to avoid. The yuck might rub off, as in the medieval fear that pregnant women who were exposed to disfigurement, freakishness, or deformity would deliver babies who were disfigured, freakish, or deformed.
I guess that nexus of shame and fascination is what I keep coming back to as a writer. Would I be too terrible to say that I want to grab the reader out of bed, tear away the blankets and expose all the handy buffer zones, explanations, and myths we create to comfort ourselves for the flimsy armor that they are? Would it be wrong to admit that I consider it a triumph for some poems when they leave the reader feeling slightly nauseated, slightly guilty?
Molly Brodak
“Grotesque” conjures up the notion of distortion, monstrosity or vulgar absurdity. But look deeper: the source of our repulsion is mis-identified. It doesn’t occur at the moment of attention to a horrifying flaw, but at the recognition of an unmitigated truth as it is. What is grotesque is that which is not distorted or filtered through easy fictions. That horrifying flaw, or that One Forbidden Thing is the exact thing which is meant to be endured or embraced. The troubling experience is really the only experience which activates us as conscious beings.
Our attention, in the creative pieces of this special issue, is drawn through horror–not to it–in order to see what’s on the other side. I’m thinking of Frank Giampietro’s “country folk” who are “making/ chili at the Saturday/ market in a coffin–”. The horror is not in the incongruity of the image or the monstrosity of these strange people, but in its heartbreakingly plain truth: meat in a coffin, that’s us. There’s your source of terror.
Sara Wallace
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon and you’re vaguely sad. You pour yourself a cup of herbal tea and curl up on the loveseat with your favorite well-thumbed book of poetry. Maybe mellow jazz is playing. Maybe you have a cat snuggling up at your feet. You open to a random page and read words about plants and the correct name of plants, roots, leaves, birth, life, death, hope after all, love – and you stare off profoundly into the middle distance with the knowledge that you are a part, an intentional part, of a larger order that makes a kind of sense, once someone with the right words points that out to you…
Any satire is a defense. I’d love to be that type of poet. Not only would my words be loved, but people also wouldn’t shrink from my handshake, as people tend to do when you write about nursing baby mice being fried in an oven.
Obviously, one who writes “on the grotesque” takes what we commonly call a “morbid” look at life – a look that is apparently so devoid of comfort that mere representational art, mere realism, won’t do. Although those mice really did get fried. When we think of “the grotesque,” we tend of think of circus freak shows, David Lynch’s midgets, Charles Simic’s sweethearts stewing their lovers. Yes, these are clichéd images – one core weakness of grotesquery. In other words, one who writes on the grotesque takes a view of life so terrifying and simultaneously hilarious it borders on the absurd. It’s an unreality that is supposed to point out a more profound reality. The grotesque is concerned with what is TRUE more than it is concerned with what is REAL.
However, against the framework of decades of wildly popular and critically acclaimed American realism (I’m not trying to be xenophobic, I can only speak from my own limited cultural heritage) and considering that real life is plenty terrifying and simultaneously hilarious enough, questions are raised: is resorting to absurdity, to the grotesque, taking the easy way out? Or do the exaggerated revelations of the grotesque delight because they allow readers and creators to have momentary power over what terrifies us?