What are the constructs we’re born into, and how do we conform to or evade them? How does being a woman today dictate the way we move through the world, as we’re taught from an early age how to be: to always be smiling, to have thigh gap, to be apologetic, to comply with conventional beauty standards, to perform. It is from this performance that Sarah Jean Grimm extracts the bulk of her Metatron Prize-winning poetry collection Soft Focus (Metatron), a beautiful, lyrical reminder of the all-too-familiar constraints of womanhood.
From the start, Grimm gets to the unfortunate truth that women are ushered from birth into the bleak reality of a culture enveloped by the male gaze. As “Menarche,” her opening poem, suggests, we are wild and carefree until the moment our bodies betray us, signaling to others the passage into this realm in which we are objects, playthings, bodies to be preyed upon and judged.
Is it beauty when it baffles you?
With the right filter I am half pretty
But mostly very ugly for my habitat
Rank me on a supersmooth bell curve
Numbers evade me so give me images
In “Stray Beast,” Grimm shows us a woman who wrestles with internalized misogyny “After I’ve performed me.” The speaker, rather appropriately, refers to her insecurities as contaminants, acknowledging that despite her awareness of the unrealistic expectations placed on women’s physical appearance, she nonetheless is a participant, albeit calculating. She makes a pact with herself “to become so garish and well-adorned as to be confused for beauty,” and in doing so inhabits that conflicted space between adhering to and subverting the male gaze.
Grimm expertly interrogates this conflict throughout the collection – of intermittent rebelling and bending to societal expectations and the resulting anger and frustration this drums up internally.
The female gaze is all about me
Looking at you
Looking at me
Which is to say
It’s like the male gaze but more aware of what it’s doing
In that awareness lies all the self-criticism, the decisions to skip meals and to beat oneself up if one’s thighs happen to touch. It’s a slippery slope – one that Grimm seems to understand deeply and is ultimately exhausted by. This fatigue particularly becomes apparent in “Shapewear,” in which the speaker bemoans, “And how are our bodies not / The most boring thing about us / By now.”
In Soft Focus, Grimm presents the reader with an offering – an intricately woven, keenly versed exploration of femininity, internet culture, the beauty industry, and body politics. It speaks of birth and rebirth from its opening pages through to the very end, and in its vivid language and charm (including a particularly clever two-line poem midway through) is still a must-read of this year.
(Metatron, Poetry, Paperback, March 2017)
LESLEY LEROUX is a writer, editor and artist based in Canada’s capital (originally from Newfoundland). She graduated with a degree in journalism from Carleton University. Her fiction, nonfiction and photography have been published both in print and online, and she has occasionally dabbled in radio and television. She is a feminist, bibliophile and yogi who can be found tweeting about any of the above @LesleyLeRoux.