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   Jacket 34 — October 2007        link Jacket 34 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Nicole Mauro reviews
Cornstarch Figurine
by Elizabeth Treadwell
128. pp. Dusie. US $13.00 1 4116 7998 9 Cloth

This review is about 5 printed pages long. It is copyright © Nicole Mauro and Jacket magazine 2007.

Tabula rasa


It’s the crinkled bits of unfinished business (‘Removable names... a hidden apology or frame’) (24), the missing swatches (‘how long ago a girl has been/cut out of the advertisement’) (37),
the lost squares of experience (‘we were taught not to be empirical’) (59) that make me think Elizabeth Treadwell likes to show a lot of seam, to reveal the scar and furrow of ‘Doll’ as manufactured by genderist machine. Her response could have been a lyric attack on male idealization of woman, which would also be attack on the flawless women who are the conventional inhabitants of perfection in the abstract, but, instead, Treadwell calmly dismantles this construct, then takes the misfit parts and reassembles them into Cornstarch Figurine, into semblance of a live being.

paragraph 2

We first encounter deconstruction in ‘The Lovers of Petra Sloven.’ Each paragraph begins with  ‘the + subject;’ the repetition of ‘the’ echos ‘Stein-language’ with defiant insistence that words are not linguistic stand-ins for objects, but are, like lamps and light-sockets, concrete objects.  The usual job of ‘the’ is to indicate particulars, to identify one from among others via distinction. Here, Treadwell uses ‘the’ to modify inanimates, and so disqualifies an unnamed female in favor of things. When her image appears, it appears piece-meal, and on the flat breadth of surface; she seems escaped from a fray — maybe from that of narrow definition, maybe from the ‘others’ and their indefectible expectations.


            The doors to her innards were imagined by them in rich and
flapping detail. “Oro!” screamed one. “Neverland!” another. And yet
one more just grunted.
            The curves of her lanes were perceived by them through grin
of bra and panty. Some days a tiger paw, others nude, still others a
classic black. (74).


Thematically, Treadwell fashions passages in which clothing appears as trope, as figurative manifestation of patriarchcal oppression and the stereotypic feminine with Prada-esque eye for peculiar textures mixed with enigmatic lines. The poem ‘Through the Palace Arcade’ collages and montages un- and dis-figured hers and shes, and first-name-onlys like ‘Nell,’ and ‘Clara’ with 20th century media vainglories like ‘Di’ who are more easily identifiable — all of whom could represent the voice of one female character who is disconnecting, or a collection of disparate female voices who are connecting. We alternately hear both her internal monologue, and their external dialogue about an ambiguous sexual encounter so entangled in personal history, re-and dis-appearing family members, and pieces of memory it couldn’t possibly fit into the neat drawer of a stanza. The voices spread; point-of-view grows ‘curvilinear,’ and experience webs:


curled up into a warning book or other device

She lifted the hem of her dress slightly — polkadots stood out — puffy
 — back at 17, waiting on a party — stepmother handed her a Vogue,
and warned against crushing gardenia —

(We all knew the story before it was told, poor girl) (50).


The phrase ‘we all knew’ implicates the reader as an accessory to rumor; whether we intentionally listen, or accidentally eavesdrop, we are both responsible for, and the ‘poor girl’ in the plot. Because both possibilities exist equally (in addition to a few others), Treadwell’s verse challenges us to read flexibly, to think of story as the unfolding of events, and the back-story of story as a series of participatory layers. The poem, in part, is about sex, and one could interpret the above passage as ‘moral parable’ about dancing too closely at an event like a prom or a homecoming where both male and female engage in the ritualistic perforating of the other’s clothing with the dangerous pins of floral accessories (‘warned against crushing gardenia’), or something more subtle and sinister like insinuation (‘warned against crushing gardenia’), with the same result of being the focus of endless speculative talk and hearsay. The line offers different scenarios for the same cause (physical contact, no matter the kind, equals physical and social devastation), yet the ‘warning’ — if meant for the girl whose petals are already ravaged — is lost. This raises an intriguing question: who is Treadwell really warning? The sexually-active- in-a-past-tense pubescent? Or the reader. Who is more passive? More acquiescent?


Any discussion about cause is necessarily one about possibility — what might have happened, and what, as result, has yet to happen. The ‘has yet,’ as future possibility, is one based on present-tense notions — particularly those of desire, which speak more loudly and audibly than those of belief. Want, as a feeling, is urgent — one body wants another, and its mind would like to know why, right now; ‘why’ becomes situational, and addressing it a personal emergency. Rather than resolve or answer, Treadwell’s singular/multiple female narrator/s, mostly in reference to ‘Di’ (still very much alive) question:


the occasional truth

     Letting her humor show– the thousand acts of self-
Immolation — prayer to the patron of the mosaic’d moon —

Non-innocent revival.

Was it that her much older sister had intercoursed with him first, her
husband — outside marriage vows, so it didn’t count — or could
it’ve been merely stemmed roses off the valet — the smallest of kisses?

You’re standing in the Pacific, facing another Pacific.

                                                                          Photo op. Dresses.

Australian Bank Holiday.



Train-set dummies she & your brother were. First feet up. Boxcar
children. Hating to read knocked knees together. Become a figure of
speech (much later). Mummy in a handkerchief. Leaving Daddy at the

Funeral of the man on whom you rely past your husband.

Or Versace.

           The ghost of afternoon city


“Mrs.”: they assume you’re interested in this lump in front of your
name. You keep on going, but not for long, not for long actually, before
you marry.

Design element. (You are one.)  (52).


The late Princess Diana of Wales was a style icon, a gangly doe-eyed lamb who served dually as couture’s muse and the Crown’s sacrificial animal. As one of many females inhabiting Cornstarch Figurine’s sprawling drama, Diana’s image, though not her voice, dominates the thread. Treadwell’s concern, here, is depiction and empathy. It is no secret that women have been reduced to shapes, symbols, and impressions by history’s almost always male figure-makers, which equally includes future kings and fey clothing creators. Treadwell’s inclusion and exclusion of Diana by the many men who duped and deceived her is anguishing. Charles or Versace — which one of them most used her? The implied question is stark. The life of the shy juvenile at a dance (Diana, we assume, in younger years) overlaps that of her sometimes press-coquettish, sometimes press-skittish doppelgänger’s with, as we know, disastrous palimpsestic consequence. Treadwell understands that Diana was tabula rasa, a ‘cornstarch figurine’ onto whom everyday people from her extraordinary life mercilessly put upon and drew. The lives of anonymous women and the late former princesses’ intersect; negatively, we are blank, projected upon, are identified by abbreviated lumps of address, are titles belonging to male surnames; or positively, are anew, starting from scratch to be defined by                         , are entitled, individually, to author and re-imagine our pliable likenesses, ‘wanting to be inside the best of all the sketches...’ (55). According to Treadwell, identity is ‘mutable,’ and the identifiable ‘dummy’ in its place endlessly refutable.


‘Through the Palace Arcade’ is both sumptuous lyric and unfinished garment in which the discarded thought of former pattern is picked off the floor. Rather than tossing the scraps, or patching cut-away back into old fabric, Treadwell liberates the small from the large, the ‘design element’ from clothing, the detached from previous attachment, the excluded from the whole of which it was once included. We see the little things we ordinarily dismiss (‘Australian Bank Holiday,’ and [Fergie reclining in her heart.]) minus the clutter of context, as isolated moments stalled and temporally rarefied. The piece is intentionally frayed — the extraordinary satisfaction in reading Treadwell is that she doesn’t finish the ends, or attempt to resolve, knowing, perhaps, that, in the end, everything, including human attention, dissolves.


Interruption, in the grand scheme of things including scheme, is organic phenomena, an original and unique event that occurs at a given place and time regardless of whatever stimuli, or lack thereof, might have caused it. Lack of continuance, in Treadwell’s work, is accentuated by the  ‘caesura,’ and punctuation. Treadwell, a virtuoso of the mark, underlines for emphasis (curled up into a warning book or other device,), dashes for separation and connectedness ( — polkadots stood out — puffy — back at 17), parentheticals to offset afterthought [(We all knew the story before it was told, poor girl), (Oprah)], and periods to actualize observation [(Design element. (You are one.)]. In ‘Palace’ these punctuated blips and lines are not just marks, but markers that indicate the slantwise position of mute women paradoxically shunned and omitted from the dialogue about which they are subject. Occurring because of, and also without them, the women of these conversations are main topic, the objects of insatiable fodder and demoralizing gossip. For this reason, ‘Palace’ is loud, almost cacophonous, and intensely visual. Diana doesn’t exactly speak, but Treadwell’s objective isn’t to provide forum for the unspoken, but pedestal for the (mis)seen. Arguably, no other 20th century female’s image was, or is, as widespread as Diana’s, nor have so many been, since her death, as invested in the socio-economic and political (not to mention fiscal) gains potentially garnered from the marketing and distribution of her image, and the cottage-industry that has become its maintenance. Treadwell gives us rare glimpse into the unpolished, disenchanted Diana — her awkwardness, her contempt, her forays into ordinary pettiness.


Not all the poems in Cornstarch Figurine are so overarching or ambitious as ‘Palace,’ but every one of them — there are 57 others in the book — are loose, hip, arbitrary, at times, always elliptical, and totally, totally adrenalized. Her writing is its own beam, sometimes walking the edge of the intellectual gang-plank, sometimes working the T of the cat-walk — usually they straddle the between. As I read, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Barthes’ Système de la Mode (The Fashion System). In it, the formidable semiotician discusses the rhetorical challenges of proving that fashion is (as opposed to acting like) its own extra-linguistic system, a system uniquely managed by the users who ‘produce’ (and so control) its language. In the preface, Barthes asks:


‘...can clothing signify without recourse to the speech that describes it, comments upon it, and provides it with signifiers and signifieds abundant enough to constitute a system of meaning?’ [1] (ix.)


I don’t know. Mr. Barthes is dead. What I do know is that if Elizabeth Treadwell’s Cornstarch Figurine had been written before his demise, and were I in the position to recommend it, I would insist he use it to ‘wrest from the meanings’ [2] (133) body from frock, image from seeming.

[1] Barthes, Roland. Système de la Mode (The Fashion System), Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1967.   
[2] Barthes, Roland. Mythologies, The Noonday Press, New York. 1990.   

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