Anomalous Press / 77 pages / ISBN 978-1-939781-36-9
Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
If the 1990s in America cannot be reduced to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and plaid shirts, it's a near thing. Pop culture was coming to the end of its capacity to be monolithic - the internet so close, the fracture of our common interests near enough to buzz in our ears like a dial-up modem. Anyone who was alive in the 1990s will remember those years differently, but unlike kids who grew up in the 2000s, the 2010s, any decade after, this generation will remember many of the same things.
Come as You Are, a slim anthology of writings about the 1990s, proves this point beautifully. Mostly poems, with a handful of short prose writings, the anthology includes forty-two writers, many emerging and a few established, interpreting the limited spectrum of pop culture they confronted during their own private decade. A few pieces are about Kurt, one is lovingly about Courtney, but most of the rest are about other things: Mia Zapata, Tetris, a Michael Jordan poster, Twin Peaks, Barney, Oprah, the quality of love on syndicated WB soaps. Missy Elliot. Ghost World. In Living Color. Lilith Fair. All these markers of 1990s culture that those who weren't there have shunted aside in favor of an alienation anthem and a single item of clothing.
Editor E. Kristin Anderson has wisely chosen a variety of subjects for this tribute to the 1990s. She has also assembled the collection with an eye to variety in style. Some of the poems are found collages of lines from Seinfeld or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while others expertly pepper phrases from horror movies, advertisements, and other ephemera into their own work. For example, Rosebud Ben-Oni's odd, lovely poem "If Stripe the Younger Sister," which incorporates a strong knowledge of Gremlins, ends:
The matrix the glowing axe of optimus
Divine ultra magnus with broken
Static on the television who's who they ask
When we've taken who's that Carol Ann say it
Poltergeist and Transformers in a blender. But the poems and stories are not just name-dropping to no end; some of the work cuts deep. Sarah Lilius's poem about Thelma & Louise compares the outcome of Thelma's rape to her own assault, and Sheila Squillante's five-year, five-song "Mixtape for a Too-Young Marriage" passes emotionally through her entire relationship in only a few pages.
White culture was not the only culture in the 1990s, a crucial point to which Anderson is sensitive. The opening poem is Allison Joseph's "In Living Color":
I quit following the Wayans
after one too many scary movies,
White Chicks included.
But I can still bust out fly girl
moves when needed,
will still lean out the window,
tell you I aint one to gossip,
doing what I want to do in color,
bringing every shade to the stage.
Danez Smith's weird, funny "23 positions in a One-Night Stand" surreally blends Prince, literature, food, and body, while Tara Betts's "Missing TLC" reminded me that Salt-N-Pepa was not the only feminist hip-hop of the era. With an aching, angry poem, Jasmine An scorches Disney's whitewashing in Aladdin:
When she was born, she had a white woman
in her throat. Linda Larkin auditioned for the part,
and won. Her sultry tones, light laugh, woven
into each word dropped by the brown mouthpart.
A passage in the Norwegian novel Encircling 2 makes the point that not everybody's 80s were Lacoste shirts, Nintendo, and Wham!. That "candy-colored version of the 1980s" was only for people with money. I'm here to tell you, not everyone who grew up in the 90s was into Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers, either. Suitably, there are some poems here about goth and punk movements, a beautiful tribute to the solidarity of Lilith Fair, and a fascinating poem by Tanis MacDonald that begins in a library. Kristin Figgins chooses The Legend of Zelda as her subject:
Hey, listen: Talk in bubbles, and we can read each other.
Each of these poems and stories feels like work the author has been wanting for years to get on the page. Each one chooses an aspect of 1990s culture to draw out what she or he has to say, and the marriage of this topic to the art it inspires is a beautiful one. Come As You Are is a superb meditation on the formative decade for Millennials, an expertly multivocal collection of our most open secrets.
Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, Brevity, the Offing, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator (fictator.blogspot.com).