The two sonnet series presented here, “The Werewolf of Green Knolls” and “The Bent Adventures of India Rubber Man,” come from a manuscript titled Pulp Sonnets, which is based upon classic pulp fiction, B-movies, and Gothic fiction, in the genres of haunted house, monster tales, superhero, sword and sorcery, alien invasion, space opera, crime fiction, and Cold War spy fiction. The great thing about such tales is that they are unrepentant fun, and I’ve tried to make my sonnet sequences fun as well. However, the truth is that I’m not writing my sonnets for Weird Tales or Amazing Stories, and part of my interest is in using the narrative tropes and structures of the pulps while at the same time turning the mirror of mimesis back onto the act of storytelling and questioning those norms. This is particularly true in terms of gender in these genres where the D.I.D. (damsel in distress) and the femme fatale remain the central archetypes. “
The Werewolf of Green Knolls” was inspired in part by the wild, violent sexuality of Peter S. Beagle’s “Lila the Werewolf” and partly by psychological case studies of people who thought they were possessed by a demon who had turned them into werewolves and so began to blaspheme, to become violently hypersexual, to grow hair and fingernails wildly, and to sleep in graveyards. I was interested in the internalization of a social fear of female sexuality that would make a woman need to imagine she was demon-possessed in order to be able to express her sexuality. In “The Werewolf of Green Knolls,” the protagonist is such a beaten-down woman at the opening of the sequence, though things change radically once the spirit of the wolf enters her.
“The Bent Adventures of India Rubber Man” was inspired partly by the cartoon superheroes Plastic Man and Mister Fantastic (from the Fantastic Four), both of whom have the ability to transform themselves wildly, with rubber-like skin and bones. As I dug into the topic, I discovered that there were real-life equivalents to Plastic Man in the India Rubber Men of traveling circuses and freak shows, who had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disease that allowed them to contort and stretch in unusual ways. I became interested in the psychological aspect of such malleability, and imagined my India Rubber Man as a man who grew up being savagely beaten by his father, turning him into person who would contort himself psychologically in order to avoid all conflict and to become whatever others wanted him to be. His girlfriend, Miss Elastic, is a version of him who is in even worse shape: a blow up doll from a sex store in San Francisco who is somewhat alive. Even more than India Rubber Man, she stretches and twists to become what people want her to be, to be their living fantasy, to fulfill their mental scripts, all of which keeps her a doll instead of a living woman with subjectivity and intention. Thus, she remains just a bag of air formed into the shape of a gender fantasy, anorexically unable to feed herself, to speak for herself, or even to really participate in the stretchy sex she has with India Rubber Man.
The Werewolf of Green Knolls
The frat boys playing pool yell “Hose her! Hose her!”
when Dan and I walk in the bar, and Daniel
just grins and takes a bow while I, brownnoser
that I am, toady, doormat, flunkey, spaniel,
duck my head low. “What yours, sweetheart?” the bar-
man asks, but Danny cuts me off, “Get her
a Miller Lite.” The bar-man smiles a far-
off, sad, I’ve-seen-this-one-before smile. Cur,
tail-wagger, mongrel, pooch, I tremble out
a “Thanks,” and take the beer. Here in Green Knoll
you take what man you find, or masturbate
at home. Tonight he comes then leaves without
a kiss. I hate what I’ve become: his hole,
a pussy, jellyfish, invertebrate.
Across the windshield, rain was diamond-strung
in streetlit strands as Danny’s hands invest-
igated how the cup held to the breast.
Out in the wet, a wolf-like stray with hung-
er on her narrow features howled. I clung
to Dan, who laughed. But I saw her possessed
red eyes and whined, “Oh, Dan.” “Give it a rest,”
he growled and ripped my skirt. He had begun
and wouldn’t stop until he had me spread.
He held me down and from his teeth a thread
of drool spun down and clung to me like dew.
Danny was tugging wildly at his fly
but I was done. “Get off!” I snarled, “I’m dry,”
and glared until he sullenly withdrew.
3. Little Piggy
I told Detective Abernathy-Todd
about the wolf, then couldn’t help but weep
for Danny with his ripped-out throat. The creep
was my boyfriend, after all. The odd
thing was the way they found us: Danny, his
eyeballs wide and throat a gash, and me,
covered with blood, out cold, my clothes torn free,
but both doors locked. So try to answer this:
how did the wolf get in? And how’d she close
the door behind? The wolf got in, somehow,
big bad she-wolf. It makes me want to howl
in lunacy, to change my life like clothes,
strange towns, new man. Come in, by my chin-chin.
Am I deranged to welcome the wolf in?
4. That Time of Month
The problem is I find it hard to switch
back to a woman after the full moon
chips off a piece, blood hunger a typhoon
of whirling teeth inside my narrow bitch
skull as I skulk the narrow alleyways
and spread my dangerous loins for happy boy-
dogs. While they snap and nip, I burn like Troy,
like Alexandria, my red eyes blaze
like Tokyo, Nagasaki, burn like silver
moonlight, white fire, burn like their hot red cocks,
their hot wet blood on my wild tongue. Who stalks
me now? Another dog. His haunches shiver.
He smells the blood, the sex. His nostrils flare.
He walks toward death in her sleek coat of hair.
5. Wolf’s Best Friend
My new boyfriend dislikes the long dark hair
stuck to my sweaty rump. “What a buzz-kill,”
he grumbles, flopping out. He sulks, but still
he drops his eyes when I give him the stare.
He says at night my eyes are red and feral
and that I grind my teeth and snap the air
as nightmares thrash my human limbs. I care
for him in my own way. “You hear that serial
killer attacked a night watchman last night?”
he says at breakfast as I make the Quaker
Oats. I just grunt. “We have a giver-taker
relationship,” he tells me later, “Right?
You always take. When are you going to give?”
I answer nothing. But I let him live.
“I’m wearing antiperspirant,” he says
peevishly when I snuffle and sniff
at his armpit. I don’t answer, but gaze
at his pale limbs, blood-animated. “If
you want, I’ll take a shower,” Nathan blurts
when I push my nose into his crotch and snort.
I give his rump a nip. “Hey! Don’t, that hurts,”
he whines, but it was just a taste. I sport
with him a while, lick him until I find
he’s hard enough. He moans and moons at me
until I let him take me from behind.
After I come, I growl and then push free.
I bite his lip when Nathan tries to kiss.
He sighs, “Oh, well.” I go to take a piss.
7. Rabbit’s Revenge
Animalistic sex, just like that song,
I want to fuck you like an animal,
I want to feel you from the inside---call
it what you may (perverted, twisted, wrong),
but it’s addictive. Sex became a feast
and I her meat that she would sit and eat.
Her tongue, my god! And just that hint of teeth.
And how she looked at me, a famished beast.
But things got wild. Lunatic. She’d prowl bars
for other men. My friends would edge away
from my strange hickeys, bandages, bright scars.
She’ll get help now. It’s not like she’s been jailed,
no cattle prods, steel bars, slop on a tray.
Really, I feel like I’m the one who failed.
The Bent Adventures of India Rubber Man
1. India Rubber Man’s Credo
The softest creature in the world is hard
to capture, formless, slipping off, not flaccid,
just supple. Nothing can destroy me. Acid,
maybe, that’s true (but plastic will retard
that stuff). We’re soft and weak at birth, we sag
and flex through life, then like a limber tree
die rigid. I’m no stiff. Longevity
comes when we give in like a punching bag.
Passive aggressive? Sure. But it seems drastic
to blast your deathray, jab a fluid ounce
of poison in the neck. I like to trounce
my enemies in ways that are…gymnastic.
Who wants to give the villains satisfaction?
I’ve learned the art of acting without action.
2. The Origin of India Rubber Man
At home in Lotz beneath my father’s fists
when after vodka came the chaser, rage,
I learned to twist away, reverse my wrists,
to turn to squirming rubber on the stage,
contortionist or freak. I found a hard
lover to love (with skin like shale, a heart
of labyrinthine quartz, a carved beaut, part-
statue, part queen) and deliquesced like lard
each time she slapped me with her granite tongue.
We made a pair, like bell and clapper, punch
and bruise, until she left. Now, over lunch,
my friend explains exactly what is wrong
with me. I nod (of course I do—I’m plastic).
Tonight I have a date with Miss Elastic.
3. India Rubber Man at the Temple of Sin Adult Novelty Store (the Origin of Miss Elastic)
She's just a bag of skin puffed full of air
but she's my bag of skin. I bag her in
the Red Light District, San Francisco, where
the striptease shows and bookstores sell hot sin
and vibrators and magazines and toys,
what you'd call special interest. That’s when I
notice the woman browsing with the boys
who glance up from their mags to catch an eye-
ful of a real, a breathing woman. They
would like to swipe their Visa cards between
her breasts. They're desperate, I guess. Me, too. I pay
the guy, walk out and dodge a limousine
of screaming drunks, stare down a staring teen.
At home I kneel between her legs and pray.
4. The Anthem of Miss Elastic
"Hey Doll," the shopboy says, "and how are you
today?" "I feel a bit inanimate,"
I say, and spread my rubber lips. How to
react? Am I a doll? Did you create
me in the image of your fantasy?
Must I keep stretching till I fill the hole
inside your brain? Or sing, "Say can you see
my peaches are just peel?” I have no pole
to prop me up, no flag to pledge allegiance
to, just pursuit of happiness. I buy
my gum to chew on, walk away and feel
across my ass and breasts the shopboy's glance.
Once home you lay me on the bed. And I
let you: I'm patriotic, almost real.
5. Miss Elastic Rescues India Rubber Man from Evil X-Girlfriend
She’s too much for my rubber heart.
She is the knife that left the wound.
Yet when she left I couldn’t start
my life because out of the ground
she rose again on zombie feet,
a strange, unholy thing, drained white
and drumming out a zombie beat
while stumbling hungry through the night.
She ate my brain, till you became
my shotgun shell, my holy water
melting away the past, the pain.
But then the movie ended. Daughter
of factories, open your lap.
Let's have some zombie sex, then nap.
6. India Rubber Man and the Fear and Trembling and Sickness Unto Death
In the beginning was the word
and the word was with God, and God
was just a word. How's that for good
old-fashioned cynicism? Heard
the one about the rubber man
who fell in love? It's a good joke.
His lover was a doll some man
designed, with holes. She never spoke,
she never moved, she let him do
just what he willed, the perfect mate.
She never won at Scrabble, threw
fits and walked out, but did deflate.
Where's God to breathe his word in you
to puff you up? Is God dead, too?
7. India Rubber Man’s Buddhist Christmas
I prop you up just like the doll
you are, there by the potted plant,
and string the tinsel on the wall.
The faded winter light comes slant
through the three-paneled Japanese
screen, lighting the Madonna statue.
The Buddha hangs left of the wreath
between the paper lanterns tattooed
with Chinese characters. His female
breasts and pregnant belly are drawn
in ink. Three guests, plus me, the host,
to make a party. God sends email
to those who pray, but I won’t fawn
(except on you, my holy ghost).
8. India Rubber Man and the Anorexic Doll
I want to see your red mouth eat. Just take
one bite, a pretzel or an onion ring.
Please eat. I know the fruit is fake,
but eat. You didn't touch a thing.
Please try the steak I carved.
I'll even clean your chin.
You must be starved.
You look too thin.
You need to be pumped up,
need someone who can give
the love you feel you don't deserve,
someone to pour into your cup
some pinot noir. Please eat. Please come alive.
I made this meal for you. Please, let me serve.
9. India Rubber Man and Miss Elastic in the Morning
And in the morning, watching light refract
and scatter yellow photons on the bed,
I thought back to the night before, the act
I did in your vagina painted red,
I saw your body floating on the covers
upon a pool of light, about to climb
into the air, the way I guess that lovers
must feel. I asked you then, "Will you be mine?"
but nothing came out of your open lips
except perhaps a subtle hiss. I held
your clumsy hand in mine, caressed your hips
and breasts, and once again I tried to meld
with you, to be with you in this strange loving.
And afterwards, you floated there, unmoving.
10. India Rubber Man and the Bath
Last night was great. I felt elated
each time I bounced a kiss off you.
This morning, though, you look deflated,
your flat face watching while I do
my hair. I call you "sweet dohicky,"
"dollface," pet names I have for you,
but you just sag. I wash the sticky
juice from your chin, or try to do
so, but when I feel your face give
beneath the sponge, I carry you
and bathe you in the tub. To live
you have to wash. This filth won't do.
It isn't dirty to love you,
and though we cannot wed, I do.
Tony Barnstone is The Albert Upton Professor of English Language and Literature at Whittier College and has a Masters in English and Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley. His books of poetry include Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, winner of the John Ciardi Prize in Poetry (BKMK Press),The Golem of Los Angeles (Red Hen Press, 2008), which won the Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry, Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005) and Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone (University Press of Florida, 1998), in addition to a chapbook of poems titled Naked Magic (Main Street Rag). He is also a distinguished translator of Chinese poetry and literary prose and an editor of literary textbooks. His books in these areas include Chinese Erotic Poetry (Everyman, 2007); The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor, 2005); Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry (Wesleyan, 1993); Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei (University Press of New England, 1991); The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Shambhala, 1996); and the textbooks Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin America, Literatures of Asia, and Literatures of the Middle East (all from Prentice Hall Publishers). Among his awards are the Grand Prize of the Strokestown International Poetry Festival and a Pushcart Prize in Poetry, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. Born in Middletown, Connecticut, and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, Barnstone has lived in Greece, Spain, Kenya and China.