Because Mere Survival is Insufficient: A Review of I Am Not Your Final Girl by Clair C. Holland

Books

I know. I know. You’re supposed to take your time with poetry. You’re supposed to read each line carefully, read it out loud to hear the rhythm, note the line breaks, the enjambment, the patterns. That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s what good readers do. But with Claire C. Holland’s collection, I Am Not Your Final Girl, I was not a good reader. I was an excited reader. I was an anxious reader. I was a reader who couldn’t wait to get to the next line, the next poem, the next final girl. I enjoyed the poems because I am a fan of horror and of poetry in general though I admittedly struggle to understand the latter at times.

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Though I thoroughly enjoyed the collection on a surface, nostalgia, horror fan-girl level, the writer in me, the MFA graduate in me, the cynic in me, wondered about the purpose of these poems. I’ve grown wary of gimmicky art without substance mainly because it’s so pervasive now, and though my gut was telling me that the poems I spent the entire afternoon with weren’t just “art of art’s sake” and that there was something deeper to it, I still wondered.

This made me raise the question: What is the purpose of poetry? If I could answer that and if the collection was doing whatever the answer was, then it wasn’t a gimmick, these poems were fulfilling some deeper purpose. But all the Google-ing in the world couldn’t give me a straight answer. Or at least not an answer I accepted.

The purpose of a poem is to be beautiful

The purpose of a poem is to be wonderful

The purpose of a poem is to exist.

In a Ted Talk by Stephanie Burt, she says, “Now poetry isn’t one thing that serves one purpose any more than music or computer programming serve one purpose.” She goes on to say that the Greek word “poem” just means “a made thing.” That definition, though it was closer to what I was looking for, seems so simple and fails to encompass what poetry can do for readers.

My own definition of poetry is this: poetry is somehow putting into words what normally cannot be put into words. It is giving definition to those deep ungraspable thoughts and emotions that most of us can’t explain, but poets, through genius, luck, exquisite craftsmanship, or pure magic, are able to explicitly say what the rest of us can only feel implicitly.

Bringing it back to Holland’s collection, were the poems in I Am Not Your Final Girl beautiful, wonderful, existing, made things? Were they putting into words what normally couldn’t? For me, the answer to those questions is yes! That and so much more.

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Beyond checking the boxes I mentioned before, I Am Not Your Final Girl accomplishes something that all art (should) aim to do. It’s a sentiment that is touched on in Star Trek and echoed in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven. The role of all art is to take us beyond merely existing but giving us something to live for.

These final girls, so often their stories end at the credits after they have defeated whatever evil has viciously robbed them of their friends, their family, their sense of safety, and often their sanity. They survive their stories most of the time, but mere survival is insufficient. Holland’s poems go beyond these horror heroines final act, delve into their souls, and pull out what it means to survive ultimate horror and to live afterward.

I stumbled on this collection by chance. I was browsing around Amazon looking for a cheap book to buy like I always do when I have a spare ten bucks. Should I get something off one of my lists? Another Stephen Graham Jones book? Then the answer hit me.

Horror poetry!

A friend let me borrow You Can’t Pick Your Genre by Emily O’Neil, a collection based off the Scream movie series a few months ago and I had been fascinated by the concept ever since. These poems weren’t just horror through the lens of poetry like The Raven, they were poems that celebrated horror movies and broke them down into their most vulnerable, and intimate parts. They were poems that delved into the soul of these movies, a part that the vast majority of audiences so often overlook. Beyond that though, these poems were fun to read.

When I saw the cover for Holland’s collection and read that the poems were “speaking through the final girls of horror cinema,” I knew I had to at least check it out.

The collection itself is broken up into four parts: Assault, Possession, Destruction, and Transformation, with each poem title being the name of the final girl in question. I won’t go on about every single poem since my goal in this is just to tell you guys about a pretty dope poetry collection and why you should buy I, not bore you to death with me gushing. Instead, I’ll just talk a bit about my favorite poem in each section and why I think it’s so awesome.

Section One: Assault

Sara

The Descent (2005)

The Descent222

Everyone who knows me knows that The Descent is my favorite horror movie of all time. So when I saw that Sara got her own poem in Holland’s collection, I was ecstatic. What I wasn’t prepared for what just how moved I would be by the poem itself.

If you know the story, then you know that Sara has already lost everything dear to her prior to even entering that cave. She is a woman who is hurting, betrayed, and grieving. She sees the ghost of her daughter in every corner of the cave even when the monsters are on her heels and though it’s a liability, a distraction when she needs to be focused on getting out of this dire situation and away from the creatures that want to eat her flesh, Sara welcomes the visions of Jess.

 

                                                     This is all I ever wanted.

                                                     To be trapped in this place

                                                      with you.

 

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When I tell you that stanza broke me. Because I know that it’s true. Even with all the horror and carnage and blood that was going on, if given a choice to stay there in that dark place with the ghost of her daughter or leave, Sara’s choice would be to share that birthday cake with her daughter surrounded by the bones of her dead friends.

 

Section Two: Possession

Ginger

Ginger Snaps (2000)

Ginger snaps

I was delighted to see that my favorite werewolf movie horror heroine also made the cut with Holland’s “Ginger.”  One of the beautiful things about the movie Ginger Snaps is that it compares female puberty to lycanthropy. It’s not a huge leap when you think about it. There’s tons of hair growth, crazy appetite, and once a month there’s an onslaught of blood and bitchiness. The question should have been how come no one thought if this before?

My favorite quote from the movie sums up the general idea:

“I get this ache and I-I thought it was for sex, but it’s to tear everything to fucking pieces.”

Ginger can’t tell the difference between her sexual desire and her need for blood and carnage. Holland examines this in the poem:

 

                                                      The drive for something that feels

                                                       like desire. Like sex, delicious.

                                                        But it’s so much more. More

                                                        than you ever thought

                                                        to ask for, because you’re a girl and girls don’t

                                                         play at death. We don’t fantasize.

 

                                                          Until we do.

 

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For a long time, there have been these weird and false assumptions about girls and women. That we don’t feel desire the way men do. That we don’t masturbate or watch porn. That we somehow get weak at the sight of blood even though as Ygritt pointed out to Jon Snow “girls see more blood than boys.” There’s also this assumption that we don’t watch horror. That we don’t love the macabre as much as our male counterparts. Well, Ginger, Clair C. Holland, and I can all tell you that’s just not true.

 

Section Three: Destruction

India

(Stoker) 2013

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Stoker is a brilliant film that not enough people have seen. Not only is the story itself amazing (written by Wentworth Miller and loosely based off of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt), but the cinematography is beautiful. Holland chooses to write about a particularly intriguing scene in the movie. A scene that finally establishes who our protagonist, India, is at her core. The poem is extremely short so I won’t give it away, but it’s based on the shower scene. Yes, that shower scene.

India

Section 4: Transformation

Carrie

Carrie (1976)

Carrie

Everyone knows about Carrie and her terrible, horrible, no good, very bad prom. It’s crazy because that movie/book is every girl’s nightmare mixed with every girl’s dream. Excruciating, traumatic humiliation, but oh, the power. Laying waste to those who have wronged you in a cacophony of fire and blood. Oh, just me and Daenerys Targaryen? Okay cool well, it’s just our dreams then.

The side of Carrie that Holland offers us, the side that we don’t get in the movie, the side that most of us don’t even think about, is the side of Carrie that is over it all. Over the shame, over her mom, over the patriarchy, over the Jesus shrine in the basement.

 

                                                               It’s exhausting, all this

                                                               Mary stuff, all this blood and sin

                                                               piled on us without our permission.

                                                               Intuition is treated like a curse,

                                                               because it’s not dense and sturdy

                                                               as a man’s thick fist.

 

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This is a side of Carrie that we don’t get to see but one that I am sure was there under all of the shyness and forced humility. It’s the Carrie I would have liked to be friends with. It’s the Carrie that goes beyond the credits, the Carrie that grabs Sue’s hand from her grave not to scare her but as a joke.

 

 

If the sections I chose to highlight don’t stir anything in you, then maybe we have different tastes, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something in Holland’s collection for you. There definitely is, especially if you are a horror fan, but even if you aren’t, even if you’re only mildly interested in poetry, this collection is worth picking up.

One reservation I had about the poems were that you had to have watched all the movies the heroines were from to “get” them. This isn’t true. There were at least three poems that I had not seen the corresponding movie for and instead of being confused or lost, I found myself looking at the poem more like how I view any other poem. I was interested in the speaker and what she had to say rather than tying her to the prior knowledge I had about her predicament. I was interested in her voice. I was interested in the words she chose and why. I was interested in her strength and whatever form that took.

If you read these poems without the prior knowledge of their correlating movies, you are seeing a side of these final girls that are often pushed aside or overlooked. Through these poems you are seeing identities that go beyond just the last girl standing, you are seeing grieving mothers, bored teenagers, homicidal psychopaths, girls at the peak of puberty, girls who said fuck your plans for my future. These poems go being these heroine’s mere survival and instead show us a broader picture of their lives.

 

You can purchase the collection here or check it out at your local bookstore!

 

 

As always, like, share, subscribe! I answer all comments!

-Jessica

2 thoughts on “Because Mere Survival is Insufficient: A Review of I Am Not Your Final Girl by Clair C. Holland

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