[Content Warning: This review references a poem that contains graphic discussion of sexual coercion, violence, and trauma.]
In Kristin Sanders’ Cuntry (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017), the writer uses the titles of mainstream country music songs to depict an unapologetic dichotomy of female sexuality as displayed in the porn industry vs. the carefully crafted veneer of acceptable female desire. We are all “cuntry” objects. (Cuntry: such a great play on the word country, as in the United States and the music genre, and the slang “cunt.”) Which side of the spectrum do we fall on? The porn star whose sole job is to please and receive and be accessible to the male gaze 24/7 or do we choose to embody the glossed over “cuntry” object outfitted in tight jeans, long hair, a church goer, a daddy’s girl, maybe a tomboy, sexy – but definitely not “sexual?”
Hopefully neither. Both constructs hold no agency in their own sexuality. Sanders’ poems instantly slam the reader into a world of graphic sex acts, honest diatribes, and gritty rage against the patriarchy and plasticization of women in modern-day America. In an internet-saturated world, we can see whatever porn act we want, but it’s all “sterile,” as Sanders comments in one poem. Where are the smells, the pregnancies, the erectile dysfuction? The disease? The pock marks? Sanders’ poems are truthful, traumatizing, and brilliant. Brutal, but heartfelt. Sanders talks about “boobs,” and shaving pubic hair, and drinking too much, and being out alone, and pretending not to watch porn that much but then giving up on that pretending. Sanders’ work dissects all the times girls are alone with boys. Sometimes good things happen; sometimes not. Sometimes there is just confusion. But it’s real.
The form of the book furthers the amazing categories that Sanders magnifies. Each poem is the title of a country song, followed by “Sung by______” with a quote from the song directly under the title. Sanders’ words dismantle an element or lie in the song; some poems use a confessional tone to illustrate the lies of the song, the lies of our culture, the lies propagated from where / how we live. For example, in “Pickup Man Sung By Joe Diffie,” she writes:
There’s just somethin’ women like
About a pickup man
This is my childhood trauma.
I was already that drunk
they slung me like a hammock
the object was picked up…
Sanders makes “pick up” a literal physical picking up of a drunk girl, in a compromised position, in a place of objectified danger. We feel a pit in our guts, the seemingly unavoidable violation on our minds. The men do all of the taking in Cuntry, or try to. Until Sanders steps in and her girl “takes,” too, as in “A Little Too Late Sung by Tanya Tucker”:
When you walked in, I shoulda walked out
But it’s a little too late to do the right thing now
I walked into the gangbang and I was like, Oh shit
I saw the camera and I was like, Oh fuck
but it was too late
I felt his mustache on my leg
I felt their hands on my neck
I felt their dicks in my throat
but it was too late…
Instead of playing along with a cute idea of “regret” from the song, Sanders illustrates an almost parallel universe of regret. (Just walking onto a porn set like it is the most natural thing in the world, and then getting pulled into the action.) The songs present an overly sanitized view of how / what is appropriate for women to act around men and Sanders turns this playacting on its head. Which reality is more real? Which life is more authentic? Which is more sexually honest?
Sanders answers: Sexuality is fluid and complex and interesting. Bodies are confusing but fun. BDSM, group sex, same sex, queer sex, orgasm or no orgasm, bodies with different sexual organs, props or no props, wanting to be objectified or not, it’s all part of the same machine. We want to play, and not with a passive voice, unless that’s part of it.
The “Figures” are also peppered throughout the text. From Figure 2:
The cuntry object has to be a good one – a very good girl. The cuntry object has to be danceable, must be willing to tremble and fake. She is the most fun, an unexpected fill. Pucker and pokeable… The cuntry object has to be dirty, trash(y): lipstick, mud-covered tires, beer bottles, tight jeans, always an open hole…
Whereas the above country object depicts that “good girl” who can flip a switch and be the right amount of trashy, the right amount of openness, Sanders also takes this collection to another level: One of sadness and bafflement, one that again in this #MeToo movement forces us to look at our culture, how “boys will be boys” and girls are questioned and disbelieved.
The poem “The Country Song of Regret” explores the ache of being young and female in this world:
…a friend said You let men do whatever they want to you
this is a country song about
how I let men do whatever they want to me
the bruises lasted more than a week
my left arm with three circles where his teeth hit skin
the colleague whose dick I sucked in my bedroom,
who barely touched my body
who gagged me so my eye makeup ran onto the bedspread
but still I put him in my mouth
all the way, far back as I could
I cried when he left my apartment
this is a country song about
how little I have learned
“Cuntry” is Sanders’ speaker delivering the guts, the skin, the heartbreak, the intimacy into our collective conscious. There is AOL unlimited internet hours, there are Girls Gone Wild tapes, there are photos on iPhones. Despite the sheer ways to watch sex in the privacy of our living rooms, Sanders taps into an immense loneliness of our culture, of our women who are still silenced, who are still “cuntry objects.” We have the right to embrace the ugliness, the complexity, the messiness, the arousal of our woman-ness. It is fair. It is time. Sanders tells us to “redo the parts where your desire was left out.”
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in Midwest and is the author of three full length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016), The Messenger is Already Dead(Stalking Horse Press, March 2017), and We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of nine chapbooks. Her chapbook She Came Out From Under the Bed (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro) recently came out from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work can be seen at or is forthcoming from Prelude, Cleaver, Kestrel, Yalobusha Review, decomp, and Inter/rupture. Visit her website.