Rochelle Hurt was featured at New Jersey’s Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival this year for good reason. Her compelling compilation, The J Girls: A Reality Show, is a quirky and witty commentary on growing up female in the 90’s. The collection is part play, part poetry and all punch as Hurt uses linguistic nuance to traverse the tug-of-war over feminine sexuality.
The book begins with a cast list and continues with different sections filled with monologues from each of the J Girls (a group of young women each with a J name) along with sporadic poems from parents and anonymous women. Each poem is prefaced by a scene heading and description that denotes where the piece takes place as well as what the speaker is doing. These details enrich the experience of each poem without being necessary to understand it. Locations run the gamut from mall to church, school bathroom to skating rink, demolition derby to bedroom. Over the course of the text, each girl’s voice is defined through their focus and style but I found myself turning back to the cast list as I became more familiar with the cast.
This collection captures a near-whimsical tone while digging into the nightmare territories of assault, ownership of female bodies, physical appearance and sexual shame. Jennifer, paired with Catholic imagery and prayer, has a number of pieces marked as “shame soap” while Jocelyn & Joelle duck and weave around their potentially queerness. Jocelyn turns iconic teen items including Wet & Wild nail polish, Bath & Body Works body sprays and Lipsmacker balms into sexual explorations and commentary. Upspeak, wife beater tank-tops, glitter and ponytails each have cameos that enrich the 90’s nostalgia.
Rochelle Hurt’s skill only begins with the organization and approach to the collection; it continues through her auditory and linguistic techniques. Hurt employs assonance, sibilance and consonance along with artful rhyme turns up the volume in her words. “Silence is Golden” sings with these methods while also shattering proverbs shared by female adults in the girls’ lives. One character invents neologisms like “my vacuum seal” and “sigh huffer” that dance between female anatomy and religion in captivating lists. My favorite piece is “The BIrth of Anger at the Roller Skating Rink” which details Joelle’s internal reactions to rumors that shine on her like a spotlight. As the poem progresses, it shifts from external gaze to internal metaphor as she rages into an angry sun that eclipses the moment.
This work is a necessary read for women groomed in the 90’s: occasionally blinding, often subtly shadowed, tt rings with razor sharp wit and candor with neither reservation nor apology.
The J Girls: A Reality Show is available from Indiana University Press.