Keen by Lauren Gordon
34pp / $8 / order from Horse Less Press / review by April Michelle Bratten
My mother brought home a large stack of Nancy Drew books from a garage sale when I was about ten years old. From that moment on until around high-school age (okay, maybe a little through high school age, too, I must admit) Nancy Drew was a hero of mine. I admired her intelligence, independence, and fearlessness. As an adult, the series still intrigues me, but I can also see its faults. In many ways, the character of Nancy is depicted as “too perfect.” What could lie beneath the calm and always perfectly put-together Nancy Drew? Lauren Gordon’s Keen digs into the fictionalized underbelly of a fictional character in a clever and unique way.
The poems in Keen (a multi-sided play on the pen name Carolyn Keene, used by a number of authors to ghostwrite the Nancy Drew series) are short and intelligent, fluidly linked to fittingly imitate a mystery novel. Many of the poems leave behind “clues” and foreshadow what ultimately becomes Nancy’s big revelation. In Keen, mystery solving becomes a metaphor, and like any good mystery novel, Keen drives the reader to start sleuthing along with the main character. In this case, however, we are treated with the compelling poems Gordon has written:
Nancy got down on her hands and knees,
took her flashlight from a pocket,
and beamed it.
Try to pull one up. It will stick tightly
to the floor.
Try to cement it together. You will be marooned
on this side of the moat.
Ned, she will say,
beam around my feet, my area –
Have you seen the missing couple?
–from “Chapter 7”
Gordon uses genre words and imagery to immerse the poems into a mystery-like atmosphere: trap door, turret, proof, vanished, magnifying glass, revolving bookcases, narrow escapes, etc. Possibly the most fascinating image used in Keen, however, is that of a robot. Gordon uses the imagery of a robot in several of the first section’s poems. One example is seen in “Chapter 18”:
Tell Nancy to take a good long
Gasp upon realizing a piece of railing
and newel are part of the hallway
that leads to your robot.
After my first reading of Keen, I became intrigued with the robot as a metaphor and asked Gordon if she could give away any secrets about its origin. She pointed me in the direction of an interview she did with Rattle and Pen. She explained:
- The first section of the chapbook happened years later in a blur – I reread one of the Nancy Drew books (The Crooked Banister, which came out in 1971 and was #48 in the series) and was just kind of floored by this one illustration of Nancy being held by a robot. The look on Nancy’s face is supposed to be terror, but instead she looks surprised, and the robot looks sad. It’s as if she’s being hugged against her will. I projected myself into the picture unconsciously and that is when the writing started.
As Keen progresses, readers will begin to realize that the Nancy Drew character is subconsciously coping with the absence of her mother. In the original Nancy Drew series, Drew’s mother died when she was young, and she was then raised by her single father and the family’s maid. The metaphor of the robot begins to encapsulate a possible array of emotions and ideas, namely frustration, confusion, and loss. The robot could be the grip of a lost memory sneaking up on Nancy in a quiet moment, or the strangulating feeling of unvoiced and unexplored emotions. Gordon ultimately leaves this metaphor up to her readers to decide. What, she seems to be asking, is your robot?
This complex collection also touches on the issues of sexism and racism depicted in the original Nancy Drew series, particularly Nancy’s reactions to people of color. Keen criticizes how issues of race were dealt with in the original books, which were written in the 1930s and 40s. I admired that Gordon decided to confront these issues with the Nancy Drew series, holding them up to the light, instead of shying away from them. Gordon shared her thoughts on this concept in the Rattle and Pen interview as well:
- I still have affection for the characters, but it’s impossible to not read them now without grimacing at the overt racism and sexism. As historical artifacts, they’re immensely interesting and simultaneously gross. I can’t separate them from the space and place they come from, so they have lost a little bit of the sparkle.
Gordon seems to be speaking to Nancy directly on these specific issues in “Chapter 15” when she writes, “Miss Nancy, it was impossible to make you hear us / over the sound of your own echo.”
Who was Nancy Drew, really? Keen is an impressive chapbook, woven with complex ideas and stunning poetry that share Gordon’s version of Nancy Drew, a version that I was enthusiastically drawn toward and happy to discover more about. Gordon’s Nancy Drew has more depth and substance underneath her tough exterior. Gordon’s Nancy Drew tells herself, “you have to press things inside of yourself / until they are violet”. Keen is written in a fresh and innovative style, lending the book connectivity of thought, and building up to a complete story. I thoroughly enjoyed solving the mystery.
Lauren Gordon is the author of four chapbooks; “Meaningful Fingers” (Finishing Line Press), “Keen” (Horse Less Press), “Fiddle Is Flood” (Blood Pudding Press), and “Generalizations about Spines” (Yellow Flag Press). She is also a Contributing Editor to Radius Lit.