"Brothel" Book Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Published by Raw Dog Screaming Press
Written by Stephanie M. Wytovich
2016, 172 pages, Fiction
Released on May 19th, 2016
To say that Stephanie M. Wytovich’s Brothel is a poetry collection is at once accurate and grossly imprecise. Yes, the book is full of poems, but what they add up to is much more than a poetry collection: this is a novel told in vignettes, a study of the interstitial space between desire and murder, and a screaming elegy to female empowerment. What Wytovich offers in this book is a look at the life of a brothel and what goes on in its room as well as inside the minds and hearts of the women who work within its walls. The sexual atmosphere and carnal acts you’d expect are there, but they are both intertwined with pain, gore, gritty emotional revelations, uncomfortable truths, confessions, and healthy doses of domination/submission, mayhem, and murder.
Brothel reads like an interconnected series of scenes that add up to a novella about life in a brothel. The women there, unnamed, the johns, and the Madam are all recurring characters that play a variety of roles. There are victims and aggressors here, but they’re never exactly the person you expected it to be. Just like real life, this fictional behind-the-scenes look into the actions, bodies, and psyches inside a brothel is packed with diversity and an impressive mix of eroticism, horror, and unexpectedly intimate revelations:
The job is simple.
I do what I’m told,
and I have to pretend that I like it,
but let me tell you a secret: I don’t.
every orgasm you think you’ve given me,
I’ve faked it, faked it once, faked it twice
and part of me actually thinks it’s sad that
you get off to my rehearsed moans and my practiced sighs. Remember,
sweetheart, you’re not my knight in shining armor, you’re a client and
I’m clocked in and working the second you take off my clothes;
and while you may think I’m just a whore,
honey, you’re just a paycheck,
and you’re the one who’s getting fucked.
Perhaps the most interesting element about Brothel is that Wytovich methodically deconstructs the image of the sad, broken prostitute that mainstream popular culture loves to perpetuate and replaces it with women who are as strong and smart as any heroine in contemporary fiction. Yes, some of these women are haunted by past decisions or propelled to do their work because they, like all of us, need a paycheck, but they’re also not victims of their circumstances: they are in control, they set the rules, they make others bleed, and they use their bodies as weapons to get what they want. By doing this, Wytovich has taken the victimization of women out of the equation and replaced it with a plethora of elements that range from violence to sex, sometimes simultaneously.
The poems in Brothel range from traditional format to something akin to micro-fiction, but the cohesive elements are so strong that nothing seems out of place. Also, the themes are dealt with in a variety of ways, and most of them, especially when sad, brutal, or pornographic, show that Wytovich understands the dark side of human nature. In “Remember Not To Cry,” for example, we see a narrator that, like most of us at one point in our life, knows that her actions are not the solution to her problems, but instead of a solution, she hovers about the situation as everything crumbles around her:
It was a strange feeling to be both alive and dead,
and no matter how much I smoked, drank, or fucked,
I couldn’t decide which hell was worse:
I knew that whatever I was doing wasn’t working,
and that’s why I continued to do it.
Ultimately, Brothel is great poetry and great storytelling, and that makes it a special collection. Poetry is very often concerned with inaccessibility and unnecessary linguistic theatrics, but Wytovich’s work occupies the opposite side of the spectrum: this is poetry about sex, murder, pain, survival, and shattering preconceived notions of femininity, womanhood, oppression, and sensuality. Leave all your inhibitions behind and enter Brothel. The only difficult part will be leaving intact.