girl in white long sleeve shirt lying on dried leaves

Violence of Craft: Your Mouth is Moving Backwards by Juliet Cook

Your Mouth is Moving Backwards
by Juliet Cook
Ethel Press, 34pp., $10.00 (print)

What form does violence take when it enters us? How does it announce itself? By what mechanisms, what symbols? Are these symbols themselves affected, or are they implicated? These are questions posed by Juliet Cook’s poetry chapbook, Your Mouth is Moving Backwards. Her lines expertly map the terrains of political and personal violence with terrifying and thought-provoking images culled from the realms of horror cinema and haunted dreams. Here demonic dolls, disembodied limbs, and entangled circulatory systems float through lines saturated with even more surreal images, each conjured terror an illumination of the philosophical and psychological import of violence.

Cook’s poetics consistently reside in the domain of the macabre and of over-the-top horror. Even the titles of her endeavors evoke this world: she runs Blood Pudding Press, blogs on Bloody Ooze, and has chapbooks with names like CONTORTED DOOM CONVEYOR (Gutter Snob Books) and Another Set of Ripped-Out Bloody Pigtails (The Poet’s Haven). The poems of this new collection pull from a wide gamut of these influences, from Child’s Play to Twin Peaks, but they also dive deeply into questions of morality and the nature of violence. The unnumbered series of “Flesh World” poems, named after a pornographic magazine from the world of Twin Peaks, exemplifies this range and serves as a centerpiece for the collection. “Your memory is a paranormal orb of love and horror.” claims one. “Your eyes turn into red clouds. / Your limbs sink back into the ground.” is the entirety of another. Nightmares abound in lines like “The doll’s twisted nerves float around the bedroom” (“Rippling”) and “your body drastically aged within minutes, / turned into loose flesh, slunk down to the ground.”

Juliet Cook, “Your Mouth is Moving Backwards” (Ethel Press, 2023)
Your Mouth is Moving Backwards
(Ethel Press, 2023)

Cook demonstrates the interplay between various forms of violence, illustrating how one kind informs through the lens of another. Systemic violence erupts through the cinematic image, and vice versa, as each form intertwines and affects the other. Further, she shows how personal violence and particular trauma are perceived and abstracted through universal archetypes. The language of Your Mouth is Moving Backwards never ceases to be incredibly fun and disturbing, drawing the reader into a lush landscape of psychological dread. Even the form of the chapbook itself is remarkable in how it informs the dynamic of violence: Ethel Press has created a gorgeous and horrific object. I found the chapbook to be a marvel in form and content.

Horror as a means of revealing systemic violence is a well-established motif. Consider Duane Jones as the black protagonist in George Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, swarmed by unthinking zombies only to finally be killed by his fellow man. The proximity to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination just five months prior solidifies the film’s allegory of racial strife. Similarly, Žižekian favorite “They Live” acts as a lens unveiling the inescapable violence perpetuated by ideology. These mechanisms are at play in Cook’s poetics. However, Cook innovates by allowing poetry to stitch together a maximalist array of images that underscore the nature of systemic and personal violence. 

Remarkably, and yet inevitably, these symbols expand to include any intrusion of violence. My own experience with the work began on the second night of Hanukkah at the tail end of the second month of a brutal and distant genocide. As such, it’s hard not to read passages of broken buildings and dismembered limbs in the light of recent images from Gaza. Of course, Cook did not have my perception of this violence in mind as I read by the light of a menorah. That is the nature of violence: it is paradoxically both deeply personal and distressingly universal to human experience.

The opening poem, “My Teeth Have Been Loose for Years” digs in:

The lineup of blood
drenched animal crackers
is hiding deep down underneath
so many tiny broken beds.

Scared little girls can only gain control 
if they turn into different creatures
if they bite off the heads and spit.

We settle into a familiar macabre landscape, comfortable in our discomfort, and then the aperture opens onto an overt stanza on the performative and oppressive nature of feminine sexual norms. The psychological toll of external forces emerges as bloody and broken images from childhood before the girl transforms into a mantis-like creature, brimming with ideological power. My reading also refracts the bombings of Gaza; images of broken beds and bloody detritus are far too familiar. 

Later, the poem continues,

If this is another recurring bad dream, 
then where does it come from?
Why won’t the inside of my head stop
screaming as I choke on my own baby teeth?

Systemic sexual violence emerges through these classic dream images; the teeth are only an entry point, a mechanism for speech, a rationalization of the underlying horror. This new stratum informs the lower, showing how we conceptualize that which is beyond thinking.

In “Every Room Whispers Itself Into Your Ear,” we find a diorama of Nietzschian good and evil. It begins,

In this diorama, an intermediary exists in between
the good and the bad, but it’s hard to tell the difference
and sometimes the forces combine.

The dividing line between moral and immoral actions necessarily blurs in the face of modern and systemic violence. Instead, they are merely the dictates of culture and state. A later piece, “I’ll Eat You,” shows this production perfectly:

In this diorama, the most likable agent of power
turns bad. The good/bad hybrid appears
to be urgently walking in circles
surrounded by long red curtains.
This is a staged concert
that never ends.

Of course, Twin Peaks references also abound here. The theater of war is perpetual and which agents appear on the side of moral good hardly matters. Again, all of this sits perfectly with current global conflicts.

What Cook does exceedingly well is show how language itself is at the core of this process of intertwining layers of violence. In “Invaded Cores,” we get yet another diorama,

In this diorama, Bob is cut into pieces,
repositions itself inside different damaged brains.

While bobbing for apples, she screams
at what lies underneath the core.
Her flickering power lines will bleed into the void.

Some will see the red apples as ball gags inside her mouth.
Some will see the red apples as representations of Hell.
Some will say Hell does not exist. The apple is an underground
             planetary lair.

Bob is first a noun, a person dissected—and, not by coincidence, also an evil spirit out of Twin Peaks—then the word becomes a verb as the subject dives under the surface. Words like “core” and “bleed” explode with ambiguity. Finally, we interrogate the scene from an external perspective and unravel a multiplicity of meanings and hidden reality behind the curtain of previous images. The poems of Your Mouth is Moving Backwards are ceaseless in their symbolic excavation, constantly diving below the surface.

Juliet Cook Author pic (Headshot)
Juliet Cook

If anything, these pieces over-index on bodily horror, relying too heavily on the grotesque to get their point across. When every poem has a disembodied limb floating in its lines, we get used to its presence. I’m not well-steeped in horror cinema, though I do love everything from David Lynch, with a special affection for Twin Peaks. Although a familiarity with the genre isn’t necessary, some of the thrill of reading this chapbook arises from recognizing particular references. I wonder if someone truly unfamiliar would get as much enjoyment out of the reading.

A book is always unique. As a physical object, it occupies a paradoxical position as a temporal and corruptible entity while remaining atemporal and incorporeal as the idea itself. A hand-bound chapbook, particularly one as meticulously crafted and innovative as one from Ethel Press, plays into this dynamic. It replicates the personal and impersonal paradoxes of violence and archetypal images that abound in Cook’s poems. I received the book in a quaint brown mailer and cut it free like a literary cesarean in the wavering light of a menorah. The cover’s disembodied mouth and layers of facial abstraction stared up at me from a blood-red page as if ready to cry out. And as I read, food and candle wax inhabited the pages as readily as the poet’s words. The book became my own, just as its violence became my own. Every aspect of this book reflects its subject. Your Mouth is Moving Backwards is a thorough and fun examination of the grotesque made exquisite by its handbound form.

Ethel Press Website

Author Bio

Mike Bagwell is a writer and software engineer in Philly. He received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and his work appears or is forthcoming in ITERANT, Heavy Feather Review, trampset, Halfway Down the Stairs, HADBodegaWhiskey Island, and others, some kindly nominating him for a Pushcart. He is the author of the chapbooks A Collision of Soul in Midair (Bottlecap Press 2023), Or Else They Are Trees, and a micro When We Look at Things We Steal Their Color and Grow Heavy Under Their Weight (Rinky Dink Press 2024). See more at

Front Page header (Volume 1 Issue 1: Jan-Feb 2024)


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Violence of Craft: Your Mouth is Moving Backwards by Juliet Cook

Contributor Mike Bagwell explores and reviews poet Juliet Cook’s new chapbook from Ethel Press, Your Mouth is Moving Backwards.

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