Collectors’ Items

Amanda Montei
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Kate Durbin’s poetry collection Hoarders opens with Marlena, a Topanga Canyon–dwelling former fashion model who keeps Louis Vuitton bags under her bed along with “shattered seashell wreaths, rainbow dream catchers tangled with LED hummingbird wind chimes, tie-dyed lion tapestry with a hole in the lion’s face, Drew Barrymore Flower Home Collection plates with half-eaten Luna bars and dead wasps.” In some ways, Marlena is like nearly everyone I knew growing up in Los Angeles. She is also like the wronged women in Durbin’s pop culture–oriented work, such as the Playboy bunnies who haunt the purely scenic descriptions in Kept Women, Durbin’s 2012 chapbook tour of the Playboy Mansion, or Lindsay Lohan and Amanda “Foxy Knoxy” Knox, whose public suffering Durbin documents in E! Entertainment. Marlena, who considers herself the worst hoarder on the planet, thrives on the elusive brilliance characterized by excess and consumerist fantasy. By having more, you can be somebody you’re not—or at least you can try. Yet Hoarders, unlike Durbin’s previous work, isn’t about celebrity culture, much less luminescence; rather, it is a meditation on ordinary desire, even as the poetics of the book remain tangled with the odd form of public recognition offered by reality TV.

Hoarders amounts to a series of fifteen character sketches, each based on a different person (and one couple) featured in the popular A&E-originated documentary series of the same name that entered its thirteenth season in October 2021. Like the show, the book is characterized by a distinctly American lowbrow display of misery and an equally American interest in lives of abject excess. However, unlike the show’s implicit point-and-gawk approach, Durbin’s sympathetic treatment of the figures invites readers to consider how consumption shapes identity, and to entertain as reasonable the longing to hang on to every trivial item we acquire over the course of a lifetime, rather than joyfully KonMari-ing it all away.

Durbin’s method is to jam quotations from the people she studies up against representations of the objects they consume—or that consume them—as in the section on Jim, an ex-boxer and retired cop: “Give me a little hope Everlast punching bag with duct tape holding it together.”

In her selection of dialogue from the show, Durbin throws the intensity of our cultural attachment to things into relief: “This stuff gives me something to work with, piddle with and clean out,” Jim confesses. Durbin takes note of his “yard filled with ancient stoves, refrigerators and sinks, bent bike wheels, used-up cans of Barbasol and Old Spice, tin pots”—the list goes on.

This meticulous process of “close watching,” as she refers to it, is a technique Durbin has used before, and it can take years for her to work through a given show. She spent one year analyzing an episode of The Hills, continually pausing to document what she saw. Durbin has commented that watching Hoarders always makes her cry, given its theme of addiction and the ethical issues involved in taping/exploiting its subjects. I am tempted to connect Durbin’s signature style to that of the flaneur as she wanders, albeit in a constricted fashion, through these homes. Or maybe she is the writer as hoarder—a collector of language, images, and feelings. But Durbin’s writing is too intentional to warrant that kind of simple comparison between content and form. Sure, writers gather and study stuff, rearranging and repatterning them, and often have a hard time letting go of the texts they come to cherish. They can develop unreasonable attachments to words or phrases, especially their own. Such linguistic accretion could even be considered pathological, neurotic—but if that’s somewhat flip, Durbin’s writing feels very much the opposite.

In terms of its politics, Durbin’s flânerie is decidedly feminist. The book shapes an open-ended critique of twenty-first-century American life: environmental catastrophe, sexist violence, capitalist consumption. And it is hard not to notice that the women in the book project a total refusal of the gendered imperative of domestic work: they don’t tidy up their homes at all; most of them have failing relationships with their children and ex-husbands; they don’t try to care for themselves, much less others. 

More poignantly, Durbin’s book rejects the idea of domestic and artistic comfort altogether. The home is no refuge from public life; like the rest of the world, it’s a toxic, threatening place. For Hannah, this means “feces everywhere, garbage everywhere, bloody tampons on the floor.” The most unsettling catalogs of items, though, aren’t related to human waste, or even to the dangerous immobility that haunts many of the figures in the book; instead, they are connected to more prosaic forms of Western violence. In “Craig,” we see a “tattered American flag” and a “Deutschland Erwacht belt clip with a swastika on it” as the eponymous narrator tells the story of his abusive father. In “Ronnie,” we learn that “the first neurosurgeon in Nevada” owns a “cross-section of the human head including musculature skeleton, and nasal passages, Hawaiian lady lamp, headhunter statue carved in wood, real human skull.” Then there’s Maggie, a single mom with an apparent brain injury, bereft of care—save for her “Care Bear with a dirty pink heart nose.” Repeatedly, we see in the detritus examples of not only a cultural thirst for dominance and power but also of the idea that homes have, for many, long been sources of trauma. The line between individual pathology and our collective pathologies becomes porous. Is the book, then, just an allegory of our late-capitalist moment? Of consumerism taken to the extreme? A figurative reading feels too utilitarian and simplistic. The book’s power, after all, is in the way it depicts a diversity of rituals and motives around consumption, and how it centers the pain of human relation in all of them.

It’s worth noting that this consumption extends to commercial and popular art, suggesting a thirst for representation itself. The lists of objects veer and careen: DVDs and VHS tapes, a towering stack of Dummies books, prints of the Mona Lisa and da Vinci’s flying machine alongside “brains of people I’ve operated on.” Chuck—a painter who enjoys images of women at their most vulnerable, “when you see the whole body,” and who connects his hoarding to, among other things, his wife’s infidelity, his gun collection, and his “upsurges of anger”—outlines his aesthetics by pointing to his “favorite painting of a naked blonde sitting on a couch next to a half man, half javelina”: it’s a kind of self-portrait, he tells us.

Durbin’s reflection—the writer-as-hoarder, everpresent in her writing—returns our gaze. I am reminded of the mechanical baby who in E! Entertainment cries, “Mama. Mama. Waaah” incessantly at the end of a video of Anna Nicole Smith later used in court as evidence of her former boyfriend-lawyer’s manipulation. Durbin’s writing often wades into the debris created by our hyper-documented realities, looking for meaning. In Hoarders, we search for meaning with her and with those featured in the book, this time through the wreckage of product. We look for homes, for love, for care, for selves made unavailable. On the journey, we are confronted by what it is we are actually seeking and by how we look to the commodity—and, perhaps, to the art object—for the kind of domesticated joy we can find only in making sense, an act that requires selective attention and the trashing of other, more complex forms of knowledge. Durbin refuses that very gesture, that loss, while illustrating, perhaps inevitably, that what we really want is also what we can never have. As Alice, the collector of live cats, says: “I don’t even know how this started hiking boots under the bed, soles thick with shit.

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