In her poem “Splendor,” Angela Voras-Hills writes, “I am disgusted and enthralled and / in love.” The poem has just described the untangling of a mangled worm, half-eaten by millipedes—the millipedes deprived of their lunch, the worm (semi-rescued) but not long for it. After this hinge line, the next is, “The baby grows too big for my womb.” As the poem continues, the reader meets more bodies: flies, a spider, a fourteen-year-old son, an infant daughter. The poem closes, “The difference / between the moment of being and a moment of being. // When there’s a body and when there is none.” Here, each of these bodies is a notion of home—fragile. Hopeful, requiring tending. Throughout Louder Birds (Pleiades Press), Voras-Hills constructs notions of homes and tears holes in them—thin skins and ribs, wombs, papered layers of rooms & structures, old barns, traceries of farms & crisscrossed land.
The world made in these poems is stitched together by fragile associations—half made, tenuous. The language is incantatory, impressionistic. In “Preserving,” the form of the poem moves stanza by stanza with a word or image occasioning the next. The first, “I can spend a whole winter / in the summer of these lemons / if they’ve covered in enough salt,” leads to the next, where “Trucks are salting the roads / so I can drive . . .” An image of walking leads to an image of falling. Although this form is not as pronounced in other poems, overall the poems are made of these associations. Half-starts & skips. They are juxtapositions—a setting side by side of notions of the poet’s imagination (for better or worse). Sometimes, they offer a snapshot of worst-case scenarios or the kinds of ingrained knowledge that accumulate in small towns or rural areas of what could happen—because it’s happened before.
The opening poem of the collection, “Retrospective,” describes a girl holding a sign that reads “Zucchini / and God.” She’s barefoot and bare shouldered. There’s a gray sky, and a cat, and a corn field, and “the boundaries between home and the road // are insecure.” There are signs, and there are signs—sirens, it seems (and if you don’t know what that means—it’s a warning for a likely tornado or terrible storm). “We’ve all been in the presence of something dark // and have chosen not to seek shelter.” This poem, coming before all the others, is a warning of sorts—and it’s borne out in the following pages: in these poems, things will turn quickly. What seems to be only a roadside scene can quickly become something else, something dangerous. There will be loss, the evidence of something awful come before.
“Chateaubriand” is one of those poems that turns quickly. It begins:
Love me here, a tangle in the wire, complicate my limbs with your mouth. Like the trail, we’re a handful of breadcrumbs . . .
In the second stanza, “A girl / from another town was pinned against a fence / with the grill of a pickup while jogging.” I thought I was reading a love poem—but here’s brutality, and it’s not random. It’s personal, a neighbor “the guy behind the wheel, a stranger, lived / on her street.” And the poem addresses the reader then, with a “you,” reminding me of the intimacy of the page, the small space I’m caught in: “one day, you’re eating Chateaubriand, / the next, you can barely pronounce tender.” Those notions of home return, complicated by the imagining (?), remembering (?), of that complicating act—the one that twines with the imperative to love. The body that “keep[s] / our organs safe” like the skin of a grape, “making a home of your darkest, inside spaces.”
The cover of the book, featuring a bird carcass arranged over dried flowers, as well as a number of the poems, invoke dead animals, and the bodies of “the beasts / we’d run over along the way.” In “The Rabbit in the Road,” a blood tide rises over the curb, coating feet and leaving tracks all the way home. In “Home (IV),” a coyote eats her young. In “Unfurling” (a poem that ends with the beginning of labor), there is a poisoned opossum, a blanket of glistening cricket bodies. The displacement of human pain onto the witnessing of other pain—often the close examination of animal pain—a kind of alchemic dissection, as if to engage with these safe bodies, at a distance, with some sort of critical analytical eye—is a recognizable strategy. This displacement makes for powerful poetry: close looking, and capturing that on the page in indelible detail, and then snapping the reader back to the real true thing.
The poem “A Small Hole Filled with Mud” calls to mind the beginning of Angela Carter’s “The Snow Child,” where the wife’s desire for a child is crystallized by a perfect blood-filled hole in the snow. All desire, all wanting, a stylized image of perfection in the contrast of crimson and white. In Voras-Hills’s poem, desire is cast in the rural imagery of salt licks and bait piles—those heady tastes that lure the animal in us. The way salt almost burns the tongue with its pleasure; the way fruit rots in a late-autumn heat, a dense sweet tangibly heavy. Called, the speaker of the poem has arrived, and is “waiting / for the man to see me through / the screen door.” Instead of that image of perfect beauty, there’s the hole filled with mud, the mud “up to my ankles.” In that field, “children who won’t exist are calling / my name.”
In the notions of home Voras-Hills suggests throughout her collection, as well as the ways she troubles their existence, she names a particular kind of landscape and place, best articulated in her poem “Maps of Places Drawn to Scale.” The poem begins with a car accident, a van flipping on an exit ramp. “In a small town, a priest / knows the man’s name.” The poem muses that at the Chinese buffet (there’s often a restaurant called this in small towns), no one’s fortune cookie says “you will suffer [ . . .] / but it’s implied / in the parking lot.” Throughout the collection’s accretion of imagery, memory, and imagining, a skeletal narrative has formed—one of a relationship surviving losses of would-be children, finding comfort in the world they make together even as that world is threatened. One of looking out windows into the distance at neighbors—people and fields and animals, the barn across the way—and trying to find one’s place there. This poem ends with the comfort and suffocating qualities of living in one of those small-scale places: “But in a small town, there’s one / name for each baby born, and eventually / it’s on the lips of everyone in the street.”
C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.
A short interlude chapter entitled “Strategies for Survival #3: Silence” occurs almost exactly halfway through Leslie Pietrzyk’s novel Silver Girl (Unnamed Press, 2018). It’s halfway through the numbered pages of the book, and halfway through the unfolding story. Chronologically, it’s closer to the end than the beginning, but chronology fragments in this narrative, as does the protagonist’s voice. In this section, so does point of view. She begins by telling us, “It was cool on campus to talk about the Tylenol killer.” But this girl hides in silence, her own, made of all the things she doesn’t say. The section ends with her at a frat party apart from others: “. . . the single girl—you, me—standing quietly near the keg.” And someone shows up—some he—and she thinks, or pretends, that maybe he’ll rescue her. He asks about the Tylenol killer, who she thinks did it. And she says they’ll never know, that it’s the perfect crime. But he doesn’t believe in perfect crimes.
You smile at him. Sweet boy. Sweet, sweet boy. Then you fuck him anyway. I mean, I did. I fucked them anyway.
The telescoping of this perspective all at once, mid-story, was a sudden wrenching in my gut, a closing of my throat. It revealed what I’d been suspecting throughout the first half of Silver Girl—built on the scaffold of real events of poisoned Tylenol in 1982, and the deaths of seven people in Chicago: this book also speaks to larger truths that the best fiction attempts. The unnamed college girl protagonist is you, me—other girls and women seeking sisters, escaping home, wanting rescue but discovering only a “sweet, sweet boy” with failures of imagination. That’s not the story anyway—it never was.
Silver Girl is told in sections: The Middle, The Beginning, The End, and Where Every Story Truly Begins. Through sections that skip between the protagonist’s college years, her late childhood, and immediately after college, the reader meets her family, her college best friend and roommate (and her family), and contrasts those dynamics. Sisters—their bonds and rivalries—are central to the story, both biological sisters and the kinds of sisterhood that develops when people live together, forced into intimacies by shared spaces and confidences. The protagonist sees college in Chicago as an escape from her Iowa town, from her family, but also as a chance to reinvent herself, to be someone else. At home in Iowa, she takes her younger sister Grace to the mall before Christmas, where she has to explain the bookstore isn’t a library and then beg the salesgirl for a book, pretending to be the family named on the paper ornament hung on the charity tree. All that work for a $2.25 paperback, but they needed every coin for the bus home.
In her first conversation with Jess, the woman who will become her best friend, she refers to herself as “the devil’s daughter.” It may be a rare moment of honesty, but Jess is attracted to her bravado—the protagonist is only trying to distract from her cheap trunk suitcase, her threadbare clothes, the imitation pearls that don’t shine when compared to those of the rich girls in the dorm. Jess who wears “winter white,” and gifts her a plane ticket to London, and teaches her to spray perfume on her wrists, and knees, and the inside of one thigh only. Jess whose entire family calls each other “Lovey.” Throughout the novel, the protagonist works to conceal her identity, always wary of being found out. The unkindest thing Jess can do is let her know she knows she’s poor.
The protagonist has other secrets, too—these are revealed in bits and pieces throughout the story. She loves her sister Grace but cannot take care of her—that would mean having to stay. Boys and men are ways to hide, but also maybe ways to escape—she’s trying to figure that out. Her high school friend Janey resents and hates her. There are other family secrets no one is talking about. As her relationship with Jess grows, the protagonist ends up taking on Jess’s secrets also: the ones Jess talks about and the ones she doesn’t. The story is built on secrets, and it’s often unclear how self-aware the characters are—they are unknowable, unreliable, but dearer because of this. I deeply love stories about sisterhood, about girls and women navigating the complexities of their desires for intimacy: failing each other, and needing each other all the more. As the character we inhabit, the protagonist seems so clear-eyed about everyone but herself. I ache for her, want to walk up to her standing alone by that keg and talk to her about the things she thinks—make a list with her (one of her pastimes) about those stupid, sweet boys—and point out all the other girls at the party just like her who are only better at pretending, but no different, not really, than she is.
Ultimately, Silver Girl is a rule-breaking book. The narrator breaks rules and wonders when she’ll be caught. The storytelling breaks rules: we readers try to piece together clues to create a coherent picture of what made the narrator who she is—but in the end, there are shadows that remain, so we guess, and our guesses reveal more about ourselves than what’s explicit in the story. In this column, I try to focus on new writing from the Midwest, so writing about SilverGirl breaks a few of my own rules—although set in the Midwest, Pietrzyk no longer lives here, having left Iowa City, Iowa, years ago for Washington, DC. And the book came out a few years ago, but I just discovered it. I think we need to sing and celebrate the writing that speaks to us, that brings us out of whatever silvered-over thickened skin that’s interfered with our creativities during COVID isolation. For the last few months, I’ve had trouble reading much, and my TBR stack has grown and grown. The fractured narrative of Silver Girl broke through; the sharp eye of the protagonist that berates herself while seeing others so clearly made me want to telescope through time, talk to this fictional woman, tell her she’s seen.
A couple of months ago I was talking to dear friend—a sister—and she was telling me about my astrological sign. We were in our cups a bit, and I turned to her and said, “You’re only telling me the good things . . .” We were side by side on a couch, shoulders touching, and she turned her face toward me and said something so true—it could have been painful, but it wasn’t. It was a moment of recognition. There’s a moment like that when the protagonist and Jess are shopping, and rediscover composition books at Osco. It’s another interlude chapter, “Strategies for Survival #4: Lists.” They talk about list making. Jess says, “Like a diary, but quicker.” There’s recognition:
Her eyes locked on to me, into me, like I had breathed a secret out and she had breathed it right in.
My stomach did that thing it did when I read the perspective switch. Sisterhood, an intimacy of secrets—not only our own. Seen, and so sharply. Clear-eyed about everyone except ourselves.
C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.
Portaging celebrates new writing from the Midwest with a particular focus on experimental and hybrid work from small presses.
Raki Kopernik’s book of prose poetry The Memory House covers a lot of territory — both literally and figuratively.
In four sections, the poet tells the story of three generations across three continents, contrasting kibbutz and urban life, communal living with single-family homes, dating, love and family dynamics. The poet’s voice inhabits grandparents, parents, and her own memories, with wishes for family and future. Throughout these particular and personal stories, there is a thread that opens up the individual story to make a wider, humanistic claim. It begins with the two-page preface to the book but has its clearest articulation on page 22. In the middle of narrating her family’s emigration to Israel, these lines: “Three quarters of a century later, in 2016, Syrian refugees on illegal boats, same, trying to escape into Europe. Same thing. Same.”
In the spirit of disclosure, I direct the press that published Kopernik’s book — we’re an embedded press at my university, and our students worked with the manuscript to learn editing, book layout, and the ins and outs of taking a manuscript to finished book. Our art students designed the cover (beautifully articulated ears of wheat) and created original artwork for the interior pages. Working with the students, they pointed out a number of things that inspired them about Kopernik’s book — how her forms invited them in, somewhere between storytelling and the poetry they were used to; how her long lines and details allowed them to picture the scenes she described, the fields of wheat and sunflowers, the groves of fruit trees; her sudden bursts of humor; the way food and taste threaded throughout every moment — cucumbers, butter, pears, and chocolate.
What I notice each time I re-read the book is how the poet’s voice and memories are bound up with her mother’s. Section One begins with her mother, “My mother lived on a moshav,” and tells how that came to be through the stories of the previous generation: an old British airport hangar, but before that a grandmother in a prison camp in Palestine, and before that both grandparents’ arrival by boat, and before that Romania. In the midst of these early pages, these primal stories, the poet tells us her mother’s first memory, “a dog barking behind a screened door, its mouth full of sharp teeth and drool, its legs taller than her three-year-old self.” Kopernik then makes the all-encompassing move, “her memory could have been any year, any country.” What child doesn’t have some terrifying memory lodged somewhere, what child doesn’t remember some beast at the door? It is the twining of these — these small anywhere-moments with the larger stories of families making and re-making, migrating & moving — that accomplishes the large and small of The Memory House. Two pages later, we are granted the title line, after more moments that refract the mother’s memories through the poet-daughter’s voice: “Our memories tangle into a single memory house.”
Because Kopernik’s book can be read as narrative or as a traditional poetry book, I don’t want to give away the ending — there are moments of resolution there, even if not in the mode of plot reveals. There are four sections overall: the first tells the story of the parents, growing up and meeting, emigrating to America; in the second, we encounter the poet herself, visiting Israel for summer vacations, staying back on the kibbutz with her maternal grandparents; the third tells the story of the paternal grandparents; in the last section, we find out the spare story of what happened when the parents arrived in America, how the poet’s family began.
In telling her mother’s story, Kopernik lingers on her mother’s dreams and desires — to stay on the kibbutz, to be surrounded by family, to begin a family of her own. When she falls in love with the man she will marry and start a family with, she resists him after he leaves for America. There are images of the mother-to-be, her care for her siblings, her developing instincts learned alongside the communal values of the kibbutz. She tells the story of her mother plucking a stinger from her brother’s face, giving him her precious squares of chocolate. She tells how the young woman pretended to mother her younger brother, seven years separating them. How she wanted four children. How even if she didn’t like the food served in the bet yeladim, she “knew not to complain about food.” In this inhabiting of her mother’s memories, Kopernik’s voice rises, moving up and up to survey not only her own family’s story but encompass the stories of others, to demonstrate one way to inhabit the past — through memory, through experience, through language.
In Section Two, when the poet visits her parents’ homeland, she writes:
Sometimes the Midwest smells like the Middle East in the heat of summer.
The smell of, nothing matters but this moment.
You might not think of the Middle East like that if you only know it from the news.
Experience has more dimensions than media. You don’t know the whole thing unless you can feel it on your skin, through the holes in your face.
But she’s told us all this before. We just didn’t have the stories yet — about Uncle Chocolate, who always brought chocolate. About the kibbutz pool, playing with the children, about the time a shallow dive left blood in the water. About how “puberty ruined everything.” About the rarity of pears — the sweetness of compote. In story after story, so many circling around meals, and food, and taste, there are the pleasures of sweetness — offered as gifts, made with love, created and cooked alongside family and the extended family created by the kibbutz. And there is the sweetness that is recognized because the thing offered is rare, or precious, not easy to find or keep — like the store called Kol Bo, which means “everything in it,” but the name is a misnomer. The daughter-poet, the American daughter-poet, points this out — her voice wry and laced with nostalgia.
The preface to the collection begins with a description of how there were no gardens, only dust, “the water sparse.” Prickly pears imported from Mexico, a fruit with “a tender heart at the barely visible center.” Kopernik makes the connection quickly, the heart of the cactus like Israel: “everyone wants the sweet middle. The core. What they think is the soul.” She names a literal place, she names an imagined place. She introduces a memory-place, peopled with loved ones and secondhand stories. Then she tells us, “borders are imaginary lines made up by people.”
Raki is a Jewish, queer, experimental fiction and poetry writer. She is the author of The Other Body chapbook (Dancing Girl Press), The Memory House (The Muriel Press 2019), and The Things You Left (forthcoming Unsolicited Press 2020). Her work has been published in New Flash Fiction Review, Blue Lyra Review, El Balazo, Duende, and others. It has also been shortlisted and nominated for several awards, including the Pushcart Prize for fiction. She lives in Minneapolis.
Tara Burke’s poetry collection Animal Like Any Other (Finishing Line Press) has compartments:
poems about growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, about living with her girlfriend surrounded by dogs, about the painful dissolution of that relationship, about desire and sex, about new love, and several long poems that braid all these aspects of the poet’s life into a kind of manifesto. The forms switch between a maximalist prose that sweeps across the page without punctuation and resists known syntax, and tight lineated forms of unctuous imagery. The poem “Declaration” includes the line taken for the title of the collection and describes the making of steak. With the lines “massage a bloody loin / with bare hands [. . .] press salt into its flesh / and press the ruminant / into my hot iron pan . . .” my mouth waters – the poet goes on to declare:
“Domesticitycan be radical.Can be lesbian.These are good waysto stick it to the man:cook food, lovewomen, enjoystaying home.”
By recounting childhood, memories of growing up amidst parents’ sometimes simmering or submerged anxieties and anger, the needs of brothers, each well-defined moment becomes almost incantatory. The background is cast in plain language (blue and grey and tan), the details everyday, but images swim up from the long lines. In the house on Blue Ridge Mountain Road, “we didn’t believe in weeds.” The speaker’s mother would plant things and move things there at the edge of the woods, including stones she’d found “here and there intending toward beauty.” In another of these childhood poems, a vignette about the child-poet ignoring her mother’s entreaty to stop, she says she was “unclear of no and its partner shame.” In “How We Purpled the Road” we see two unaccompanied children, their unsupervised play, the wonder and danger of it. Purpling is the crushed fruit of blackberries and the bruises earned; the poet says, “immediate regret is a bruise I know well.”
Interspersed between these memory-moments are love poems, which seem to be about both finding one’s person as well as finding the self. The structure of moving between the early childhood poems and the adult poems make sense, as they suggest another kind of knowing and coming of age. The clarity of the language rings true: “I want this body / finally mine, naked, covered / in glitter and chicken feathers.” It is straightforward and defiant and joyful, tinged with the awful fantastic. Soon though, the beloved becomes a source of worry – long before the poem-story begins to hint at how the dissolution will happen, the speaker hints at meaningful differences between them; her girlfriend is a police officer, and the speaker wonders about her job, things she may have to do. “How will you see this world / with your gun? Is there anything / we can protect?” This too ties back to the childhood poems, when the poet tries to understand her father. In the poem “Inside Me” the reader sees the father, over and over again – in his chair, smoking, hauling rocks, always working. This poem is one of those that ranges across the page, with little breaks for breath, few guideposts of phrasing or punctuation. It ends with the resonant line: “there he is inside me singing what a surprise when I realize it’s not a song but a sob” – there’s no period. The poem ends, but it doesn’t end. The sob catches in the throat, nowhere to go.
“New Year’s Day” is a central poem. In a small moment, the speaker sitting in a sun-drenched kitchen, her girlfriend preferring the more shadowed living room, a whole continent of differences between them become visible. “Oh I think I was lucky I trusted because time was your gift to me then” – the reader can feel that time is running out. “She doesn’t love light like I do” and we know that light means so much more than light. When the poet mentions taking her mother’s advice, we know that all of those childhood moments, those poems that cannot be contained are contained in her now, purpling her, and it doesn’t matter which room they sit in this morning – dread hangs over the prose stanzas, as if even poetry is out of reach. A few poems later, the couple has moved and the poems begin to speak of predators – things that threaten them, their dogs, the goat they’ve taken to keeping. The speaker admits “so I pretended like I always do / that I wasn’t afraid.” After leaving the home they had together, she confides “I was half myself and maybe / it was never the hungry coyotes / but the whole of my bloodstream howling.”
The poems so far have a natural trajectory: childhood stories that explore early memory and the parental relationship as a potential model, the self in love and loss, the aftermath of relationship and rediscovering the self. What these poems are building to are some incredibly moving long poems that weave all of that together and speak in a full-throated cry, somewhere between manifesto and affirmation. The poems “Exercise in Which a Poet in Heartbreak Finds Herself in a Writing Class with Fiction Writers and Doesn’t Leave, Rebels a Little, Learns to Put Characters Under Pressure,” “Queer Girl,” and “Blue Body Hungry for Origin or Certainty” are all breakneck poems – read-aloud poems – poems built upon the foundation of what comes before them in this collection, and owing a debt to the careful building of voice that Burke takes her time with in earlier smaller moments.
What binds all the poems together in Animal Like Any Other is the insistence of both the ordinary and revolutionary-ness of desire. To want another so badly that nothing matters – not the dog-hair on every surface, not that she may someday kill someone and you’d have to live with it. It is the very ordinariness of this want, this love, that ultimately (or so the poet imagines) causes the end of their relationship. In “Exercise in Which a Poet in Heartbreak Finds Herself in a Writing Class with Fiction Writers and Doesn’t Leave, Rebels a Little, Learns to Put Characters Under Pressure,” she tries to inhabit her girlfriend, to understand how and why she asked her to leave. To understand how too much love can be oppressive, too easy, not enough and too much. In “Queer Girl” – again, refusing to use anything like a sentence structure – she rails against the restrictions of women’s and girls’ sexuality, their wants, their smells, and the way their expressions of self are policed, writing “her body a light I turned to and no I do not care that her body as light may be cliché to you fuck your rules fuck your right or wrong words for poems for sex.” In “Blue Body Hungry for Origin or Certainty,” alternating prose stanzas and right-justified fragments are nearly-affirmations. The poem revisits the landscapes of the poet’s life: blue mountains, red dirt and dust, green trees. It calls the reader back to the body, embracing curves and movement, singing a song of love and lust. The body is love – art is love – this life we make, riddled with loss and hardship, but also striving toward each other – is love.
There are no compartments in the poem “Blueberry Pancakes.” The poet, Tara, writes of her work, engaging with students, worrying about them and their lives. She writes about “when language feels like self-indulgence” and not caring whether “they learn to cite in the correct tedious format.” She writes about her adopted pit bull, who growls in her sleep, “unsure if it is today or yesterday unsure if she’s ever really safe.” But mostly she writes about her mother who made blueberry pancakes at Christmas, the berries “came from a box saved from leftover canned berries in the Jiffy muffin pre-made mix” frozen in Ziploc bags throughout the year.
“on days like this when I know we’re all dying we’re going to drown or starve or be shot on this
hot earth together but not quite together enough I wish instead we were some semblance of that
family you tried to keep simple together drowning it all in syrup—
I wish my lips were sticky and blue—
on days like this all I want is to eat, have home back, say thank you”
Burke reminds us at the end of her collection the way we crave sweetness, some memory of home, some warm body to hold us. The final poem returns to the goat she cared for at her home with her girlfriend, the goat they kept safe from coyotes, and milked each day. She’s gathering the milk, “warm / like warm and sweet like sweet, / clean like clean.” It’s an anti-maximalist moment at the end, a closure that brings us into the space of another animal, close enough to feel the heat of its body, our breath and its breath.
Tara Shea Burke is a queer poet and teacher from the Blue Ridge Mountains and Hampton Roads, Virginia. She’s a writing instructor, editor, creative coach, and yoga teacher who has taught and lived in Virginia, New Mexico, and Colorado. She believes in community building, encouragement, and practice-based living, writing, teaching, and art. She is the author of the poetry book Animal Like Any Other, from Finishing Line Press (2019). Find more about her work and www.tarasheaburke.com
When, early in March, we began to spend most of our time apart—in our respective homes, in front of computer screens instead of people, texting and calling to connect virtually rather than face-to-face—I ordered novels and short story collections and poetry to feed the part of myself that missed friends, family, colleagues, and students. I tried to keep a schedule for the first few weeks, and it included live poetry readings in the quiet of my home, my dog attentive beside me. The books I lingered over, reading and re-reading, were poems that spoke of touch, vulnerability, bodies that comfort and confuse, pain that rises in words on the page and that, in a deft poet’s tongue, forces us to see the world in its trauma and longing. Those were Richard Siken’s first collection, Crush, and the excellent anthology edited by Cam Awkward-Rich and sam sax, The Dead Animal Handbook.
Crush begins with the poem “Scheherazade”—the title invokes that story that encompasses all stories, the story that keeps us alive. Its final lines are: “Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us. / These our bodies, possessed by light. / Tell me we’ll never get used to it.” In its beginning, this book of poems points to the dangers of desire, and the way desire can save. What draws me to Siken’s work is the long lines, and how they refuse the limits of the page. They range and ramble, as if any constraint—other than the speaker’s voice—is to be shed whenever useful. Within stanzas (although not traditional stanzas) the logical connections between content and imagery prove fundamentally useless as well. This too makes sense—those constrictions would shackle the poems. In these poems about desire (and sometimes the destruction inherent in desire) what does it matter if there’s a pattern to where the mind goes—if the apple has much to do with the windowpane? Or if the bodies being pulled out of the lake make much sense in the poem that ends with “bodies, possessed by light”? Each poem is both utterly inscrutable (being painfully personal) and ultimately universal (speaking to the unknowable we’ve each known if we’ve known the) experience of incendiary desire.
There are so many poems that must be read aloud here: “Dirty Valentine” makes its rounds regularly on social media—inhabit its I’s, and you’s, and we’s. In “Little Beast,” the speaker claims a space for himself, invoking the everyday domestic:
The long prose poem “You Are Jeff” is a masterpiece. It imagines, alternately, different Jeffs. There are twins named Jeff—riding motorbikes “shiny red” and both with “perfect teeth, dark hair, soft hands.” They are options, these Jeffs. “The one in front will want to take you apart, and slowly [ . . .] The other brother only wants to stitch you back together [ . . .] Do not choose sides yet.” In later sections, you are one of the Jeffs, on the motorbike, and you’re either coming up a hairpin turn or just beyond it. In another, “You are playing cards with three Jeffs. One is your father, one is your brother, and the other is your current boyfriend. All of them have seen you naked and heard you talking in your sleep.” In another, you are without any Jeffs, but there is an empty space next to you, and in the poem—after all those Jeffs—the reader feels that emptiness, palpable.
In the penultimate section of the poem, we’re back on the side of the road. There have been Jeffs everywhere—some a comfort, some a riddle, some a menace, some a part of the speaker, some a faint outline barely knowable. On the side of the road are motorbikes, and Jeffs, God and the Devil, and spaces between them. “Two of these Jeffs are windows, and two of these Jeffs are doors, and all of these Jeffs are trying to tell you something.” The poem ends, “You’re in a car with a beautiful boy . . .” and the speaker and the boy love each other, but neither will say it. “ . . . he reaches over and he touches you, like a prayer for which no words exist, and you feel your heart taking root in your body, like you’ve discovered something you don’t even have a name for.”
I think what keeps me returning to Siken’s poems is the mix of the passion, sometimes mad-rush of the lines, with the juxtaposition of crystalline transcendent imagery right next to the very human, almost mundane. It’s there in that first poem I read. “Love always wakes the dragon and suddenly / flames everywhere. / I can tell already you think I’m the dragon.” (Okay, I understand this voice—allusion and undercutting.) And then—“And yes, I swallow / glass, but that comes later. / And the part where I push you flush against the wall . . .” (Confessional, but pointed.) But a little later, “The entire history of human desire takes about seventy minutes to tell. / Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time. / Forget the dragon, / leave the gun on the table, this has nothing to do with happiness.” Siken’s honesty, in the poem’s language, in lines dictated by breath, speak to me in these times of distance and isolation. I want poems that reach out like that, palpable.
The anthology The Dead Animal Handbook, from University of Hell Press, takes a cue from this kind of poetry too, utilizing the imagery of animals—dead and gone—to foreground our humanity, or lack of it. In the introduction, editors Cam Awkward-Rich and sam sax write, “Rather than simply rejecting animality in order to claim humanity, many of these poems embrace the animal as a way of understanding the racialized, gendered, or sexual self, or in order to model forms of resistance.” Organized, in part, around the kinds of animal imagery in the poems (from birds, to fish, cats or dogs, or cattle), the included names are a wide selection of American poets—including important black and brown poets, and queer poets—as the editors put it, the “not straightwhitemen” of contemporary literature. Additionally, there’s a good mix of award-winning and well-known poets, alongside less-well-known poets—and since the collection came out in 2017, several contributors have become much more prominent.
A number of the poems juxtapose animal bodies with human bodies, the treatment and handling of different kinds of bodies to sharpen those distinctions. Two that stood out for me were Danez Smith’s “Juxtaposing the Road Kill & My Body” and Deborah A. Miranda’s “Deer.” In both, it’s the aftermath—the final lines of the poems—that deliver their lingering power, their afterimage that demonstrates a poem’s power to nurture as it bears evidence of (attempted) destruction. In Smith’s poem, short and slight stanzas have each captured “the difference”—the difference between the speaker and the deer—the difference between being hit by a car and a rape. Each of these is brutal, some more so because of their forthrightness, and the final stanza contains “A man, emptied of his voice / & drawers ruined & sweet with grenadine, / is called a myth or a bitch or not a man at all.” The irony of this powerful voice invoking the idea of voicelessness. Miranda’s poem contrasts an out-of-season kill, furtively butchered, that “all winter long we’ll eat [ . . ] / in secret.” The speaker for “years afterward” visited “the stained floor” in the barn. In the final (almost separate) stanza, she writes: “I’ve been taken like that: / without thanks, without a prayer, by hands / that didn’t touch me the way a gift should be touched, / knives that slid beneath my skin out of season / and found only flesh, only blood.”
Not all the poems in the anthology catalogue trauma—there are also mini-manifestos here. Oliver Bendorf’s “Precipice” declares, “I don’t farm for milk. I farm for the front row / seat to things living and dying.” In “The Dogs and I Walked Our Woods,” by Gretchen Primack, there’s a grisly “monument to domination” in the woods—two coyotes killed and displayed—and the speaker swears that if she had a child who might suffer to see such a thing, or be gladdened to see such a thing, or just keep walking, “I could not bear / it, so I will not bear one.” There is also some dark humor, a wry moment of recognition, clear-eyed, the way these poets see the world, like Meg Freitag’s “Promenade A Deux”:
The collection is also an example of fine editing; the juxtaposition and sequencing of poems deepen their resonances with each other, leading to a between-the-pages conversation. One of the most startling is between Dominique Christina’s “Hunger” (on page 75) and Erich Haygun’s “Love Is Like Walking the Dog” (on 76). In the latter, dog-walking is an extended metaphor for maintaining a relationship, where “picking up shit” is evidence of care and maintenance. The final line speaks of a relationship that’s outlived its usefulness, or maybe one where there’s no love or regard; but the speaker goes on cleaning up, “even if the dog is dead.” The poem on the preceding page tells of the beating and destruction of a dog, one that wouldn’t stop howling. A few well-placed words detail killing the dog, “killing and killing the siren call of want. / simple.” The dog wouldn’t stop, and the speaker couldn’t take it anymore, “I’m the one who is hungry bitch. ME.”
Um. I don’t know what to do with the above except to tell you I went back and re-read those two poems together several times. (I had already stopped reading aloud to the dog next to me on the couch—it seemed unkind.) I’m in awe of words that stop me, make me stare ahead unfocused, make me roll my tongue in my mouth to try to discern the power of language and how it comes. Maybe the dog is dead. Maybe love is doing things anyway. Maybe sometimes you have to kill the dog. Maybe when I see the bodies pulled out of the lake I think of your body, and tenderness, and the ultimate vulnerability of lying with you and loving you. Maybe I’m the dragon. Okay, I’m not the dragon, but maybe I want to be. Okay, maybe I just want to be able to write like these poets, or to find these poems and be able to fit them into a book and know how they’ll reach someone sitting on a couch in Central Wisconsin, spooning their mastiff-mix, wanting and wishing that sometime soon we’ll be able to touch each other again and maybe feel something other than fear and emptiness inside, paralyzed because we don’t know what to do. I guess maybe I’d just like you to read some of these poems. In the final poem of Crush, “Snow and Dirty Rain,” there are these lines:
Because we’re all looking for the story that’ll save us, the poem to keep us alive.
In the second poem of Callista Buchen’s new collection from Black Lawrence press, the phrase “clouds made of mouths” reminds me why I love poetry—why I can’t help but read it aloud, repeating moments like that over and over.
It first happened with the phrase “a caught moth” from Margaret Atwood’s “The Woman Who Could Not Live with Her Faulty Heart.” I’m a sucker for assonance, the soft echo of vowels that expand on the tongue, weighting the palate. A few pages later in Buchen’s book, I’m reminded why I love prose poetry. In the densely stacked paragraphs, images and lines swim up out of some ether for the reader to find. Without the neutral space of the page as guide, readers themselves are searchers, seekers. I find “this grounding in proximity”—in Part I of a book that traces a story of mothers: daughters-who-become-mothers, mothers-who-grieve, mothers-who-become-mothers-again-but-carry-their-grief-with-them-as-they-mother.
The structure and language of Buchen’s collection establishes both a chronology of a specific story and a tangling of this chronology. Recurring metaphors include liquid (water, milk), construction (road, cement), and various threats. The second poem in each section has the same title, “Flashes,” and its own particular form—discrete lines separated by plenty of white space. The first few iterations of this poem note dangers and potential safe spaces—like a description of a basement during a weather drill, or a mother’s worries and her constant vigil. Pronouns lace throughout the collection, an ever-present “you” that can mean any mother. Woman is italicized: Woman. Mother is too. There is an imperative voice addressing readers.
The poem “Storytelling” makes this conflation of mothers explicit through the children’s book Blueberries for Sal. Who else remembers this book? Is it just me?—I read it to the children I cared for year after year, can picture it now. “Always the same story, the single color illustrations, me reading, my mother reading, her mother reading. What it means to be innocent.” Innocence can mean so many things, but here, at this moment in the collection, the poem appears amid poems about the loss of a baby, a birth. In the poem “Loss,” one of the mothers (I think of all the speakers as mothers by now) says, “I am grief. I am double and half [ . . .] I can be a coffin.” Immediately following that poem is “Kinds of Trucks,” which trucks in construction metaphors (hard hats and steel-toed boots and cement—all about building and safety and protection), and the mother writes, “Somewhere, a woman plans an arboretum, thinks, this morning I am domestic, this afternoon I am wild.”
One of the central poems in Look Look Look is “Metaphysics”—a short poem that encapsulates much of the poems’ multilayered depictions of motherhood. Aside from the second poem of each section, it’s also one of the few lineated poems. Because it so deftly captures the conflict at the center of the collection, it’s worth quoting in full:
Our most ambitious work: mother as birthplace, where woman becomes location.
Someone singing: rejoice! A body in service, a graft here, a graft there.
Call and response: how she (nearly) disappears inside ritual and imprint.
Let’s situate: Where were you born?
In a (nearly) different life, the child stands between her parents: a record, a stain, a
photograph of the future.
Contextualize: There, says the child, pointing toward her mother, home.
Later, how (nearly) altered: child becomes mother, the X on a map.
Call and response: why didn’t you warn me?
A prayer: but who would believe it? says the mother, and turns on the music.
To cast out from this poem, mother(ing) as work/location/disappearance figures heavily. Mother as seen by child, as connected to child, as once-child. The call and response sings throughout Buchen’s poems: the daughter becomes a mother and has a daughter. How much should she tell and when? And would she have listened anyway?
Perhaps if you are a mother, you do not need to know the story, any exact parameters, to know what kind of grief Buchen delineates in certain of these poems. Perhaps the dedication “For caregivers and those who nurture them . . .” is enough. Perhaps by the first line in the first poem, “Here are the wings we imagine, women, printed in blood, muscle . . .” you are already halfway into some ur-story, or some memory-place. You understand the story begun from this early scene: when “women sit in a circle, nursing. They could be knitting, could be planning a war.” As a not-mother, though, there were many things here I did not know—and for me, poetry has always been one of the ways I come to know things: through its sounds, and uncommon language, and juxtaposition of raw and lush. In “Remnants,” the mother tells how when filling out forms “even at the optometrist’s,” the number of pregnancies and the number of live births don’t match. “The third child that is the second child, any day now. She smiles like people do when they say that.”
If the collection has a kind of dénouement, it is the mapping of the mother’s body after the birth of the third-child-who-is-the-second-child, the way the title poem, “Look Look Look,” invokes this body:
Later, I read that the cells of children move through the placenta, latch on to the mother’s
lungs, liver, brain, her skin. The daughter’s cells, the cells of the new baby, the cells
of the baby that was lost. All the people of this body. A fissure leads to fog.
In “Quick Change,” the mother writes about stored bodies she keeps around the house—in the coat closet, under the bed, in the garage. She calls them “the spares” and declares it “better this way.” In poems in the last section, the mother writes about the dark line down her belly, how it doesn’t fade, separated muscles, “the distance between wrecked and whole.” The poem goes meta, referencing itself, what will and won’t work as a metaphor. It ends with “The body as a poem, what won’t grow back.”
Callista Buchen is the author of Look Look Look (Black Lawrence Press, 2019) and the chapbooks Double-Mouthed (dancing girl press, 2016) and The Bloody Planet (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Her work appears in Harpur Palate, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, and many other journals, and she is the winner of DIAGRAM’s essay contest. She teaches at Franklin College in Indiana, where she directs the visiting writers reading series and advises the student literary journal.