In my Survey of British Literature class in college, I remember learning several new words reading Milton.
He’s credited with introducing several words to the English language, but I remember one he didn’t invent: amanuensis, “a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.” The image is familiar – blind Milton, leaning back in his chair, surrounded by his daughters. There’s a painting in the New York Public Library that shows Anne, Mary, and Deborah, each engaged with their father’s work. Milton wrote Paradise Lost, and later works, with the help of a number of amanuenses. His daughters, a nephew, and some people paid to do the work. But I was most interested in his daughters then – and now.
The stories that make up our histories are ever shifting. One story is that the muse would visit Milton during the night, and he’d repeat lines over and over to himself, getting them right, committing them to memory, until someone arrived to write them down. He described his own process in several places. The youngest daughter, Deborah, worked with some biographers later in her life, so some of her impressions may have survived. Other biographers wrote of how the daughters hated their father: his demands, the tasks he set before them, his hypocrisy about the very notion of liberty, his re-marriages, the household where he kept them prisoner. Milton was a man of his time perhaps. Perhaps somewhere between the voice in blind Milton’s head, and the hand that wrote down the lines, some whiff of Anne, Mary, or Deborah survives.
Emily Bowles’s chapbook His Journal, My Stellaexplores a similar situation in some ways. The relationship between Esther Johnson and Jonathan Swift is introduced in a prefatory note to Section I. “Miss” establishes some basic parameters for their relationship. It is a fatherly, mentor relationship. She is eight. He is an “authority.” Later, perhaps, their relationship changes. The poems in Bowles’s collection traverse the grid of this shifting relationship, between powerful established man, and “pliant, pleasurable” Stella – who wants to be seen as “more than a child, better than a woman.” The deftness of these poems is the way they are sketched only, paired with modern-day experiences and relationships, stretched across the negative space of the page, leaving the reader more gaps than knowing. The repetition of “Miss” to signify young unmarried woman/girl, and “miss” to signify something lost, and the line-ending that splits “miss / take” recur over and over to fragment idea and thought and concept. Who can know what happened in Milton’s household? Who can know what was in Stella’s heart? Or Swift’s? The opening note makes clear: “This is and is not something we now refer to as grooming.”
Another classroom wells up at me in the poem “Misogyny in Rabelais.” The speaker has “missed / The Point.” The speaker has gone off topic, writing about something she shouldn’t have, questioning something outside of the poem. This is not an approved topic. “It is not valid,” the “[male] professor” points out. The final stanza of the poem is arranged in opposition to itself, a form that happens again and again here: “you” aligns itself with one margin, but the story occurs on the other margin, in the gutter of the page.
By the end of this poem, the speaker has become fragmented, both second-person (a person to see through) and an “I” still inhabited. She is two-personed, unable to withstand the weight of male authority, but uniquely situated to watch her failure and write it down.
While the story of Stella and Swift forms a framework for Bowles’s collection, the poems aren’t confined by that relationship. Many of the poems don’t reference that relationship explicitly but could be about it. Or not. They navigate the see-saw between specific and universal, but all traverse scaffolds of power, and specifically the power between men and women, that differential in romantic and sexual relationships, in marriage. Each poem calls forth “an act of sexual / textual / violence.” I said the poem “Misogyny in Rabelais” reminded me of a classroom – it does. A graduate school classroom where I asked if we could talk about a poet’s ethics, and the professor said that “wasn’t an interesting question.” An undergraduate classroom where a visiting poet told a round table of eager women poets that “no one wants to read about these things”; he told us, we earnest women-college students at our glossed wood table to “think about your audience.” We had been rapt.
In the article “Experts in the Field” published in Tin House, Bonnie Nadzam writes about abusive men in the writing world – and she touches on exploitive practices and the long-term effects they can have on students’ writing, careers, and voices. Power and authority can have long-reaching effects; power and authority can silence. As mentors, those who seek to harm can control their victims into their future. They are gate-keepers – they control access to jobs, residencies, contracts, networks. Most importantly, they can control access to our very selves, and the way we see ourselves. Through their reputations and classrooms and programs, they can “[teach] the rest of us how we should tell our stories.” In several poems, Bowles gives texts, criticism, judgement literal weight: “I wore the allusions, / those critical garments, / until they didn’t fit anymore.”
Bowles takes on structures beyond the classroom and criticism, exploring marriage and the home. In “Cedar Waxwing in Our House” the speaker finds kinship with a cat, noting the way we choose kitty litter and grain-free food to further divorce the creature from the wild – leaving us all “neutered.”
Domesticitycan feel like a form ofterrorism, and sometimesa feral urge creeps inon mouse feet or cedarwax wings.
There’s that fragmentation again – separating words we expect to see together, perhaps the way the bird’s wings were separated by jaws and claws. In the short poem “I Went Missing,” Bowles makes of words fragments, so they can be read multiple ways. I like to imagine hearing this, as well as reading it, inserting a long pause at the line breaks, giving the page its due.
It was a misstaketotakehis name. I wentmissing when Imisstookmyselffor his Mistress.
Perhaps the speaker of this poem is Stella, perhaps it’s the poet, perhaps it’s any married woman who regrets marrying. Or not regrets entirely, but just wonders about things lost in the joining. Things like names and the identities they signify. I appreciate the slight form, the symmetry of the lines.
The final section of Bowles’ book, Section IV, is titled “Missed.” The note describes how Stella fell ill, died. Swift lived on and mentions of Stella continued. Perhaps she lived on in his fiction, fictionalized. Perhaps she animated Gulliver’s Travels. A poem from this section complains “I am an envelope, sent back and forth / between men . . .” Perhaps whoever survives ensures their version of the story survives, but it isn’t that simple, not between women and men. Not when the context of history has its own rules, in its own places, and one party holds more cards than the others. Not when the negotiations take place behind closed doors in dimly-lit rooms. Witness Deborah, Milton’s surviving daughter, whose voice still wasn’t strong enough to trouble her father’s legacy much.
Reading Sara Ryan’s Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned is like finding poetics, a philosophy, a mini-manifesto.
It’s fitting, too, that the work is described as “hybrid”—as it mixes lineated poetry with prose endnotes that read as a mix of research notes and essay. She blends childhood memories of visiting museums, layering the remembered visions of taxidermied groups of animals with visiting taxidermy shows, excerpts from how-to manuals and articles about the meaning of skins and mounting, with a poetic voice that is quiet (fragments and small i’s) and loud (calling attention to the sheen and color of faux-blood and bright eyes). Altogether, this micro-chap from Porkbelly Press is an examination of the ways we preserve both ourselves and the animals we regularly pretend not to be.
A particularly strong poem is “Bad Hunter,” set at the Taxidermy World Championships in Missouri. The speaker describes women who “flock around like smart pink birds” and “men wearing leaves” who “chew on toothpicks.” The poem continues to contrast these genders: men and women, boys and girls. Judges walk through, taking the measure of all the animals there: “this is how wet the nose should be, this is how / cocked the hoof.” The final lines showcase the juvenile of the species— “a girl dusts paint flecks off her road-kill / beaver. a boy licks a pearl of blood from his thumb.” How color-rich and sensual these details. The reader’s understanding of the poem is only deepened by its accompanying endnote, which describes the gendered divisions in the field—hunting is masculine and so women in taxidermy “encounter sexism and gender stereotyping.” However, the footnote informs us women’s numbers are increasing: “young, academically driven, and largely female.” The endnote concludes with lines that could be back in the poem: “Women in polo shirts. In poodle skirts. In camouflage. Combing dead birds as if they were still chirping.”
Another poem with the (literal) cold-belly moments, the juxtaposition of the sensual and the unsettling, is “Prehistory.” In it, the speaker is discouraged from being an archeologist, but tells how she “identified the difference between / a shoulder blade and a pelvis in middle / school science. I dug into a fetal pig’s / cold belly while a boy pulled my hair.” I am there with her, in the poem, the black lab tables, the chemical smell, the pairing up (of lab partners). At the end of the poem she promises her mother she wouldn’t “dig up bones / for a living” but explains “I only meant the bones / that didn’t belong to me.” The poems are peppered with small moments of memory (a childhood visit to the Field Museum, the middle-school science lab, sitting across the table from “wily foxes on two legs”) that explain the adult intent in looking beneath the seams, sifting through sawdust and glass eyes to discover what the illusion is for— “are we mourners? Are we searching for sweetness?”
I admit it: I’m a sucker for skins, the animals they once were, and the strange things we do to them. I’ve begun my own collection of weird vintage accessories that I wear, often unsettling people I meet. I have the requisite foxes-biting-their-tails stole, complete with claws and glass eyes; a baby alligator purse with the whole small body intact; a skating muff with loose fox tails that waft in a breeze. I keep a small cache of porcupine quills, some blue jay feathers in a box, a raven hairpiece I should probably only wear for costume. As Ryan writes in “Beast Fables,” “we are all animals here” —the speaker goes on to invoke even the tiger mascot on a volleyball jersey as part of this menagerie: “the animal in all / our skins.”
The poem continues “this is a lesson in fake dead / and real dead. in learning / all the lies.” And here the poem breaks away to an endnote (and this reader along with it), a discussion of an art exhibit with photographs of taxidermied polar bears, accompanied by the bears’ biographies. From an article (cited in the footnote and included in the chap’s bibliography) by Rachel Poliquin, she includes the quotation, “. . . the bears become mysterious and ambiguous objects.” The endnotes are poems in themselves, a treasure trove of ideas to linger over—I found myself reading them as prose poems. They revisit key ideas: when does the animal cease to be animal? (Especially when we invest so much time and effort in re-creating it as if it were still living?) How does the process of turning the animal into a taxidermied object change our relationship and understanding of it? What does this process of “othering” look like? How does it function?
There are small quotes here and there that read to me as a statement of poetics, encapsulated:
“a sharp knife is important—always is.” (from the poem “The Specimen Dealer”)
“Through making things, people make themselves. Without things, we could neither be ourselves nor know ourselves . . . Without things being things, we are just as much human as we are animal” (from endnote 12, paraphrasing Patchett’s “Animal as Object: Taxidermy and the Charting of Afterlives”)
“The various reasons and purposes of preserving animals are ‘underneath and between,’ meaning that they are liminal and surface-level reasons, that cover or make glossy the visceral aspects of human desire . . . to prove something happened” (from endnote 13, referencing Rachel Poliquin)
There is a poem about the literal making of a taxidermied animal, “Of Men & Birds” that takes the reader through the process: “thrust your hook into his pelvis / and suspend him in midair (the better to work with the body) . . . be gentle with his neck (remember he was once other than object) . . . fill him up (a list of suitable materials follows) . . . when you take him home / notice his body (be filled with wonder) . . . you have never seen such a bird, / not even in your dreams.” The poem goes on to ensure that in its instructions for constructing this thing that is both object and subject, both animal and not animal, it shows its once alive-ness, while also showing the care given to the illusion. “he should have a few stitches / at his back, but not too many. / for obvious reasons. // you wouldn’t want him / to look a fool.”
Here, too, I don’t think the poet is talking about taxidermy, or not only. I find this a useful instruction for making a poem or thinking about how a poem could—or should—be made. Work with both hands; disjoint bones carefully; what wings! such feet! he is some good genius! But be sure a few stitches, a few seams (not too many) show, because it shouldn’t be too perfect an approximation of life either, there should be some intimation of a made thing, a thing touched by human hands, a thing that is not fully a recreation. Like taxidermy, a poem is “a dilemma of realism.”
The final poem is entitled “Extinct” and even more than the others in the collection makes use of fragments, half-starts, and dismembered sentences. This is heightened further by its form on the page, two columns that can be read in columns, or across, or both in sequence. The subtle shifts in the poem—depending on how one reads it (columns or across), and then how/whether/if one doubles back to the other reading occasions a contrast between things that survive: “fossilized sequoia” and “gold of an oil slick”—that final of final moments “eating the sun” and the already disappearing human who would witness these things: “the bone museum” that we’ve peopled with artifacts we collect and reconstruct for our comfort. I love the stop and start of this form, the way it sounds like an incantation of strangeness, the disjointing of images, pauses like unguents.
I highly recommend picking up this strong-voiced micro-chap that engages with all sorts of bodies and making and uncovers various ways of understanding what any of this means—asking far more questions than it provides answers for. The cover art by Rachel Allen is beautiful and perfectly paired; what a gorgeous specimen of a book. Together, the images of fur and feather and claw—and the hands that make use of them—give new life to the beasts of the woods, whether seen in their natural habitat or behind museum glass.
We have a variety of many-legged bug, some variety of arthropod. They like our brick house, our cement-floor basement, the clay soil, our proximity to the lake shore.
No matter how many times I hear the entomologist on public radio assure me these particular bugs are harmless, only unsightly, I want to kill them all. I put out glue traps, chase and flatten their long bodies, their multijointed legs. They skitter across me as I sleep. Even on the hottest nights, I must have a sheet fully covering me—just in case. There has been midnight panic: thrashing limbs, a tangle of sheets, cursing of the centipedes to wake an entire block. A few weeks ago I woke to the flurry of feet on my cheek; slapped and threw the thing against the wall. In the morning, I found its carcass: poor Gregor, the curled husk was at least an inch long.
The world is full of signs and wonders, portents. Tara Betts’s poem “A Season of No” has a spider wake her. The speaker is asleep on the floor, and the arthropod flutters her forearm, waking her. But this visitor is welcome. It calls her back to herself, breaks a spell. It is maybe a descendent of Anansi, an answer to the femme fatale spider woman, rebuke to a Dwight Yoakam lyric. The spider helps the speaker Break the Habit.
Folklore, more specifically fairy tale, has girls and women sacrificing much for love—their legs, their voices. They show devotion by cutting off their hands and wandering the world. As Betts chronicles the story of love, she touches on these themes. In “Ink on the Sheets,” the speaker worries about forgetting to cap a pen, explains, “after the divorce you get rid of all the bedding / you shared.” After the divorce—or maybe even before—“they felt like trying to sleep / on a hardened pea.” In stories about the creative woman, the intellectual woman, the investigative woman, a common theme emerges: at some point, to keep him, the girl/woman is offered a choice. She must sacrifice some integral part of herself. When the spider jolts you awake, you were on the floor, cast out of the marital bed, a pen loose in your hand, blank pages in front of you.
Betts’s poetry urges the reader to be awake to the world, to break the habit of inattention. In her poem “Acupuncture,” she writes, “after the last needle was drawn, I knew / people could be footnotes, or pain,” juxtaposing the body’s resilience with its permeability. By the end of the collection, she returns to spider stories: the Greek weaving goddesses, the Druids who believe a spider portends a creative project calling to be finished.
“Another Clearing of the Land: Epitaph for Hadiyah Pendleton” contains the story of Hadiyah, a fifteen-year-old girl shot in Chicago in 2013; it also contains the story of the two young men charged with her death: “One in school, & two not, & all / Black South Side teens / with nothing in common but a pained echo / for a future.” As I’ve been rereading this poem against the backdrop of fluctuating numbers of “victims,” of “deaths,” I’ve recalled how in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, some counts of victims/deaths would be smaller, two smaller—both the twenty-year-old shooter disappearing, but also his mother. Betts’s poem addresses the world that goes on:
What I hate, what I
will forever hate, is how she fades with every
day from numbness, from
an empathy undone, not bound to anyone,
the swift, ruthless slap casual
as someone swiping a bus pass,
for this is what
The poem imagines Hadiyah an “unopened bulb / that insisted on being much bigger,” but also those who shot her, mistaking her and the group she stood with for a rival gang, as “boys behind guns tamped / their lives heavily to prune // the years cut down.”
If the beloved asks the poet to give up her voice, he also asks her not to chronicle the world as it is, the world as it must be known, the world inhabited and filtered through the poet’s permeable skin. Break the habit of disconnecting context—the story of fast-fading names—from the world that moves too quickly to the next news, the new breaking report, the report of the too-soon-forgotten particulars that make the skin of the world we inhabit.
This previous fall semester, we had the distinct pleasure of Tara Betts visiting to read, meeting with students, and breaking bread. After the reading, driving back to the hotel, she told me how she crafts her collections—how she crafts her readings. She thinks about how each poem can reach someone differently; the poet uses her spinnerets, sending out a dragline, beginning to build. She read her poem “A Lesson from the Terrordome,” and I knew a friend who would love the idea of Chuck D introducing Huey Newton, uncovered through a library’s microfiche, that archaic magic. After the reading, another friend flipped through the book, stumbling upon “The Futility of Bras,” her face breaking into a wide smile. From the lectern, Betts explained the story of one of her spiders, the front-porch sitter she named “Craig,” lofting her eyebrow at the audience, waiting to see who would get the allusion.
And I am drawn back to the spider poems, their myth-making, their insistence on claiming the end of the book that is both end and beginning of a story. And I think I should be less brutal to my own house centipedes that call me to attention when I enter a darkened room.
To love, Betts’s poetry suggests, means to embrace the change and difficulty after the blared radio parking lot dance has ended. It means to welcome the portent of the spider, to watch the many-legged things in their short lifespans of weaving and egg sack and disappearance and desiccation. It means to offer a friend in pain a couch, your cat. It means to inhabit the pain of the body and make a textual music of it, the words lifting off the page. The spider wakes us, greets us, frightens and intrigues us, calls us to myth and history, “an inevitable / signature that flesh forces / us to write.”
A spreadsheet that circulated online for a very short time, that named names, that filled in details ranging from harassment to assault, that warned about men to be wary of, to avoid, that utilized the clean formatting of cells and color-coding, as a kind of organized and efficient clarion call, has had its original maker named. Moira Donegan named herself because she had to – because rumors had begun that she would be named, because she received a call from a fact checker, calling to check the “fact” that she created the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet.
It was true, sort of. The original spreadsheet began with her, but it became something much more than her work. As it was online for only a few hours, anonymously, and as it was a crowdsourced document, the work became a collaborative piece — added to by many others. Women added names, added details and situations to names already there, added categories of behavior. If a man was accused of physical sexual assault more than once, his name was highlighted in red. Concerned about the way anonymity could allow for false accusations, Donegan added a disclaimer at the top of the document. The spreadsheet’s clean lines, tidy columns, organizational format allowed for the document to grow to encompass all its authors — a community — writing of their experiences, warning others, bearing witness to the kind of interactions they navigate on an often daily basis inhabiting their bodies and identities in this world.
What does this have to do with poetry? Fair question.
The poet Isobel O’Hare has been creating erasure poems by blacking out the statements and/or apologies of celebrities accused of sexual assault and harassment. So many of these statements are lacking — full of misdirection, qualification, what-about-ism, conveniently faulty memories, long-winded sentences that never track back to what it is they’re supposed to be addressing . . . all in the interest of avoiding/distancing/distracting the reader/listener. O’Hare strips them down to an essence, finding a mystery message of a phrase within the expanse of text crafted by handlers and publicists. These erasures are thrilling to read, as if maybe — just maybe — we could imagine these being the actual words hidden within the words. O’Hare’s erasure poems will be collected and published this February by University of Hell Press, titled all this can be yours (with proceeds going to RAINN and Futures Without Violence). Additionally, O’Hare is editing an anthology/manifesto of feminist redactions. As with the spreadsheet, once O’Hare shared their work online, it engaged others and led to a continuation of that work.
I imagine O’Hare, not unlike Donegan and the community of women who created the spreadsheet, using the tools of the office (the world of work) to create a poetry from these most unpoetic of materials: picture them grasping Sharpies, giveaway pens with corporate logos, and printed text from press releases, and uncovering what is there – what is really there, beneath the surface.
Consider Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Slaying Holofernes: Gentileschi painted her own face as Judith, her mentor Agostino Tassi as Holofernes. This is an old old story. Tassi had originally denied the accusation, denied ever being at Gentileschi’s house. Later, he admitted proximity, claiming he’d visited to safeguard her honor. He’d been accused of previous rapes, was suspected of the murder of his wife. He was found guilty of raping Gentileschi, sentenced to two years, but the verdict was annulled and just a year later he was free. Gentileschi painted this painting a few years later, her second version of this scene. She imagines the moment of the knife at Holofernes’s throat, his last breath, being held down; Judith is assisted by her maid, a much younger woman. They work in concert and overpower him.
What I mean to say is that poetry, like all literature, must challenge the status quo — must challenge the reader to reconsider what power means, who has it, who should have it, and how it should be wielded. What is more of a challenge to that than the very notion of author, of “I”? Collaborative texts, intertextual texts, and anonymous texts kick the legs out from under the very notion that a text can be owned and controlled. It’s why when Moira Donegan was going to be outed, so many women responded online with #iwroteit; it’s why the erasures Isobel O’Hare began, inspired, and is now collecting are so powerful – they take the words of others and incorporate them into the poetic project, creating a hybrid text where the boundaries of ownership are blurry.
Poetry is also about form, which is another reason I’m drawn to erasures – they uncouple ordinary language from syntax and grammar, summoning a dream-voice from the carefully constructed language of (often, in this case) not-apology, from rationalization. In doing so, they allow to speak the words that have power but were heaped with watered-down, corporate-speak, passive-voice nothingedness; they separate the power of language from the uses those in power often coerce language into. Erasures are an act of resistance — subversive. Gentileschi too worked within a form: a biblical story, an oft-painted scene, working in the vein of artists like Caravaggio and her own father. But she makes some important changes even working within this existing tradition — including the much-younger maid (a warning there); including her own face, her own rage; calling out the identity of her rapist and mentor, ensuring he’ll be remembered for all time for that . . . for what he did, and for that scene of her imagined revenge.
Spreadsheets are useful to keep track of submissions, threads of story, dates and details for character developments. I remember when I realized that they were more than just elegant-looking tables, but rather something I could use — an organism to be crafted and tamed. They could do my bidding, they could morph, they could serve my needs and desires. A well-wrought spreadsheet is a thing of beauty, even when what it tracks is pain. Think of the possibilities for poetry — think what could be tracked within those cells, how to de-couple language from syntax, how to weave language and pattern and power. Thank you to all those writers who added their voices, who painted themselves into the picture, who took the sad pseudo-apologies and fixed them. Thank you to everyone who communicates in words, in a touch of the arm, with the safety of their presence, with a whispered warning, a too-long holding of eye contact — from whisper networks to the more formal spreadsheet, we need to take care of each other.
Certain kinds of difficult-to-quantify experiences are either discounted, disbelieved, or shrunken down to a ridiculous and facile system of measurement.
Those who suffer from chronic pain are asked to rate their pain on a scale from one to ten – as if sense and feeling aren’t the height of subjectivity, as if the body isn’t our own individual organ of touch, non-transferable. When trauma (especially medical) is layered with the experiences of women, traditional methods of knowing, understanding, and naming become even more complex. So Jane Lewty invokes Dora early in her prize-winning collection from the Cleveland State Poetry Center In One Form To Find Another: “The damage and fatigue left by Freud. // How it hits, the depth, the effect of it.”
What follows in the collection’s five sections (no table of contents) is a cacophony of prose-poems, experimental forms, interruptions, fragmentary narratives, excerpts, and lyrics, most loosely grouped under titles that identify them as Case Studies, with the name of a symptom, syndrome, disease, phobia, or diagnosis. The effect is chaotic: “word-strings that occlude meaning.” Except they don’t, quite. Lines and images swim up, unrelenting in their clarity. In “Case Study #4: Heart Arrythmia” the speaker asks the reader to consider “a future device for individual use. A sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name. ‘Memex’ will do.” Lewty’s book is this Memex – a compilation of quotations (from other authors, theorists, historians), medical terms and definitions, snapshots and memories of the self, willful mis-rememberings of the self. It’s a catalog of a speaker – a woman in a certain place and time.
If you eavesdrop on poets often enough, you’ll hear talk about two distinct kinds of poetry: poetry that is accessible and personal, or poetry that is experimental and cerebral. I don’t understand this dichotomy. It speaks more to our desires than our reality – and what a strange desire, really. As if our lived reality is linear, easy to follow; as if our lives don’t diverge or skip ragged from one idea to another. Yes, a casual reader of poetry may open Lewty’s book and find it a bit intimidating; the titles and epigraphs take pleasure in their disjointedness. Some of the poems revel in the jarring lines, the abruptness from one stanza to another, the disappearance of situation, speaker, stanza altogether. But for readers who wish a little more coherence, there are poems here too. Turn to “Case Study #19: Disequilibrium”: it could be an essay. The speaker talks about her wrestling with memory, her memories, what she “cannot bear to assemble again.” She writes, “Over time there’ll be a different me, a different other.” Turn to “Case Study #34: Sepsis.” Maybe the speaker is writing a letter to herself. Maybe she is writing a letter to that other self – that beloved, best friend, sister, other half who knows her best. Maybe she is writing a letter to herself who she wishes existed somewhere as her beloved, best friend, sister, other half. (How many of us have wished someone like that existed?). The poem is unbearably dear, unbearably personal. She tells her intimate-other, “You’re a weakened slight return, a worn want.” Even as she writes, she recounts “The then-King of Egypt said no not letters, they’ll create forgetfulness. / . . . The recorded sensual is dead, a construct.” That these poems both quantify and resist that construct is their charm.
The book explores different aspects of the body, of memory, of suffering, and sexuality. It is as if the speaker is looking for herself through a series of mediations: googling symptoms, reverse-searching images. Section Four confounds me; there, the images may be lifted from porn sites, re-cast and re-narrated. Some images may be projected from the speaker’s mind (actual memory, not found) onto a screen, re-edited, but in darker corners of the Internet – not consensual, not about pleasure at all. So many lines caught me up and stopped me short – many that referenced the speaker, a constructed self, and the work of writing that self:
“A lucid sentence is a demonstrable fact / but it’s so long ago.”
“The poem didn’t sound the way I wanted it to. It was a residue of an experience, not the essence.”
“I felt myself erode, like stucco. I couldn’t find a language to name what took place. What took its place.”
“We’re backstage of something normal, this page of everyone else”
(Forgive me for giving you fragments, but they’re beautiful – they don’t need structures for their beauty to be evident. At the top of one poem, I wrote “Jesus – brutal.”)
Rather than doctors asking patients to rate their pain on a scale of one to ten, maybe they should ask for a poem. Pain is bodily, personal and sensual – it lives in the matter of our skin. Maybe we could follow Lewty’s lead and quote from her poem “Case Study #17: Fibromyalgia”:
In what you have sentenced, the hand has an eluded edge. It locks but you can’t see how.
In what you have sentenced, the jaw has a new basis. It can’t say I.
The voice a shy bolt, though incomplete. Senseless wordsindream.
Lips of shoulder. Fleeting, malleable, the lower body organs are hung all adrift.
The same poem contains the image of “the throat a hollow-out space where a faucet should be.” These poems speak like a faucet, a throat, a hollow-out space. As poems should.
I met Molly Sutton Kiefer in April of 2014. We were both reading at the Reader’s Loft bookstore in Green Bay, Wisconsin – a friend had recommended this place to me as a wonderful independent bookstore, with cats.
April in northern Wisconsin is changeable: outside, the graying skies promised late evening sleet, but inside (with much thanks to Molly, a former local who rallied her friends and family) the store was packed with poetry listeners, the cats wefted around our feet as we read, and we warmed ourselves in the glow of old-fashioned desk lamps and the peculiar glow of peculiar-looking lines. After the reading, Molly told me about her new project, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, which she hoped would be a place for hybrid work — poems that didn’t quite fit with traditional notions of poetry. She’d noticed the shapes of my poems on the page and asked me to send her some work — it was the first time a stranger had solicited my work.
Since then, Tinderbox has been publishing poetry, reviews, and essays that speak to these hybrid forms, and speak to poets like me who often find our strange poems don’t easily fit with the aesthetics of more conventional journals. More recently, the Tinderboxers have added another endeavor: Tinderbox Editions, a small press for poetry and literary prose. Both the journal and the press are located in Red Wing, Minnesota, and have become a part of the lively literary scene of the land of one thousand lakes. Milkweed, Graywolf, and Coffee House Press are well-known publishers in the Twin Cities, and Tinderbox augments this literary landscape in a number of ways.
Located about an hour outside of the cities, Red Wing is also home to Red Dragonfly Press and hosts a summer celebration of the arts at the Anderson Center. Last July, Molly curated the readings of several poets, including Heid Erdrich, Katherine Rauk, and Athena Kildegaard — in my correspondence with Molly, she shared this “lovely tidbit”: Molly met Chris Burawa (the director of the Anderson Center) through the preschool their children attend; she gives his homemade carrot cake a rave review. This year’s Summer Celebration of the Arts was held July 8, featuring poetry and fiction readings with Leslie Adrienne Miller, Mona Power, and Danit Brown. Tinderbox has recently joined the space at the Red Wing Incubator, sharing creative energies as they overlook Barn Bluff.
After the reading in Green Bay that night, it did indeed sleet. Highway 41 was closed — the thin covering of ice was completely invisible, and created some of the more treacherous driving I’d seen. The frontage roads were no better, so I crossed to the east and wefted my own way through country lanes and the edges of suburbs. I’m a bit of Luddite, so had no GPS or cell phone, but I kept Lake Winnebago to the left of me and tracked steadily south. The side roads were rutted and pocked, covered in places with branched shade. The slicked sheen found less purchase. I made my slow way home in the wavered light of the moon.
In a certain light, I willfully misread the title of Katherine Rauk’s poetry collection Buried Choirs. There’s a choir in my head that repeats those lines from Sonnet 73: “Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” There were no birds that night home from Green Bay, but the boughs did shake against the cold, and the sound of “bare ruined choirs” is buried in the back of the throat: a perfect swallowing.
The speaker’s voice in Rauk’s book rings with sounds and punning. The forms range from little rectangles of justified prose to spare couplets of simple language. The poems themselves oscillate from teacher-poems (invoking and mocking the mistakes of email, the ridiculousness of self-assessment, the mechanics errors of rough drafts) to intimations of loss to poems littered with imagery of childhood, often inverted to the strange and unsettling.
The birds are there too. In “The Price,” the speaker laments she “will never learn what love is / eating out of your hand.” The verb “think” and its variations build up, so the poem becomes a puzzle: the speaker thinking of the beloved not thinking of her, as she thinks of things — things like Thursdays, or “doorframes / stacked one up against / another’s emptiness.” The poem itself becomes this image of doorframes, spaces piled over spaces, with “some / kind of wind blowing through.” Rauk’s poems are often like this: a piling up of simple images, in simple language that becomes too complex to sort through simply. These deceptive poems require re-reading; the reader searches for the “I,” the source of the poem to hold onto and grasp.
There are also strange moments of humor paired with cleanly expressed loss, as in the poem titled “Instructions On How To Open A Gift That May Or May Not Be A Sausage.” The poem begins by referring to the mustard seed, and the Sermon on the Mount, which in Rauk’s poem becomes the “Sermon on the Meat.” But soon the poem points out that “the mustard plant is actually a weed, a subversive gift that is difficult to ungive.” And immediately after, the next sentence tells us: “Like the gift of love, which once opened cannot be returned to its original package, no matter what your ex-husband says.” From there, the prose poem returns to a pun or two, but we’ve been reminded that this is no joke — this is humor to save us from pain. Only a little funny, more than a little forced.
It is near the end of the second section that the collection reaches its apogee, its fullest emotional resonance, in the two poems “Summer Romance” and “Determination.” The first reminds us, “No less / beautiful for not being / true is the story / we tell ourselves / over and over / again about death.” The second reminds us of summer storms in prairie towns: “Sometimes we are given / lightning. Sometimes / the quiet heat / of a padlocked barn.” Both of these poems speak to the way we interpret images, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Both of these poems set up the third section of the book, which provides some resolution for the speaker, for us, and for this group of slow-burn poems with their central image of seeds – the Buried Choirs of the title.
Tinderbox Poetry Review and Tinderbox Editions continues to publish exciting work through the journal and the press. Of their work, Molly writes:
I’ve realized that I have a strong interest in promoting literary works that I felt were difficult, challenging, compelling, and ignited a spark inside me as a reader. Tinderbox wants to be a home for voices who need to be heard, whose works have an urgency in this world, and we also want to do what we do out of a sense of literary citizenship, which means that, for instance, [Kelly Hansen Maher’s book] Tremolo launched at Stillwater Prison, where Kelly taught, and we’ve given workshops in communities that might not have otherwise had this access.
She also promises exciting books in the works and the near future, including more poetry, an anthology of lyric essays, a poetic novel, and more. I highly recommend checking out the journal – free and accessible online – or buying a subscription to Tinderbox Editions.