by Rachel McKibbens
88 Pages, Copper Canyon Press, October 2017
Review by Julia Bouwsma
Rachel McKibbens’ third collection of poems, blud (Copper Canyon, 2017) is a brilliant and binding conflagration—a coiled and smoking braid of cycling self-resurrections, thick curses, inherited and inescapable traumas, and of simple, clear-voiced blessings for those who have survived (and yet still bear) childhoods and families threaded by mental illness, violence, and neglect. McKibbens’ poems are unflinching, sharply intimate, and concretely modern, yet they howl with a primal want that is as old as mountains, rivers, and time itself—a narrative that is carried in the blood and passed down through generations in a world where “language is a conjuring, lineage the cruelest coven.” Blud tells the tale of “a child / hemorrhaging / light, / the blue song / of her brain” until “the blue song / became a dirge, / then the dirge / became a girl;” of a cold, cruel mother “with looking-glass / hands & a tub / full of bleach,” a schizophrenic mother with a “mouth full of radio wire” who “was always going;” of a son’s “inherited crimes—the voices that spin // his brain into a wooden / horse.” And it is the story, too, of what it means to accept one’s ghosts without allowing them to run slipshod over the self so that one might “permit forgiveness // to know your name, to leave our cruelest years / where and how we need them most— // behind & unlit.”
What is perhaps most jaw dropping about blud is the subtle balancing act McKibbens employs in portraying the unbalanced mind. These are poems of immense force and pain—poems that draw unabashedly upon a deep well, that rake red welts across both the heart and the brain. When first I read them, I couldn’t help but picture myself at fourteen, sitting cross-legged on my built-in Formica desk under the blue light bulbs I’d swapped out for regular ones, notebook in hand, spilling my unchecked grief and fury, my melodramatic and archetypal language, my teenage imitations of the poets I idolized, onto the page without hesitation. Reading poems such as “poem written with a sawed-off typewriter” or “letter from my heart to my brain,” I was able to identify the ghost-like wisps of poems I had written in my adolescence, bits of language or syntax I had learned over time to label as indulgent and excise. Under McKibbens’ deft touch, such poetic indulgences are often nourished rather than silenced—allowed to spread their dark petals and blossom as blessings or curses. What results is a poem that bows its head to no one and casts any attempt at a craft versus content debate abruptly on its head. Throughout blud, McKibbens seamlessly fuses the raw power of her words with a profound literary knowledge and a sharply tuned awareness of craft. There is a learned wisdom and precision to her poetics, one that serves to temper the poems, to slow them down slightly and imbue them with a survivor’s sense not only of what is required to write the poems that must be written in the moment, but also the poems that will need to be written in the future. Each poem pours fluidly from the poem that preceded it. Each seems to be a necessary steppingstone along a still unwinding path. These are poems that burn hot, but they are calculated and designed to last.
Framing the beginning, middle, and end of the book, for example, are three poems of personal death and resurrection—“the first time,” “the second time,” and “the last time”—poems that both vividly recall and delicately tease apart Sylvia Plath’s famous “Lady Lazarus.” However, unlike Plath’s poem, which condenses its tryptic of resurrections into a single fiery, voyeuristic blaze, McKibbens allows each of her three deaths and resurrections its own poem and, with it, the full moment and interior reflection of each experience. In “the first time,” the opening poem of the book, the child speaker returns to consciousness, alone, after having strangled herself with a telephone cord: “the ruined gasp / emerging from / within / my cutoff throat.” “The second time” chronicles an epiphany regarding gender identity and a teenage sexual experience with a classmate: “our feral bodies, driven / by unmothered chaos // returned each other to / the living.” And in “the last time,” the penultimate poem of the book, the third resurrection when it is least expected, in what might otherwise be a completely unremarkable and fleeting moment:
By contrast to Plath, McKibbens’ decision to write her three moments of resurrection as separate poems feels like an act of deliberate pacing and survival, a consciously sustainable choice. Each death and resurrection becomes an essential step toward learning “to need the body / I spent years trying to rid the world of.” And in lieu of the emphasis Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” places on being seen by others (“The peanut-crunching crowd / Shoves in to see…”), McKibbens’ “the last time” casts aside spectacle in favor of the self finally and simply seeing and acknowledging the self.
For though blud chants and clatters into the darkest corners of the night, this is ultimately a book that is focused on the holy and daily act of living—on the process of finding an eventual home inside the unwanted body, of taking root in the terrifying world, of committing oneself to acts of love and creation no matter what they might yield, of accepting the horrors of one’s past but also of embracing the gifts of one’s progeny, and of celebrating in both its certain and uncertain glory. Indeed, as McKibbens writes in the final lines of the book’s final poem, “the other children have agreed to forfeit their inheritance”:
Blud then is a wail, the feral howl of the cast-off child in the woods. But it is also the tenderest of lullabies, sung both to the self and to those children “beckoned / by a cursed spindle.” It is a masterful and hard-wrung ballad, a dark tapestry threaded with gold that will cast its shadows far and long.
Julia Bouwsma is the author of the poetry collection, Work by Bloodlight (Cider Press Review, 2017). She lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her poems and reviews can be found in Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, Grist Online, Muzzle, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, River Styx, and other journals. She is the Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine, and the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. Please send her book review submissions to [email protected]