The Once-in-a-Decade-Book You’ve Been Waiting For

Go buy Rachel McKibbens new book of poetry, blud, printed by Copper Canyon Press. It’s that rare book of poems that reminds you how and why you can’t live without poetry. Ever. This book is that essential, that haunting, that seething with rage, that heartbreakingly and unflinchingly honest, that full of the blood-jet of powerful writing, that it takes all your willpower to put it down and go back to the humdrum of the day. Every poem in this book rails forward with the momentum of a runaway train. There are no “filler poems” or lulls in the story being spun. The insights she gleans, the language she uses and how it informs and/or receives inspiration from her imagination and narrative, are all wonders to behold on every page. Take this fine poem near the beginning of the book:

a brief biography of the poet’s mother

There was
a child
hemorrhaging
light,
the blue song
of her brain,
an early maggot
writhing.

Her mother,
a jealous
newlywed,
with looking-glass
hands & a tub
full of bleach

thieved & thieved
until the child
became
a quiet room

a silence born
of interrogated
flesh.

Girl is the worst season.
Mother no guarantee.

No clothes or meat,
no heavy tit wrecked
with milk.

So the blue song
became a dirge,
then the dirge
became a girl.

This is the first of several poems in the book describing her relationship with her mother. In a span of 78 words, we learn that the girl was born with a “blue song / of her brain,” her mother was a jealous sort and “thieved & thieved” from the child until a silence took root in her “interrogated / flesh,” and then finally that the girl’s “blue song / became a dirge / then the dirge / became a girl.” We’re told that being a “Girl is the worst season.”

Story, imagination, musicality, and form are all present and accounted for in this poem. What’s more, they’re executed well. And that’s why this poem packs an emotional punch at the end.

Nearly every poem in blud contains these elements. It’s what Gregory Orr calls the “four temperaments” of a poem. Even just reading the title of each poem in the table of contents feels like a dare to enter each temperament: “maybe this will explain my taste in men,” “poem written with a sawed-off typewriter,” “letter from my heart to my brain,” “deeper than dirt,” “fairy-tale pantoum for my seven-year-old self,” and “dead radio apostle.”

But aside from all this dissecting and polemicizing, ultimately what makes this book the kind that feels so rare is it’s emotional register. There are plenty of really great poets, and plenty of really great poems. Some even exist collected together in a singular book. But there are few books that standout like blud does. Emily Dickinson famously said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That is the visceral experience I had reading blud. And also being punched in the gut, sunk in the heart, and razed in the soul.

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