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.

Writing the Unspeakable: Trauma and Transformations

I’m drawn to dark poems. When a poet is able to reveal some kind of past pain or trauma, and do it in such a way that new understanding is gleaned, where something beautiful is created out of the depths of that darkness, I feel part of that new understanding as though I too am part of a community of self-reflection and healing. The very act of the poet writing a trauma is radical and wholeness making. But I also see many poets go terribly wrong in this arena.

Some writers try to capture the trauma by simply recounting the event, telling it detail for detail. The effect is one of recreating the wound all over again, fetishizing it, re-perpetrating it. Rachel McKibbens new book of poems Blud is an example of how not to recreate the wound all over again, but to transform it, to make it into a reckoning with the beauty of language and a catalyst of self-awareness. Her poem “The Sandbox” walks a very tight line between letting the reader in on what this trauma was, and buoying us with the necessary transformations of art-making.

THE SANDBOX

for Lisa or Laurie

We held each other / in silence / mouth against mouth / blood & thunder
scorching the grass / Behind the shed / I played the husband / brutish
breadwinner / choking her flesh / in my troubled hands / pulling her head
back / to lick / from neck to ear / in frenzied thrill / The kind of love / I
learned from movies / & what light swamped the air / as I shoved my bald
pelvis into hers / blood ripening into wolf brine / burning a girl-shaped
hole in the clover? / Every afternoon I became a god reinventing sky /
expert forger of the dry hump / I asked Who’s your daddy? before that was
even a thing / Once the recess bell rang / I released her back / into the
quiet unwild / to no-longer-mine / to fat white tubs of minty paste / &
songs about Jesus / From across the room / I watched my bride / make
eyes / with the real boys / & knew I could kill for her / drill a body down
into the earth / boy in the Polaroid / a grisly figurine / The white horse of
masculinity bucking wild on the inside / I bit my lip & did as I was told /
After school / I wanted / to hold her hand / she always wanted a divorce /
When the big kids followed me home / calling me / lesbo / homo / wetback
/ faggot / I held my chin out & challenged to fight them all / every time /
& why not? / Might as well / we all knew / I would never / win / anything.

I love this poem for so many reasons. First, I relate to the childhood exploration around sexuality and what’s acceptable behavior within the societal hetero-norms that we all experience. Second, I love how controlled she is with the telling of what happened, and the language she accesses to do it.

When she says she “played the husband” and then further defines what her already absorbed societal notion of a husband was like as “brutish breadwinner / choking her flesh” we’re let in on the cultural messages that a child’s mind receives and how it plays out within their relationships and interactions with other kids. Whether or not we’ve ever had the exact experience McKibbens recounts becomes irrelevant, since it’s the universal experience we all have of grappling with what those hidden messages are that we all receive as children.

In McKibbens’s case, she’s revealing that she’s aware now of what those messages were. And whether or not we write poems, this is something that we all have the ability to do, to come to terms with how this culture has shaped us and encoded us with implicit and explicit biases. McKibbens demonstrates this awareness again and again in this poem. She’s aware that she was exploring her own masculinity inside of a female body, and what the “rules” were around this exploration. Despite her intentions, she knew that she could never truly embody the masculine nature that she wanted because the boys were the only ones truly allowed to embody this persona. As she says at the end, she knew she’d “never / win / anything.”

This “winning” seems to be the crux of the poem’s meditation on gender norms and acceptable sexual expression. She knew, somewhere inside of her as the child she was, that she wasn’t going to “win” at this game she was playing. This is the major transformation of this poem. When you begin at a place of not understanding the pain you’re experiencing, to then naming that pain, you’ve forever altered your ability to dwell inside of that place. It’s not just a scary dark beast that torments you. It’s flesh and blood of a different form: it has a face, a name, a characteristic, a way of moving in the world.

How we come to terms with these parts of ourselves, determines how easily we can move within the sphere of ourselves and the cultural space we all occupy. We didn’t create the world we were born into, but we are all actively creating/re-creating it on a daily basis through our ability to transmute the unspeakable/unknowable/unseeable into something intimately alive and seen.