Copper Canyon Press, 2017
I first encountered Rachel McKibbens speaking at an AWP panel on “Poetry as Invocation” with Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Airea D. Matthews, Ada Limón, and Casey Rochteau. The poets read their work and discussed “the poetic impulses of women as a magical or quasi-magical act.” I came away with a new sense of the magic words can do, and I’ve been chasing it ever since, beginning by reading the work of those witchy poets. I was pleased to find that McKibbens works this kind of magic in the poems of blud (Copper Canyon Press, 2017) through speech acts and indeed incantations that have consequences in the life of the poet herself.
The poet/speaker begins by chipping away at the massive challenges mental illness and abuse put in her way as a child, beginning with the most practical and unavoidable. In first poem in the book, the speaker attempts suicide as a young child and sets up the mission of the entire collection in its last lines:
No, no! I never
meant to stay dead.
I simply wanted
a sweeter life. (7)
McKibbens almost telepathically prompts the reader to wonder if and how she will achieve this. Her speaker/poet is reborn many times throughout the collection, feeling out different ways to speak herself into existence until it not only sounds right, but sings. Reeling closer to death with each episode, she is confronted with the question: what is so deeply ingrained in the self that she would have to die to eradicate it?
First born out of someone else’s narrative, her mother’s, the speaker becomes aware of this and other narratives she is tangled up in: those of her great-grandparents who came to the United States as immigrants, her classmates, her religion, and the legal system. The rage she feels as the powerless child in these dynamics is palpable, as in “poem written with a sawed-off typewriter.” She survives her mother’s mental illness, her father’s abuse, and her own struggles with identity, defining the language that family is bound by in the process: mother, father, parent; son, daughter, child; birth, name, inheritance; raise, obey; blood. Collecting the tools she needs to rebuild her life from the ground up.
Some of the most powerful poems in the book are “letter from my heart to my brain” and the response, “letter from my brain to my heart.” The heart speaks first, with the refrain of “its okay;” the brain analyzes and reasons, qualifying that “There is no prayer / or pill for this,” explaining its stubbornness in a language the heart can understand (22). The speaker listens to her own body in its fragmented parts to ease cognitive dissonance between her thoughts and emotions. In this way she is able to see herself as a sovereign entity, independent of the family and environment she was born into. Alternately gritty and euphoric details create extremely relatable embodied metaphors for self-destructive thoughts and surviving them, making for effective poems with real healing power.
She realizes that she can craft her own narrative(s) by force of will: with her own actions, chosen relationships, and words. She can work magic. These poems function as a set of keys to the poet/speaker’s self-empowerment, manifested in the ability to make her own meaning and live a full life. Her body and sexuality, dark side, mental illness, and relationship with her mother were all “gifts” that held the poet/speaker back in some way even well into adulthood. Nevertheless she finds power in her individuality and claims it with language.
Embracing this new power and uniqueness conversely requires the speaker to cleanse herself of the illness and dysfunction left behind by the people who first brought her into being. McKibbens uses the metaphor of birth to describe the poet-speaker’s process of ridding herself of her mother throughout the book, most notably in “dead radio apostle.” Concrete details like “Heels in stirrups, / knees pitched / above my hips” and “a handful of black hair” make this more than a metaphor; this speaker is experiencing the actual birth of a baby while affirming that the doctor and nurses are “delivering my mother / into an unrelenting light” (79–81). In the chaos of birth, the reader can intuit that the speaker is pushing out the most insidious remains of her mother, a blindingly painful undertaking, to make room for an absolutely pure mother-child relationship.
blud is liberating. It offers empathy for those suffering from situations seemingly out of their control and affirmation for survivors of such situations. “oath (blud litany)” speaks to emotional “kin,” christening them family with the statement “I unbl__d you to blud you” (47). Thus a new covenant is formed based on the mutual understanding of all who have experienced abject strife; “if you’ve ever searched for mercy in the sharpened hands / of an I-told-you-so,” you are blud (46). McKibbens follows this up with notes “To my daughters” and their “Last Loves,” instructing this new generation of family on how to love each other persistently and prosperously (48–51). With statements like “Love the love that is messy / in all its too much,” the poet-speaker lays down emotional objectives that avail themselves to various roles in a romantic relationship strong enough to build a family on, sensitive to the possible gender and sexuality of her reader. She makes compassionate and swoon-worthy suggestions on how to love him, her, and “the one whose skin triggers your heart / into a heaven of blood waltzes” (48). These two poems (and in my opinion, the entire collection) demand to be read and re-read, especially by those with love-hungry souls.