“Poems of Self-Witness,” Review: blud by Rachel McKibbens

blud, by Rachel McKibbens. Copper Canyon, 2017. 88pp, poetry.

Recently, while editing a handful of book reviews for Muzzle Magazine (where I am Founding Editor-in-Chief), I noticed a telling pattern: most of our poetry reviewers found it necessary to begin by saying something deeply personal about how their experiences of America’s current political dystopia shaped their interactions with the collections they were reviewing.

There seems to be a great need to name what is happening right now, many voices trying to say something to the effect of: I am a person living in America right now and I am afraid and angry. Similarly, I find it difficult to talk about the poems in Rachel McKibbens’ new collection, blud, without saying something about why I need McKibbens’ generously loud and audacious voice to face logging into Twitter right now.

It’s over a year since we elected Trump, a grotesque poster-man-child for toxic masculinity, as President. Alabama recently had a special election for Senate in which one candidate (Roy Moore) was accused of sexually assaulting children and one candidate prosecuted KKK members for bombing a Baptist church (Doug Jones), and it was very unclear who would win. Every other day there seems to be new public accusations of celebrities sexually assaulting women (Louis C.K., Al Franken, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor…). Nearly every time I’ve gone to a bar over the last three months arguments have broken out amongst liberal and highly-educated men in my circle of friends about what constitutes sexual assault. Everyone seems to have a lot to say. I have PTSD and say very little.

Today, I sat alone at a coffee shop and cried as I reread an untitled poem toward the middle of blud, which begins with the line: “To my daughters I need to say.” The speaker begins by addressing her daughters with a wish for them to find a kind of love that is not defined by misogyny: “Go with the one who loves you biblically / …Whose body bursts sixteen arms electric / to carry you, gentle.” She later turns to address a “Last Love” figure who personifies a kind of love that is warm and giving. With this turn, she defiantly carves out a space for love amid the shadow of violence:

Let the man behind the church do what he did
if it brings me to you. Let the girls in the
locker room corner me again if it brings me
to you. Let this wild depression throw me beneath
its hooves if it brings me to you. Let me pronounce
my hoarded joy if brings me to you.
Let my father break me again & again if it
brings me to you.

Here, McKibbens’ speaker provides a narrative of hope for survivors of trauma and defies the ability of that trauma to fully control her life. Her speaker describes physical violence from a father, sexual abuse from an unnamed man, the strange cruelties girls show to one another, and the throes of depression — and she asserts that it is worthwhile to live past it all. This assertion is such a grace to those who are not past but amid those crushing realities.

Rachel McKibbens

McKibbens’ generosity toward her audience counters the stale arguments from poetry-land dinosaurs that poems dealing with taboo, “confessional” subject matter — such as experiences with mental illness, sex, and abuse — are just naval-gazing, confessionalism.

It strikes me that McKibbens is not confessing anything. There is no quest for absolution from any god or priest, or random person reading her book on the subway. Instead, there is a bold assertion of what the speaker’s world is like, a world that is in many ways unkind and harmful to women, a world that is haunted by fears about what traits are inherited from parents, that includes mental illness, that includes abuse, that includes shame over ethnicity, that includes trying to find a path forward and despite it all.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to call these poems of self-witness (rather than poems of confession). The term “blud” simultaneously addresses the speaker’s anxiety over familial inheritance and her insistence on the importance of being there for her children, of staying in her body and the life she’s made. Her naming of the harmful things in this world is a gift to readers who have at some point felt that naming their own experiences was silenced by the many grabby hands of patriarchy. The naming of “unspeakable” experiences that are very real and ongoing (as we are reminded by the barrage of celebrities recently accused of sexual assault) can make readers feel less alone and more empowered to speak about their experiences. This is not to say that poets like Rachel McKibbens (and her brave predecessors who spoke about their personal political experiences, such as Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and arguably Anne Sexton) are entirely to credit for the trend of women speaking out about abuse, but they have played a role in creating a culture in which women’s experiences are valued and heard.

As an example of McKibbens naming the “unspeakable” unapologetically, her framing sequence (comprised of: “the first time,” “the second time,” and “the last time”) describes times that the speaker has come back to life, both literally and figuratively. The first time the speaker comes back to life is as a child in 1980 after wrapping a telephone around her throat to choke to death. I know what the most callous person in workshop would say; we’ve already read “Lady Lazarus,” but this poem is far less finger-pointing and far more appreciative of survival than the Plath poem (which I also love). McKibbens’ speaker shows reverence toward the luckiness of experiencing the “lavender shock / of resurrection.” She claims she’s “Lucky to have / outlived this / unripened error.” To me, the ending rings a bit of the feeling at the end of Frost’s “Birches” (“May no fate willfully misunderstand me / And half grant what I wish and snatch me away / Not to return.”) in that both poems include images from childhood and wishes to escape from the world temporarily:

Can you imagine it?
A child standing
at the mouth
of the underworld
pleading
for a time-out
trying to reason
with whatever’s
in charge.

The poems that follow provide a series of crushing reasons that this child speaker might wish to escape her world for a bit: she has a physically abusive and terrifying father and a frequently absent schizophrenic mother; she’s been encouraged to distance herself from her Mexican heritage and pass as white; she’s confused about her sexuality and gender identity; and she watches family members go through incarceration. The fear and shame connected with any one of these circumstances could make someone, especially a child who has not been granted coping skills yet, plead for a time out. Interestingly, “the second time” and “the last time” do not appear to recount the speaker coming back to life from attempted suicide, but rather they recount coming back to life from some sort of a zombified, unalive state.

“the second time,” a poem that describes an early sexual experience, describes being brought back to life by another girl’s mouth. This could be read as a narrative about sexual awakening; it could also be read as a narrative about the importance of embodiment in the face of trauma: “Our feral bodies, driven / by unmothered chaos / returned each other to / the living.” The body reminds the mind that it is alive, that there is value and a possibility of pleasure in staying alive — even if many of life’s circumstances are far from pleasurable, even if they are terrifying. “the last time” chronicles a very different awakening triggered by an unremarkable task:

The last time
I came back to life
was in the middle
of an ordinary day,
while at the grocery store,
when I caught
my reflection
in the butcher’s glass
& did not
flinch.

While most of my grocery store experiences lack this element of epiphany, what I love about this ending is that amid reminders of violence (represented by “the butcher’s glass”), the speaker is able to see herself, plainly, unflinchingly.

Many of McKibbens’ poetic decisions in this collection enact the speaker’s attempt to see herself — in full past and body, in full blud — without flinching. Beyond the generosity of the emotionally expensive subject matter and vision of these poems, they are also generous in the clarity of voice used within the collection’s stunning dramatic monologues. Writers, especially women who write about “confessional” subject matter, are often pressured to obscure well-written dramatic monologues; to tell the story “more slant”; to be less on-the-nose, whiney, melodramatic, sensationalist, loud, attention-seeking, abrasive, confrontational, narcissistic, blunt, accessible, adolescent, self-indulgent, Plath-y, YA-ish, drama-queen-ish, angry, emotional (as a sample of terms I have at some point heard “confessional” poems by women called in academia).

There is no grand puzzle to solve in terms of what is at stake in McKibbens’ poems. While some critics might lazily write off this type of clarity in self-witnessing as showing lack of craft or complexity or some such nonsense, I would argue that it shows a skill that many acclaimed poets simply do not have: the ability have gorgeous language and to be clear at the same time. Such critics would not balk at calling a tree a tree or a kiss a kiss, but to call a black-eye a black-eye is somehow considered unimaginative, though black-eyes may become ordinary in the lives of many people, especially women, without their consent. When we think of McKibbens’ clarity, we might think of her background in both slam poetry and theatre; reading a poem on a stage means that amid one’s linguistic flourishes and allusions, one has to hone things in around a target (because audience members cannot go back and reread lines during a performance).

What I worry about is that because McKibbens’ subject matter is so important and clear, the gorgeousness of her writing gets ignored. McKibbens is greatly gifted in terms of both sight and sound, especially in her usages of imagery, metaphor, anaphora, assonance, and consonance. Here is a collection of lines I underlined on my first reading and am deeply jealous of not having written myself: “kindergarten pariah / with a sweet tooth for death;” “the body’s forbidden dialect;” “trapped daughter / of my own asylum;” “every gift I’d given him, / a diary of fang & venom;” “if you’ve named your head a glistening chaos / instead of drowning in bad animal light;” “lit blud full moon hustle & oath;” and “Ripe with vengeance, I termite.”

Although it may seem weird of me to take these lines out of context, I hope that doing so shows something easily forgotten during the emotionally affecting experience of reading her poems; how damn good she is on a line level. Though she has a bit of a cult following, let’s be clear that McKibbens is no Rupi Kaur resting on internet fame and timeliness; she is arguably the best poet writing in the form of dramatic monologue right now. McKibbens’ poems are as gorgeous as they are brutal, as formally in control as they are feral in voice, as filled with surprising and complex metaphors as they are accessible. She seems to be an expert at using the masters tools and sneaking them back without him noticing; I’m very much looking forward to seeing what she builds next.