from QUARTERLY WEST: my review of Nickole Brown’s “TO THOSE WHO WERE OUR FIRST GODS”
“….Oh forgive me, Lord / how human I’ve become…” murmurs the first poem in Nickole Brown’s new chapbook. And there, Reader, in the middle of that poem, is where I began to weep. I’ll speak here with directness to honor the tenor of Brown’s poems—intimate, knowable. To Those Who Were Our First Gods is dedicated to a three-legged ram called Gulliver. To see eye to eye with a ram, one must get on their knees; these poems kneel to the reality of the Anthropocene. Neither an “ecopoet,” whose language might become all but incomprehensible, distorting in concert with a ravaged world, nor a “nature poet,” who might reflect on the world as being of distance, an exceptionalized place of awe and exceptional untouchability, Brown is a poet of presence, participation, communion and communication. To Those Who Were Our First Gods feels committed to being—what some regard as a great poetry sin, (gasp!) —accessible. Language here is porch-stoop and diner and parking lot colloquial, a kind of poetry that does not risk losing the reader’s attention or identification by employing unconventional language or form. There is too much at stake in these poems to risk not speaking simply.
Here is some old news: male-dominated societies are dependent upon the systemic suppression of voices in conflict with their value system. On the inner cogs of patriarchy, we see racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, etc. all the expected forms of violent belief. Now let’s look closer—there: a term rarely spoken which is perhaps the deepest plague on the planet: Anthropocentrism: the belief that human life is of greater value than all other life. Within the twists of this view, there exists a firm defense of the industrial food complex. As Wendell Berry wrote in his essay “The Whole Horse,” we live in “…an economy, and in fact a culture, of the one-night stand.” Despite having no specific definition of “free-range,” we’d like to congratulate ourselves for the supposedly ethical purchase of “free-range” eggs. We would also like a side of bacon. We would would like surf with our turf. The idea of animals as subservient, disposable, “natural resources” rather than equal beings—all this contributes to the fact that American consumers have grown obscenely over-dependent upon meat. And towards animals not killed for meat, there is often indifference, annoyance, or vague disgust. The mouse in the kitchen is deemed rightfully detested—buy a 12 pack of snap traps for 8 dollars, and be done with it. The poems of To Those Who Were Our First Gods stand shouting, singing, from the center of this history of willful ignorance, this deeply engrained system of cruelty. And the voice shouting is that of a queer woman, a marginalized voice that both sings her own natural history and begs – repeatedly – for animals to speak in a language humans can understand.
Understand, reader: I speak here with a more explicitly political view than is ever offered within Brown’s collection. There is nothing that could be called incendiary in these poems, no treatise against factory farming, no direct railing against the mistreatment of animals. Brown simply presents this violence to us through her pleas to animal life, as in the poem “Mercy,” when she says to an elephant without saying elephant:
I need to hear especially
from you: I have a photo here of a man
grinning with your lopped-off tail in his fist.
I need you
to speak, dammit,
Throughout this chapbook, I thought of Walt Whitman’s expressions of bodily love in “Song of Myself,” how he finds no aspect of the body to be vile. In Brown’s “The Scat of It,” even excrement is embraced with a loving lyricism, various types described as “dinky moons eclipsed,” as “ghost-white,” as “a sad jaundiced yellow or something rich.” To Those Who Were Our First Gods never regards bodies with an other-ing eye—this is a poetry of being with. That said, there is a frank acknowledgement of being Other Than Animal, articulated particularly in “No Ark.” In this poem dedicated to Mary Oliver, Brown’s speaker partially lives “a clocked in, bottled, florescent-lit existence”—she concedes complicity in not-human animal suffering due simply to the fact of her being human. But perhaps writing poetry from a queer experience is part of what enables Brown (much like Oliver and Whitman before her) to transcend that basic human complicity, to embody empathy and inhabit a liminal space. “I think I could turn and live with animals” writes Whitman, in “Song of Myself.” In “Wild Thing,” Brown writes, “I was just another / animal, and like all animals / desired, we would suffer.”
At this collection’s core is “Against Despair: The Kid Goat,” a long sectioned poem dedicated to the owners (two women) of a farm sanctuary in North Carolina, presumably one of the four sanctuaries mentioned in Brown’s biography—she is a volunteer. Brown moves quickly in her approach – in the first ten lines, the reader is introduced to the sanctuary’s owners, but Brown quickly withdraws the introduction in favor of identification: “…I want you to be // those two: I want you crazy / enough to try to fix those beasts.” At the core of the core is the kid goat (sick, two months old, bred for meat, and dumped by a farmer) which wakes You (reader turned sanctuary owner) by bleating (crying) in the middle of the night. And there are the narrative details, the split and spill of language as the goat (spoiler alert) convulses and dies in your arms. You, reader, have gone to the goat: “..You’re not dumb, / just desperate to try.” And it strikes me that the notion of being “desperate to try” is the spiritual core of this chapbook, that notion of being desperate to acknowledge connection, to feel connected. Perhaps it is truly the core of what makes us write or read poetry at all. We are lucky to have Brown remind us so utterly.