a synonym for living

Category: BOOK REVIEW

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,

                                    speak.

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.

 

purchase the chapbook here

desire as desire: book reviews

Meet Me Here at Dawn is a book of scrutiny and of elegy. Klahr moves with grace through topics of infidelity, age, pregnancy, and loss—but it is an uncommon grace of grim determination….In a time when language itself is under increased attack, when telling the truth is jarring and unexpected, this is the poetry we need.” – Colorado Review

“Not since Anne Sexton’s Love Poems have I read a book that so unflinchingly captures both the intense passion and the loneliness of an affair…..Klahr sheds light on powerlessness, on an often epic struggle against desire, one that—even with its suggestions of animalism—is supremely human.” – words + sweet photo by Fork & Page

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Something that took my breath away: over at The Bind, Rachel Mennies has written this beautiful review of Meet Me Here At Dawn,  in verse.

AF fieldcloudy field in which thought is depicted 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Such a pleasure to do this interview with Littsburgh ! Many thanks to the lovely Renee Alberts for asking me to contribute to the literary pulse of my hometown.

~ ~ ~ ~

AF compass tattoo

stick & poke – my compass…

 

forthcoming

this year has been full of such grace and heartache and unexpectedness so far.

writing to you from a field in Nebraska, full of crickets and wind.

a beautiful & humbling & succinct review of MEET ME HERE AT DAWN has just appeared in Colorado Review. Immensely grateful to be read so well. 

In the coming months, I’ll have work in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Zyzzyva, Blackbird, and AGNI. “You’re really blowing up,” said to me yesterday, by way of congratulations, for The New Yorker acceptance. The truth is, I’m hunkering down. I let the poems live on their own for awhile. For a long while. These days, I don’t submit any work that’s under two years old — I revise and revise and revise. I trust my gut. I follow the example I’ve found in Eduardo C. Corral, who seems to hold his poems close for a long time. I don’t overestimate my first thought, my first spark of love for a poem — there is no rush. I believe in Rilke’s suggestion that everything is gestation, then birthing. Everyone has their own way. But I know how changeable I am. Perhaps my writing is the one thing I am really, in some deep essential way, willing and able to let go of.

 

happy september. i hope the fall finds you well.

 

who knew?

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some humbling reviews of my book.

you can find a copy of Meet Me Here At Dawn here.

MEET ME HERE AT DAWN reviewed in Angel City Review 

gregory-colbert-wingsashes and snow 

FIND ME in Washington, D.C. over the next few days:

tomorrow: Thursday (9th)6pm: YesYes Books & Vinyl present BRILLIANT VOICES: I’ll be reading with Hanif Willis-Aburraquib, Raena Shirali, Justin Philip Reed, Khadijah Queen & more. Come to rm. 207 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.

Saturday (11th), 2pm: I will be signing MEET ME HERE AT DAWN at the YesYes Books AWP book fair table, 397/399.

Intermittently, I will be at the GIGANTIC SEQUINS book fair table, 630-t , hanging with my fellow staff folks including my fantastic Teen Sequins co-editor Robby Auld.

Come say hi.

If you want to find me & you cannot, hit me on twitter: @sophieklahr

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