blud by Rachel McKibbens
Copper Canyon, 2017. 91 pp.
Reviewed by Emily Pérez
In blud, her third full length collection, Rachel McKibbens invites us into a house, “dirty / but comfortable” where “Behind each crooked door / waits the angry weather / of a forgiveless child.” The speaker is both that child and the parent, grappling with forgiveness and with being forgiven. While the book is heavy with the storms of hereditary mental illness and generational violence, it is also shot through with searing bolts of self-affirmation and fidelity to the blud that is thicker than blood.
The book’s four sections are stitched together with a series in homage to Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”—four poems about a girl coming back to life: “the first time,” “the second time,” “one more time with feeling,” and “the last time.” Whether she comes back to life as a child when the telephone cord looses from her neck, or as an adolescent when she has sex with a female classmate without shame, or as an adult when she sees at the grocery store “my reflection / in the butcher’s glass / & [does] not / flinch,” the speaker surprises herself with reasons to persist in the face of homophobia, sexism, and violence.
Like Plath, McKibbens’s language is percussive; it strikes and sings at once. In “Swell,” the speaker contemplates whether or not she ever had a mother, deciding that they were connected perhaps for only a single moment:
Perhaps she was only mine
during the wet crown of hours I spun my skull
through her ripe & widening cunt
then fastened to her nipple—
a botched daughter ugly with hunger.
In lines marked by strong stresses, McKibbens makes the birth both delicate—“wet crown of hours”—and brutal—“botched daughter ugly with hunger.”
Later in the poem, the speaker determines that she and the mother were instead connected at the moment of her conception. While straddling the speaker’s father, the mother looks in the mirror and
…caught the pale bloom of herself
in the mirror & looking
back over her shoulder,
fell in love with the animal engine of her body,
not for the daughter it could nurture,
but for the girl it would kill.
That “girl” is at once the mother, who will transform from “pale bloom” to a killer, and it is the future daughter, the speaker who is killed repeatedly by the absent mother she both longs for and loathes.
In a wrenchingly honest move, blud considers not only how the speaker has inherited mental illness, but also how she passes it on. Using the book’s motif of blessings, curses, and spells, the speaker curses “the steady mice who feast upon / my son’s gray matter” and blesses “this illness that sutures mother / to daughter to son & back. / Bless sorrow’s commitment / to reincarnate—.” The title of the book’s last poem, “the other children have agreed to forfeit their inheritance,” suggests with deadpan irony, that inherited illness can be refused. The collection ends with yet another prayer, a request that
even as all
of the house
reside in me,
knows no other
name but mine,
we will go on.
Unflinchingly honest, the speaker names her own destructive potential, yet hers also is the strength to cast the spell, to write the book, to transform blood to the blud that will make it otherwise.
Emily Pérez is the author of House of Sugar, House of Stone, and the chapbook Backyard Migration Route. She earned her MFA at the University of Houston, where she was poetry editor for Gulf Coast and taught with Writers in the Schools. Her poems have appeared in journals including Poetry, Diode, Bennington Review, Borderlands, and DIAGRAM. She teaches English and Gender Studies in Denver, where she lives with her husband and sons.