Rachel McKibbens, noted slam poet, activist, and the author of two books of poetry, presents a compelling series of poems on grief in Mammoth, a beautiful chapbook from Organic Weapon Arts.
Mammoth approaches all of its subjects—the death of a young niece, the prevalence of loss—with a candor that renders each look wrenching. The chapbook loosely traces the development of the niece’s illness, from the diaper-change discovery of a mass to her last words, all the while acknowledging the many other shapes of loss that form the circumstances of daily life. Some poems, like “Six Months to a Year,” traverse the space of routine with a constancy reminiscent of Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do;” in other poems, like the amply-named “Greetings from the House of Defeat,” McKibbens’s gift for directness presses against the ironies and metaphors of death. She writes in “Small Talk,” for instance: “we put a warm sweater / on the child, then buried her.”
This book is, in many ways, a spectacular refusal of politeness; the beauty of these elegiac vignettes comes from the urgency of their grief. McKibbens writes with formal ease that shapes and reshapes around the poems’ meditative queries: dialogues with the divine, poems that begin in couplets and devolve into lists of unfinished questions, poems that simply narrow to an end. These shifts mirror the revisioning of the self that begins with the first poem, offering a look at the concept of motherhood that throws out all visions of the archetypical. Instead, the speaker finds at her child’s birth that “ my bones / began to thicken, / spinning themselves / into a coven of ax handles.”
McKibbens at once denies the euphemisms of grief (“a difficult time”) and constructs her own network of metaphor. To a young son, the lost niece is in “winter,” and the soil becomes both a vessel and a trace on the hands of the living. McKibbens finds and examines the tension inherent in any concept of certainty, while this book asserts, through its presentation of pain, the impact of an enormous, brief life of two years. It mandates that we view motherhood as a position of fierceness and fundamental disorientation, and McKibbens succeeds readily at placing the reader in the paradoxical circumstance of defining care in the face of the “impossible.”