Like an Amputee’s Phantom Itch

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Whether you’re an admirer or a stranger to her work, Rachel McKibbens awakens and haunts with selfless honesty.

Rachel McKibbens’ Pink Elephant is a trunk filled with aged handwritten letters that tell stories freckled with the ghosts of nostalgia. Captured in a modest thin paperback scrawled over with hot pink cursive, her poems recount her life in a timeline marking her mother’s abandonment as the beginning, and she pries open her wounds and spares the reader their own bloodshed. McKibben, a pioneer in the art of performance poetry, presents her audience with a volume of her soul.

The first half of her collection tells the tale of a girl and her brother living off of the wreckage left by their parent’s ‘marital car crash.’

Sometimes a tingling sensation
sweeps across my face like an amputee’s phantom itch,
and I realize how much I miss the back of your hand.

In this instance, part one begins with McKibbens channeling feelings of abandonment, her mother first as somewhat tangible, then rendered a painful memory. Her courage is summoned through the confession that abuse can be misinterpreted as tenderness in the eyes of the victim.

I was just some filthy hitchhiker you never meant to pick up,
A greedy little fetus. An accident waiting to happen.

These lines speak innocently to the reader in a voice choked by sadness and loss.
The absence of anger isn’t a surprise as she is a child when she makes the reflection. The wounds are still fresh, scars unformed.

McKibbens’ remarks upon the shedding of innocence and her renunciation of servitude to her father in “The Last Time”:

and I looked at him and said,
If you ever touch us again,
I will kill you.

And then he saw me.

Okay, he said.
Okay.

When read aloud these pieces retain the sound of a poetry slam competition, the structure possessing a rhythm that softly taps until the moment you reach the final line. A master of the craft releases this, her first body of work so modestly, it is entirely by surprise to look down and find the heart bruised black by the power of her words.

Some of these poems are lost love letters personified as displaced pieces of hers, left to live in abandoned churches, and wandering the Lower East Side of New York City.

Several New Yorkers claim to have spotted
one limping down St. Mark’s, muttering something about loss,
about working overtime to pay for abortions and school supplies

Aching with the weight of these experiences, she gives her poems power by freezing them with memory. She reflects from a safe distance, allowing them to disappear.

Part Two approaches when wounds have burrowed their way past the surface. McKibbens hints at a whispering resentment toward her brother, who lays safely hidden inside the world of his dreams.

Upstairs, my brother slept
in his room a glass box
of reptiles watching over him.

This is the first pet she mentions whose life is not met with a tragic ending. Only the cold blooded animals survive the climate of their father’s storm. The fearful resignation of her father penetrates the narrative. In this moment we see McKibbens has reached a crossroads. The structure purposeful and succinct, forms the shape of her certainty; her growth from a child to an adult.

The poems are not placed at an exact timeline. Rather, the book is a looking glass displaying refracted pieces which have broken off and attained freedom. McKibbens acknowledges her own failed marriage recalling lost poems as wandering. These are what we are left to ruminate upon. An optimistic fate, and a grateful understanding. She couldn’t say she had a mother, or call the man who raised her a father. McKibbens alludes to the desire as a child of swapping genders because she can’t be a woman if she never learned how.

In the end there is no end. There is the beginning of a new life.
She speaks of motherhood and the moments it took to know she would forever protect them from harm:

Thief of my own body. A woman who could
pull a boy from herself, chew through his cord
with her love-sharp teeth.

We realize in “Finally The Author Gets Personal,” that she has found her place in the world; a place to fit, a person to offer up her bandaged heart and a life to protect. The discovery is a relief, which is what we feel knowing a tongue biting, fearless artist like her exists.

Whether you’re an admirer or a stranger to her work, McKibbens awakens and haunts with selfless honesty. The poems in this long awaited book lack the need to beckon your attention. All it takes a sigh, and you’re hooked, swallowing the pages in one breath.McKibbens’ scars shine pride fully under our gaze reminding her who she is: an awkward woman; a damaged butterfly; a stark, brilliant, softly raging, half flawless, Pink Elephant.


Kristina is a spitfire with a bunny obsession and a penchant for mispelling the word, the. A transplant to the bay, she used to guide tourists through the lesser known parts of her native New York habitat. Now she sneaks scribbles on the corporate world's dime. More from this author →