Splitting the Lark

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Under Brimhall’s deft attention, the historical becomes personal, and the personal skirts the mythological.

Sex, god, and family figure heavily into Rookery, Traci Brimhall’s debut poetry collection and winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. The book’s three sections—cleverly divided by three definitions of the word rookery, which spin off into miniature poems of their own—rove over a love tormented by infidelity, human lives rattled by tragedy, and various permutations of ecstasy, both religious and secular.

The notion of a passion—in both its common contemporary and Christian senses—is key to the collection: repeatedly, Brimhall’s masterful, trenchant poems locate the uneasy overlap between pain and pleasure, love and harm. In “Aubaude with a Fox and a Birthmark,” an orgasm is likened to a “fox with its paw/in the trap’s jaw.” In “The Saints Go Marching,” when the speaker’s father forces her to shoot a feral cat, she says that “He taught me/to stroke the trigger like a lock of a lover’s hair.” In “Noli Me Tangere,” sick frogs spread their disease when they touch to mate. Or, in “On a Mission Trip to Philadelphia I Begin to Fear the Inside of My Body”:

when my father
can’t clip his canaries’ wings, he blinds them.
And I wake up in darkness and know God loves me

with that kind of violence.

Given the book’s title, it’s no surprise that birds are one of the primary figurative and sensory touchstones of Rookery, from the dingy pigeons on the roof of a church in “Via Dolorosa” to a raucous New Year’s Eve in “Battle Hymn,” in which “a woman quivers/in carmine sequins like a phoenix in cold ashes.” In “Aubade with a Broken Neck,” a terrified nightjar sings from the mouth of the dog that has captured it. In “Prayer for Sunlight and Hunger,” a cardinal like a drop of blood against a backdrop of snow presents itself as one more sign of the coming apocalypse predicted by the speaker’s grandmother. Birds are certainly a favorite subject of poets, and the fact that Brimhall manages to wring from this familiar pool of imagery such startling, fresh insights is a testament to her considerable talents as a poet. In “Ars Poetica,” onlookers huddle around a car accident victim,

afraid to touch her
in case she might rise, a bird startled to find

there wasn’t more light on the other side
of the window.

Such passages are representative of Brimhall’s style, which never strays far from sentence or sense, but which nonetheless contains a lot of clever footwork in its fortuitous enjambments. The poems look orderly at first glance but hold out room for surprise in the way they break and flow over the page. Throughout Rookery, Brimhall engages with several poetic traditions: most notably the aubade, but also the elegy, the pastoral, and even a pair of “dueling sonnets.” Some forms in the collection—such as nocturne, requiem, and prayer—evoke the liturgical as much as the poetic. Despite the fact that birds roost throughout the branches of the collection, Brimhall tackles a wide range of topics, from a family trip to the torture museum in “Chastity Belt Lesson” to the crash of a B-25 bomber into the Empire State Building in 1945. Under her deft attention, the historical becomes personal, and the personal skirts the mythological.

What Brimhall’s poems evoke, regardless of their individual subjects, is nothing less than the transcendental, the moment when another world—a world fraught and mysterious—erupts through the veil of the mundane, as in “Prayer for Sunlight and Hunger”: “I want to…see an avalanche from a distance and have terror/bring my soul to the surface of my body.” Or in the powerful “Fiat Lux,” for example, the speaker explains a dead chickadee to a young sister by telling a story about how the ants, who have eaten the bird’s eyes, are possessed by visions of all the bird saw in life:

the blue bowled sky, the patchwork

of soybean fields and sunflowers, a bear loping
across a gravel road. Already they are bringing
back to their tunnels the slow chapter of spring—

a slough drying to become a meadow and the bruised
smell of sex inside flowers. They start to itch
for a mate’s black-feathered throat and music.

The ants are driven mad, not by these visions, but by their fading, “fearful they’ll never see/another dahlia tell its purple rumor, or see a river commit//itself to the ocean.” However, by the time Brimhall brings us back to the actual ants (reminding us that this is just a bit of fanciful anthropomorphism spun by a woman trying to make some small sense of death for her younger sibling’s benefit), we’re as lost in that vision as those poor ants were. We’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of the ants’ eyes, which become the bird’s eyes, which open onto vistas familiar but freshly viewed. Brimhall’s knack for description is ensnaring. Readers may return to the living world from these poems as if from a troubled dream, from visions not easily (or readily) shaken off. The great strength of structure in Brimhall’s poetry is that she knows when to give and when to withhold. She allows us brief visions, glimpses, of experiences more lush and raw than our own, but then retracts them, and it is this retraction that makes the poems sting and sing. “Fiat Lux” closes in this way, with a final image of death that withholds still some mystery. And then there’s closing of the marvelous poem “Regret with Wildflowers”:

I let you assure me that desire is like a boy

who throws rocks at a deer decaying in the river.
That innocent. That brutal. I let you hold me down,
let you draw my blood to the surface of my skin

and call it an accident. But now I see how awful
the sky is. How stark. How bare. How, when clouds
expose the sun, horses tilt their heads with pleasure.

The ecstatic moment, in Rookery, is a clash of rapture and rupture, but that conflict is never resolved or settled. Brimhall give us the vision, bird’s-eye high and sharp, but doesn’t make the mistake of trying to calm its turbulence or explain it away.

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Click here to read our interview with Traci Brimhall.


Nick Lantz’s first book, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know was selected by Linda Gregerson for the Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize and was published in 2010 by Graywolf Press. It also won the 2011 GLCA New Writers Award. His second book, The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House, was selected by Robert Pinsky for the Felix Pollak Prize and was published by the University of Wisconsin Press, also in 2010. More from this author →