It’s fitting that Nicole Blackman leads into the poems of Blood Sugar with a quote from the confessional poet W.D. Snodgrass: “I am going to show you something very ugly. One day it may save your life.” The chief construct of confessional poetry is the brutally honest autobiography of the poet and the act of writing bravely, honestly and transgressively. These are not sweet and fluffy poems; they do not portray a beautiful world with redeemable heroes or sage life lessons. A harsh collection of spoken-word poetry that like its title, is both bitter and sweet in its turn. Blood Sugar is the collected reprint of Blackman’s chapbooks (now out of print) Pretty, Sweet and Nice. Portions and excepts from this collection have appeared re-worked as musical interpretations by the bands KMFDM ( portions of “Indictment” appear musically as “Dogma” from the 1998 album Xtort), Recoil (“Breath Control,” “Want,” “Black Box”), Scanner, and the entirety of the Golden Palominos album, Dead Inside.
In the years and hundreds of times I’ve spent turning the very dog-eared pages of my copy of Blood Sugar and listening to Nicole Blackman’s work with Golden Palominos, I’ve tried to pin down and label the precise “thing” that makes her work resonate in me and makes me want to keep reading and listening to her words, even if they often make me feel hopeless and desperate, like my heart and soul are being torn away bit by bit. She’s got a bitter, black heart and she’s not afraid to show it, and moreover, she’s going to poison yours as well, even if she can’t tell you why she’s compelled to destroy you both. I have a bitter, black heart, too; I feel those same dark passengers with me when I sit down to write. Blackman’s work terrifies me because I recognize it and want to reject it, but am also perversely drawn into it.
From the brutal quiet of “Victim” (Which, on the Golden Palominos album Dead Inside, only ambient sound punctuates the stark brutality and the delicacy of the character created by the lines) to the crescendo of “Metal Eye,” and the catharsis of “Daughter,” the manifesto I wish my mother had given me, where Blackman tells the reader that one day, she will urge her tiny, as-yet-unborn daughter to “scream and never stop,” Blackman’s poems cut away the fat and straight down to the bones beneath and demand a closer reading of them on the page. “Holy,” is a chilling exploration of anorexia, and the quiet, understated pain of “Thirst” and “Drown” are two of the quieter, yearning pieces in the collection that ache in familiar places, line by graceful line. Blackman’s work is incredibly difficult to read, in that on one hand her writing is beautiful and precise, and often that skill in writing is used to depict scenarios of abject horror, urban desolation, despair, isolation and characters who have by their own hands, or at the hands of others, have been victimized or dehumanized in ways that make the reader squirm. (Case in point: I dare anyone to read or listen to “Victim” and not have their stomach do backflips, not have to set the collection aside for a moment, or not have to calm the hairs on the back of their neck from standing up in revolt to what the reader has just absorbed.)
Though this collection was printed a decade ago, and much of the work spans 15 or more years of Blackman’s writing, much of it is strangely relevant to today’s world: upon re-reading the piece “The Ambitions Are” the lines “chocolate boy walks to ice cream truck for a for a vanilla cone / is shot dead / this city kills its young,” which is almost Cassandra-esque in the way it unintentionally seems to foreshadow the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting, proving that the poems of Blood Sugar are timely and necessary, despite not being “new.” Blackman’s heroes (such as they are) are tragic, often doomed, deeply flawed people, who often wreak unspeakable horrors on themselves and the other characters Blackman creates in the narratives of her poems.
These people are ugly, vindictive, violent, addicted and damned. However, despite all of that, there is a thread of hope that wends its way from the first piece of the collection, straight up to the collection’s finale, “Fifteen, She Learns,” where the reader finds that if they follow the unspooling of the thread, yes, they may well find a Minotaur, but they may also have discovered the secret of the labyrinth and a way to unlock the curse.
In Blood Sugar, Blackman does exactly as she says she’s going to do—she shows the reader something ugly—perhaps something familiar to the world they live in; or sometimes it’s a mirror for the reader to see themselves, or twisted reflections of people the reader recognizes, loves or trusts—but ultimately, Blackman’s poetry shows the reader how to discover, hone and sharpen their strength; by tearing open her poetry’s characters, she reveals something inside them that could save the life of her readers. In Blood Sugar, all that yields is not weak. I describe Blood Sugar and Dead Inside as “the best and worst gift I’ve ever been given.”