With Animal by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee (Black Lawrence Press, 2015)
In the worlds of the women who live in the 27 stories in Guess and Magee’s With Animal, the reader is immersed in a twist on the classic guidebook to pregnancy—call it, What to Expect When You Are Expecting Something Else. In “With Sparrow,” pregnancy cravings are exposed, and it’s no surprise that “My husband’s amused by my appetite: pecans and suet; apples and corn.” The mother-to-be in this story does some serious nesting prior to her baby’s birth: “The cage is twice the size of my bedroom. I’ve been preparing for months.” Here women are pregnant with creatures both real (horses, fish, sparrows, sheep) and imagined (dragons, unicorns), as well as that which is other (storms, nebulae, stone lions). From falling in love to giving birth to the first moments as mother, the women in With Animal are deftly rendered and relatable. In “With Storm,” the reader is introduced to a girl who “fell in love with a hurricane. Its eyes convinced her it was more than just bluster. […] No one came to help her labor, and it was a good thing because what the girl begat was more storms. Hundreds of them. Thousands. They spilled out of her like marbles, dense and blind.” How does someone parent a storm? A unicorn? A sparrow? Just like in real life, there is no one, correct way. Instead, there are a variety of ways to parent, and the women in this collection show many to the reader who is willing to listen.
Blood Medals by Claudia Cortese (Thrush Press, 2015)
Lucy is the girl you needed to stare back at you from the mirror in your teen years. She’s the feral and fearless friend you wanted. The person you wished you were when your friends were hurting. Lucy’s world is “drill / before anesthesia takes hold, nerve burn. / Nail shaved to bone, its / bloodthrob.” Both harrowing and heroic, Lucy stomps through the pages of Cortese’s chapbook Blood Medals and makes her presence known in lean verse and lyric prose poems. She “demands Santa stitch her a skin of bees, that her screams be not sound but solid: a stinger that stings and stings.” The world Lucy inhabits is the twisted underside of suburbia as seen through the looking glass, “Not the red swings behind it, / but maple leaves on the slide / rotting under snow.” It smells like “Tongue-soot, the root / chalk of rot, that egg- / y air that announces / Cleveland.” Yet, Lucy also sees beauty; looking at the stars, “Lucy loves their dead edges, their lying light.” Her favorite is a mirror of Lucy herself, “Brighter than fire and cardinal, ruby ring pops and maraschinos.” Think back to your childhood and adolescence. Ask: “What was your favorite place. Where did your shame begin.” Take Lucy’s hand and walk head held high into the answers.
Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson (Milkweed Editions, 2014)
With precise language and keen image, desire and longing echo throughout Johnson’s lyrical and elegiac debut collection which moves the reader through repeated moments of emptying out and filling up in a natural cycle of discardings and reclamations: “I am beginning / to see the body as a well / and your absence as a thirst.” Each poem is concerned with the viscera of the animal reaching out of the darkness toward light: “How dark it was inside the wolf, / which had begun as a clump / of darkness inside another wolf. / Then the child climbed out its belly / shining.” In turns fairy tale lush and the end of Frankenstein stark, the landscape of the poems travels through forests, over seas, and across ice fields, while the cold moon keeps watch. Johnson’s strength is in her ability to push image to the brink: a blackbird being used as a baseball is “a mangled black lung wheezing through the air,” horses are “moon-whipped” and “frost-spun, clicking their teeth / against dead grass,” and flies “drone a joy / in the bones” of the people passing the body of a dead wolf. Acting as ancient Roman haruspices, the poems in this collection promise “all moments will shine / if you cut them open, / glisten like entrails in the sun” if the reader will only open their eyes and look.
Staci R. Schoenfeld is a recipient of 2015 NEA Fellowship for Poetry, grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and residencies from the Ragdale Foundation and Albee Foundation. She is a PhD student at University of South Dakota, assistant editor for poetry at South Dakota Review, and an assistant editor at Sundress Publications. Her poems appear in Mid-American Review, Washington Square, and Muzzle.