A review by Bryce Emley
From the eponymous blackbirds to murderous vines to bloodied fox paws to flooding rivers, Rookery employs nature extensively and yet is not so much concerned with nature as it is representative of its relation to humanity. In her first collection of poetry, Traci Brimhall values the stone for its capacity to be thrown, the raven for how its caw is reminiscent of the songs we have sounding inside of us. This propensity to make use of elements of the natural world becomes apparent in the first stanza of the book’s opening poem, “Prayer for Deeper Water”: “… you tell me / you hate women, or at least the ones who’ve never heard / the frightened, wingless birds // in their chests singing so they may be found.” The birdsong referenced here is not included as a means of revering nature, but as an illustration of the spiritual music welling up within a woman that reflects her own emotional frailty.
The natural and the human are blended fluently throughout this collection through Brimhall’s metaphors, showing the human experience as something inherently animal. Like the vines of “Noli Me Tangere” climbing up tree trunks, “the strangler taking the shape // of what it has killed,” seemingly complex human emotion rises up from a carnal place within, both inevitable and irresistible.
As her narratives run their course, Brimhall’s subjects respond to innate needs for things inhuman to manifest emotion and meaning on a human level, as in “Aubade with a Fox and a Birthmark,” in which they use “crickets / to count minutes.” These poems suggest that there is an inextricable link between person and nature, not a symbiotic relationship but a shared existence. In a poem narrating the internal struggles a woman faces after romantic abandonment, the answer to “Why He Leaves” is:
Because she has a jungle inside her and two savage rivers.
Because the flood season never left her. Her cheeks
ache with it. Her lungs are full of summer, that brutal season.
The water inside her used to murmur, You are both mortal
As with the opening poem, the woman here has rich, earthy elements within her that remove her from her beloved and call to her alone. “You are both mortal and immortal” the voices assure her, a paradoxical message of abstract philosophy reminiscent of the preaching of a priest or sage. In recognizing this call, Brimhall’s poems display reverence for such power, shown in the speaker’s concession in “Prayer for Sunlight and Hunger” that she wants “to see an avalanche from a distance and have terror / bring [her] soul to the surface of [her] body.”
The world around the speaker of these poems shows something of the human self and behavior in its own primal behavior as well. Yet another possibility in “Why He Leaves” comes after the speaker recalls “how macaws cannot bear to lose their mate. If one dies, / the other collapses its wings, plummets to Earth”; she reasons a response to the title in a single, simple sentence: “Because he is afraid of heights.” The speaker uses the example of the macaws to understand her loss and her partner’s waning interest, seeing human emotional response in their behavior that reflects her own feelings in loss as they draw their wings in, curl up, and fall back to Earth. The speaker reasons that if this response is truly linked to the impetus of loss as she suggests it is, then her partner’s fear of heights offers some symbolic explanation for his lack of commitment; no flight, no fall.
Brimhall’s metaphors blur the line between the human and the inhuman and drive Rookery’s narratives. While these fluid comparisons make her first collection memorable on an aesthetic level, the lasting impression of this book is the analysis she provides through these metaphors. For all our evolution and in spite of the higher thought and functioning that separates us from the animal world, in reading these poems and following the gritty emotional turns within them, our own thoughts and responses as humans are shown as merely primitive. Through her prayers and aubades the human experience is shown as transcendent of humanity, relating to not just the other living, breathing life on this planet but to the essences of the landscape as something still intrinsically inhuman.
As an editorial assistant, Bryce Emley worked at the Florida Review and currently works for H_NGM_N. His writing can be found in the Pinch, Hawai’i Review, Yemassee, Measure, Ruminate, Pleiades, and other places.