Review of Katie Ford’s Blood Lyrics

9781555976927Blood Lyrics by Katie Ford
Graywolf Press 2014
Reviewed by J.G. McClure

The first section of Katie Ford’s Blood Lyrics begins with “A Spell,” a poem that shows the power and the dread of Ford’s book:

Take my lights, take my most and only opal,
take the thin call of bells I hear,
just. Take that thin lead,
wring out my water and drink
the wrung remains, take all that is nimble
and sun-up of day,
break my window to steal my eyes,
take their cotton, reap their fields;
as for my industry, it is yours.
I know in wishing not to bluff
so lay me on a threshing floor
and bleed me in the old, slow ways,
but do not take my child.

By announcing itself as a spell, the poem suggests that the speaker will have great power: the spellcaster’s words override ordinary laws of nature. And yet, as the poem begins, we see this is less spell than plea: the speaker offers more and more of herself in a desperate bargain. The recipient of this prayer, however, remains unnamed—to whom is the speaker surrendering? Likewise, the terms of the plea are unclear: what would it mean to take “my most and only opal”? What does the speaker have to offer? We sense that neither the speaker’s tight and beautiful control of language nor her urgent offerings can be enough to appease—whom? what? The final line of the poem is a punch to the gut: the high lyric mode abandoned, the spell abandoned, the speaker implores her nameless tormentor to spare her just this one torment: do not take the child. Coming on the heels of such elevated lyricism, this direct, sparse plea is devastating.

Much of Blood Lyrics centers on the fear of losing a premature child, and nearly all of these poems are profoundly unsettling. Take “Of a Child Early Born.” Midway through the poem, the speaker gives us our first look at the child:

I lie still, play dead, am delivered decree:
our daughter weighs seven hundred dimes,
paperclips, teaspoons of sugar,
this child of grams
for which the good nurse
laid out her studies
as a coin purse
into which our tiny wealth clinked,
our daughter spilling almost
to the floor.

Once again, the speaker’s struggle between power and powerlessness is foregrounded: the speaker here is “delivered decree” from the coldly prophetic doctors. She can tell us vividly of the frailty of her daughter, casting her as an increasingly disturbing series of metaphors—dimes, paperclips, sugar, coins almost spilling to the floor. And yet, paradoxically, even as the speaker lays bare the fear of her daughter’s death, she must couch it in metaphor rather than state it directly. In other words, the speaker at once explores and evades her fear. As the poem comes to a close, the speaker takes a defiant tone:

You cannot serve God and wealth
but I’ll serve my wealth and live,
yes, and be struck dead
if lightning staggers down the hall of mothers—
and it does,
so walk low, mothers,
fresh from your labors.

The speaker has abandoned the prayerful begging of “A Spell,” and now rails against the heavens: I’ll risk death, I’ll risk damnation, if that’s what it takes to save my wealth, my child. Yet even at this moment of rage and crisis, we see a powerful empathy in the speaker as she warns other mothers of danger.

This empathy is a key feature of Ford’s speaker: her suffering is never solipsistic. No matter how deep her despair, she remembers that others, too, suffer. Here is an excerpt from “Children’s Hospital”:

…the mother can’t know
if she counts as a mother. I don’t know
if the child heard
what wept at the bedside,
orderlies snapping smelling salts
from chalky bullets against
all the mothers falling,
all the fathers under
what each branch let down.
The earth, so shaken,
shook.

In this moment of fear of the death of her child, the speaker must come to terms with her pain by taking a turn to the surreal, imagining “all the mothers,” “all the fathers,” and the “shaken” earth suffering together. In other words, she doesn’t understand her pain as her private pain, but rather as synecdoche for human pain. Tellingly, she speaks of herself in archetypal terms: “the mother can’t know / if she counts as a mother.” Even at this most private moment, Ford’s speaker thinks of herself as a symbol; implicitly, her suffering matters because it is not hers alone.

This empathy is important to the success of the motherhood poems, and crucial to the success of Ford’s political poems. Another major subject in Blood Lyrics is the United States’ ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the human rights abuses perpetrated at Guantánamo. “The Throats of Guantánamo” opens:

Morning opens with the comforts of my unbeaten body
a tinkerer’s stack of quiltings and cannings the cloth finch

half-attached to a mobile of warblers and wrens
in the meantime my country sends post to mothers and fathers

back again fly a trinity of boys
with their throats cut out

simultaneity drinks twig tea and stitches
a hidden seam

The speaker sees her body in terms of what it is not: she is not safe or healthy but rather “unbeaten”: the very fact that she is not beaten implicates her in the beatings carried out by “my country” in the name of security. She is deeply unsettled by her ability to quietly tinker with quilts and cans while, at the very same moment, the bodies of detainees—mutilated to obscure their cause of death—are flying homeward. So unsettled is the speaker by this simultaneity that she imagines Simultaneity as its own entity, a figure who drinks tea and invisibly stitches events together. And yet imagining Simultaneity as something outside of her does not free the speaker from her troubling position:

I take a string to a bittern’s back and tie it
to the looping newborn delight

then read of each strangulation no bone or larynx
for proof maybe each part was tossed to bay

Like Simultaneity, the speaker works with thread. She plays with her child while she reads of the mutilation; she is more implicated than ever. The poem closes:

A medieval saint was asked what would you do if you knew
it was the end of the world

I’d dig in my garden he said
oh saint it’s a good answer

but here the end is torn out
one by one.

The speaker knows all too well that the saint’s answer can no longer hold: today, the end comes throat by throat. So how can one simply dig in one’s garden? How can one simply sip one’s tea or play with one’s child in the midst of it? Yet this is exactly what the speaker does, and she knows it. On the facing page, we see this untitled, bracketed fragment:

[We’re here because we’re here because
we’re here, because we’re here
We’re here because we’re here because
we’re here, because we’re here
I hear the young scouts a-singing]

The voice of the young scouts, singing and not thinking of the war. The voice of the detainees whose missing throats can no longer sing but whose bodies remain and must be accounted for. The voice of the speaker and all of us who remain here in the midst of violence. All of these voices at once, untitled, bracketed to a half-whisper.

Blood Lyrics takes risks: these highly lyrical, highly sincere, highly empathetic poems have none of the ironic, skittery posturing all too fashionable in poetry these days. This is a poet who believes in poetry, believes in poetry’s ability to say something and mean it. What a rare and beautiful thing.

J.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California – Irvine. His poems and prose appear in Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, Green Mountains Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. He is the Craft Essay Editor and Assistant Poetry Editor of Cleaver, and is at work on his first collection. See more at jgmcclure.weebly.com.

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One comment

  1. Greetings! I’ve been reading your website for a long time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Dallas Texas! Just wanted to say keep up the great job!

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