The following review was written by guest reviewer Bob Blair.
Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what. – Bruce Weigl, “The Impossible”
The 46 poems in Rachel McKibbens’ first book, Pink Elephant, validate Weigl’s claim for the power of clarity. A memoir in verse, a mosaic of savage vignettes from her nightmare childhood through the challenges of motherhood, these poems recount and reflect on the violence and desperation of McKibbens’ early years – their enduring effects, and her struggle to overcome that history.
The book’s title, which recalls the comfort of a child’s stuffed toy, gives no hint of what’s ahead. The first clue comes in the dedication:
for my brother, who lived
for my father, who learned
Both men feature prominently in the first half of the book – which addresses McKibben’s often terrifying childhood. Peter, the Hansel to McKibbens’ Gretel, first appears in the book’s opening poem:
I love my brother. He had the exact same childhood as I did.
But he doesn’t get the credit for it. He isn’t the writer. I am
the star of the violence. I expose. My Peter, when he marries,
I will be so sad. No girl in the world deserves him but me. (I Forget Who I Said It To…)
Peter was her comrade in the trenches of their family warfare, and, at times, took the brunt of their father’s rages for her. But he was also the child – the son – their mother favored. So, resentment and anger coexist with the solidarity.
The morning I caught my brother behind the couch,
my pet hamster in his hands, holding her
steady as a bowl of blood, a new heat
moved through me, tightened itself
around my throat like a leash.
I smacked his face and bit his shoulder.
He dropped the hamster to the floor. An Easter present
from my father. Mine. I grabbed her
and held her up to his face,
squeezed until she went limp beneath the crush. (For Du’a Khalil)
Jealousy, rage and violence echo throughout Pink Elephant – background music to a family saga in which alcoholism, assaults, and psychological abuse are recurring motifs. As McKibbens’ story develops poem by poem, we see her struggling against her father’s brutal rages and her mother’s crushing indifference.
Because Pink Elephant is essentially a memoir, it helps to read the poems in the order in which McKibbens presents them. There are links among the poems and sequences embedded in the overall arc of the book. For example, Parts 1 and 2 include “The First Time” (she ran away from home with her brother), “The Day After the First Time We Ran Away from Home,” “The Second Time” (she ran away with her step mother), and “The Last Time.” The sequence begins with the futility of escape --
It’s funny to me now, picturing
two children running away
as unprepared as a fed up housewife –
where did we imagine we could go?
What new home would drop from the sky for us?
Which saint would dare burst from its plaster
shell to scoop us from our ugly lives? (The First Time)
-- and concludes with her confrontation with the abusive father she had been trying to flee. Having taken a hammer from his tool chest, she sneaks up to his bedroom --
I turned the knob slowly,
stood over my father’s body,
his chest heaving, then sinking
when his tongue rattled, then stopped,
and the whites of his eyes
rolled over, and he stared
only at the weapon in my hand
and I looked at him and said,
If you ever touch us again,
I will kill you.
And then he saw me.
Okay, he said.
Okay. (The Last Time)
The poems in the second half of the book deal with McKibbens’ men and her reflections on raising her own children. We also see more of her mother here, but mainly as the woman her daughter sought desperately, but hopelessly, to please -- an anti-model of parenthood. In McKibbens’ eyes her mother saw her as “a filthy little hitchhiker you never meant to pick up,/ a greedy little fetus. An accident waiting to happen.” In “The Pacifier,” she describes breast-feeding one of her own children and reflects on the taunting that accompanied her mother’s breast-feedings.
Father told me how she would tease,
rubbing her nipple across my lip
until my head whipped toward it
how she’d pull back and laugh
as I wagged my empty mouth,
rooting for her tough, sweet skin.
This is how I learned the difference
between women and mothers.
That is when I knew
what I wanted to be. (The Pacifier)
Not a few of the experiences described in Pink Elephant are deeply troubling. In “Tomboy,” a poem about how McKibbens absorbed her father’s anger and misogyny, the young girl smuggles an imaginary mermaid home from a beach trip:
I begged her to teach me the love in women,
to help me seem less unnatural.
But her words rippled in her throat –
a wild ocean language I could not comprehend.
Give me something, I warned, or I’ll dry you out.
She began to writhe beneath my voice
as I spit words that slurred her flesh.
It was my own wild language, passed down
to me by my father: words, sounds, rages,
the darkest blue shades of misogyny
no child’s mouth should ever dare commit. (Tomboy)
The child’s frustration and anger quickly turn to violence, and she attacks the captive mermaid she decries as “full of woman’s ungratefulness.”
The next morning I packed her throat full of sand.
Stuffed her gills with mud and broken seashells.
She lacked all strength to squirm and simply
looked at me in horror
watching me return to the only child I knew how to be –
I was mythological and frightening.
I was half man,
I was half flawless. (Tomboy)
“Tomboy” is both psychologically insightful and richly imaginative, but some readers likely will recoil at its graphic violence – and it is far from the most violent of Pink Elephant’s poems.
Still, psychologists have noted that humans tend to give greater attention and psychological weight to negative experiences, threats over opportunities, and bad news over good. That theory may – along with the thoughtful craft that went into the making and interweaving of Pink Elephant’s poems – help explain the power and appeal of the book’s sustained and intimate narrative.
Given the grim childhood she describes, it is affirming to read how McKibbens reacts against her own history in raising her children, declaring: “My children are all five of my hearts, unleashed.” (A Sunday Cross-Examination of My Future Next Husband)
Pink Elephant offers a poetry of pain, survival and, ultimately, self-affirmation. Its stories are told unflinchingly, but with touches of sharp, dark humor. The book’s Hansel and Gretel overtones, symbolic mermaids, surreal dream scenes and spare but graphic descriptions of physical and emotional brutality often give the stories a quasi-mythological feel – and the atmosphere of a gothic horror tale.
The epigraph by Bruce Weigl at the beginning of this review is the final line of a poem about being molested at age seven. It asserts that however ugly and painful one’s experiences, recounting them with unblinking clarity can give rise to an unexpected beauty. Pink Elephant offers readers just that sort of beauty.
Rachel McKibbens is the mother of five children. A self-described ex-punk rock chola, she is the 2009 Women of the World poetry slam champion, an eight-time National Poetry Slam team member, a three-time NPS finalist, and a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellow and Pushcart nominee. For four years, she co-curated the louderARTS Project reading series in New York City, coaching their slam team to three consecutive National Poetry Slam final stages. She teaches poetry and creative writing at diverse venues, from housing projects to hospitals, high schools and universities.
Bob Blair facilitates a weekly poetry workshop at Miriam’s Kitchen (www.miriamskitchen.org) in Washington, D.C.