Book Review

I read Rachel McKibbens’s Blud on my porch on a Sunday afternoon in May, wearing my gray sweater while my friends back East installed their window air conditioners and sweltered in T-shirts. In Colorado, May does not guarantee warmth. This fact feels fitting for Blud; what (or who) is expected to be warm does not always deliver. McKibbens’s speaker, growing up with an absent mother and an abusive father, calls back to the stereotypical family, insisting on space for anger, pain, guilt, and loss. Perhaps one of the multiple functions of the title, then, is to say that blood (family, life, etc.) does not always show up the way we expect it to—“blood” becomes “blud.”

This collection is a raw testimony to the many sides of familial inheritance, mental health, female sexuality, and childhood trauma. Often using both the apostrophe and a haunting lyric quality, McKibbens writes with a strong voice not unlike that of Sylvia Plath in Ariel. Indeed, the speaker offers radical honesty—truths that she has come to know well as an adult reflecting on her childhood. And these poems read quickly, often appearing in a slender form with only a few words on each line, perhaps reflecting the lack experienced by McKibbens’s speaker.

In Blud, there is no question of inheritance; McKibbens traces mental illness from the speaker’s parents, to the speaker, to the speaker’s own children. The speaker grapples with a simultaneous guilt for the blood she has given to her children and an anger on behalf of the child she once was—the child who needed more. And the anger does not only extend to the speaker’s family, but to the children who bullied her for her race, her gender, and her sexuality. Still, this anger is not one-sided; it is not without the speaker’s longtime grief and loneliness in the absence of her mother and violence of her father. In “letter from my heart to my brain,” McKibbens writes:

it’s okay to want
your mother
as you lie alone
in bed.

There are so many angles to loss, and as the speaker’s voice bellows in this collection, McKibbens reveals the complexity of pain—even when its face is anger.

It is often winter in Blud’s poems, and therefore there is a lingering sense of atrophy. Frequently, the speaker chalks this up to her own brain turning everything into destruction, while God is described as passively watching. In turn, the speaker begins to claim herself as God, particularly in relation to her love life and sexuality. In “three strikes,” for example:

How else could I survive
the endless winter
of my childhood?
Hell-spangled girl
spitting teeth into the sink,
I’d trace the broken
landscape of my body
& find God
within myself.

Too, McKibbens plays God in a sense to her readers, powerfully and purposefully offering telling and specific titles to her poems—titles that help readers decode the bodies of the pieces, a masterful craft choice. Her poems, then, are granted a bigger wingspan, a wingspan that does not distance readers, but wonders them at her diction.

Blud is full-body affecting, no matter which realm of the speaker we are allowed to exist within. McKibbens’s collection is wildly brave and generous, describing familial absence with incredible feeling and precision. McKibbens writes in “the ghost daughter speaks: white elephant”:

Please                          quit saying                               but she’s your mother
                        I’ve never
                                                      We’ve never

Whether or not you have grown up with an absent parent, McKibbens powerfully communicates the desperation behind the familial wound. She begs us in sharp fragments to “Please” try to understand. In this collection, McKibbens is asking us, anyone, to finally ask her, to finally listen.

About the Reviewer

Jess Turner is a poet from Pittsburgh. Currently, she is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University and the managing editor for Colorado Review. Additionally, she has worked with Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and Braddock Avenue Books. Her own poems can be found in Pretty Owl Poetry, Ruminate Magazine, Rogue Agent, and New Delta Review, among others. You can find her by water or in the mountains.