In a note on the poem “Drunkard’s Path” in her debut poetry collection, Even Shorn, Isabel Duarte-Gray suggests that “Quilt patterns frequently assume sinister titles, perhaps because they allow women to see the patterns of their lives sub specie aeternitatis.” The quilting of a beautiful, sinister pattern in the hands of women seems part of the primary work of Even Shorn. Duarte-Gray’s poems of growing up in western Kentucky juxtapose biblical and regional vernacular, animal lore, and family folklore with a lyricism deeply rooted in place and frequent images of violence. It’s a startling, unique work that may call to mind the fragmented vernacular collages of C.D. Wright or the evocative poems of place and persona in Ansel Elkins’ Blue Yodel, but it is wholly original in its voice and vision, in its sort of quilted mapping of voice and place as one and the same throughout these poems.
In the poem “Cutter Quilt,” this quilting becomes a literal formal structure evocative of this violence and knowledge of place:
the night river is a woman washing
clean the moon
upon forgiving rocks
. . .
was pink as hatchlings or
a child born just a little
dead already tied and then I
waked to watch his afterbirth
be buried in a hole
. . .
a cat’s tongue is a briar patch
. . .
Man’s tongue pleases no one
The patchwork of animal lore, a woman’s work, vernaculars, and the stark, brutal image of the child and the hole for burying afterbirth is emblematic of the larger project of Even Shorn. The crisis of these poems seems that of, like Hesiod’s “Works and Days,” an instruction manual for survival: recite the knowledge of plant and dead child, of the grandfather with “the pistol out but one bullet” in a game of solitary Russian roulette, of the steps to dress a deer to learn how to live. If the book grapples with—indeed is—sub specie aeternitatis, it is one engaged with the crisis of a particularity of living that sometimes resists any kind of larger meaning or narrative. In the note to “Solomon’s Seal,” Duarte-Gray explains that the Solomon’s seal flower’s resemblance to “lettering is actually scarring from the broken end of the leaf stalk.” How does meaning come not from divinity, but through scarring, through pain that has itself no meaning, no transcendence? How does the violent imagery of “easing your knife through the muscle wall. Drawing her skin like / a warm, blood curtain to shield her guts from rupture” in the poem “To Field Dress a Doe” suggest a kind of beauty in the knowledge of how to do this work, of how to keep on living? Such is the power of Duarte-Gray’s work.
Part of this beautiful quilting work also happens in the way almost every poem has a place name written after it, so that the poems and their personas come to map both landscape and voice. The “I” of each poem speaks out of the no-time of lyric poetry, but each poem is pinned down to a specific place, creating a lyricism insistent on the mapping of a real location, as in the poem “Lot’s Wife”:
My son has holed himself upstairs. . .
What he knows are hollow sounds.
When vacancy lit our son’s ribs
the length of his life.
The consolations we tucked in
the sheets of his pine bed.
What that bullet took
when it came
The reaching for a larger eternal narrative through the reimagining of—or finding consolation and pattern in—the story of Lot’s wife, and the simultaneous rooting in the specific place of Grand Rivers, Kentucky, are two gestures of the same crisis of dealing with trauma. One reaches for and finds solace in larger patterns of narratives that show up in fragments of vernacular, but one also declares: this is of a specific place, a specific time. Here. This voice that belongs to right here and has roots directly in this place. There’s a beautiful mapping at play in Even Shorn as a result, connecting each voice to a specific town and way of existing in the world. Too, the juxtaposition of the domestic images of pine bed and sheets with the bullet in the closing lines of this poem are indicative of the way that tenderness and violence are held in the mouth—like contrasting vernaculars—in equal measure. Not necessarily with mercy or consolation, but as a resistance to silence and as an acknowledgment of the specific town and place they arise from, whether in folklore or family history. In so doing, Even Shorn builds its own kinds of fragmented narratives and personal cosmology of both blood and bed, a method of grappling with trauma without resolution.
In the poem “The Shrew Ash,” the speaker declares: “Took me time to learn you can’t heal in body. / Use the leaves to know a thing / and knowing cuts a pattern.” The inability to heal and the knowing of a thing, the cutting of a pattern through knowledge without necessarily healing a wound, is the beautiful and necessary work of Even Shorn. And what a knowledge this collection offers us: not only of bullets and family members, but also of such animals as the titular creature of “Hognose Snake,” who “thrills her / nose to rotting / sycamore leaf,” of soil and shrew ash and laying of hands in “the secret language.” Duarte-Gray invites us as readers into the “secret language” of her lyric with hunger and leaf and tongue and wound. It’s stunning work, and Duarte-Gray’s remarkable debut is one of wholly unique and unforgettable lyricism.
About the Reviewer
Kelly Weber (she/they) is the author of the debut poetry collection We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place (Tupelo Press, 2022) and the chapbook The Dodo Heart Museum (dancing girl press, 2021). Her/their work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Laurel Review, Brevity, The Missouri Review, The Journal, Palette Poetry, Southeast Review, Passages North, and elsewhere. She/they holds an MFA from Colorado State University and lives with two rescue cats. More of Weber’s work can be found at her/their website.