The provost taught me
truth was thin as paper—the little circles
she punched in it remain, and still
I hold this punctured story to the light.
We all have our minor (or major) academia horror stories. I won’t bruise these airways with my own. Instead, I’ll introduce you to yet another exquisite collection of poetry by Jehanne Dubrow—a poet who continues to be one of my favorites in the modern poetic landscape—and her academia horror story.
Firstly, the book deserves so much attention for its construction. Dubrow writes a “wild kingdom” of birds woven with academic references such as honor board hearings, minutes, rubrics, and course evaluations. These poems are a letter to the past, a reconciling with a “colonial town” and its college. “Whatever hold / on me,” she writes in “Postcard to the Colonial Town Where I Lived for Eight Years,” “has crumbled like your customhouse, / your columns propped with planks, the Chesapeake / lapping your foundation.” As I read these lines, these poems, I think of the way a former romantic partner becomes an enemy and how the residue of this oppression haunts you long after you have left. “I’ve learned from you affections need white gloves, / a preservationist,” the speaker laments, “Without thick glass, / without humidity control, our loves / are paper yellowing.”
Few poems capture the art of betrayal like “Sun Salutations with Betrayal and Departure.” I have also felt this in my lifetime—the “twinge in the back” from a friend who justifies her dishonesty with an explanation that “truth is a limb that can bend, / words too a flexibility, contortion / learned through daily practice.” “If there is a Sanskrit name / for what she will do by doing nothing / to help me, it would be passive river. It would be silent moon of cowardice.” “Cruelty,” defined in “An Essay on Cruelty,” “has a pattern possible to trace— / it’s not all swirl and bluster, but brief / intensities of nothing going wrong.”
I have never read Dubrow’s work without feeling the incredible insight and intuition she brings to the poetic landscape. Always, she is lucid and sharply aware. The birds in her work become the voices of the speaker’s internality, each speaking from their own unique and vulnerable selves in the world. “So often I’m mistaken / for a stint or red knot,” says the speaker in “Sanderling,” “Tonight, alone for once, / I am entirely myself.” In “Great Blue Heron,” for a calm, reflective moment, the bird is poised by the bay at sunrise and forgets “the bureaucracy / of seasons, inefficient / changing of the leaves,” knowing that migration from this place will simply take the bird to “another cove like this.” And in “Mallard” she asks, “Can you understand / that I tried to hide?” admitting that she “didn’t ask to gleam, / to glide in her gemstone / glittering across the water . . .”
But a poet like Dubrow cannot help but stand out. Though, as she states in “Field Notes on the Muted Brilliance of the Female,” “beside the male we say she’s drab,” the female bird is merely “modest in her hunger,” her song “audible at least a note or two” but repeated louder by the male, “his song the interruption of / her throat his song repeating louder / what she sang as if the melody were his / like winterberries stolen from a branch.” And how often as women, as artists, as teachers, as lovers in the world have we each observed the theft of our melodies? I know I have in all these categories, and reading this book is balm to those parts of my soul. With nuance, the speaker expresses her former pains toward forgetting and moving on, while also meditating on the way betrayals linger. In “Pardon,” she considers the president’s right to pardon criminals each year in the US, ending the poem with:
In the small democracy of the self,
I’m considering my own power to absolve.
I’m writing my name in the style
of a head of state. I’m trying to imagine
if a pardoner can ever scratch out,
as if with thick marker, the fraud
and larceny committed by the past.
More than a book for her past, Wild Kingdom is a book for our futures; a reminder to all that betrayal is painful. That we are only birds trying to navigate terrain for shelter and food. That when it comes right down to it, our minor kingdoms are far less important than the value of one sparrow. Feed the birds. Write your poems, as Dubrow says in “Advanced Poetry, “open and wide-skyed in all directions.” Weed out, for the world, your narrow assumptions and ambitions.
About the Reviewer
Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Slaughter the One Bird, finalist for the American Best Book Awards, as well as chapbooks The Optimist Shelters in Place, Parrot Flower, and Still Life. Winner of the New American Press 2019 Heartland Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Salamander, Slipstream, The Berkeley Poetry Review, EcoTheo, Borderlands and other journals. She is an associate poetry editor for the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry and assistant professor at Michigan State University.