This review was originally published on Fourth & Sycamore.
In her third volume of poetry, Blood Lyrics: Poems (811 Ford) from Graywolf Press, Katie Ford accomplishes something remarkable. She succeeds in telling a rough story, housing her poems within a sweeping arc across the length of the book, without ever allowing her lyrics to be lost within that arc, reduced to mere pieces that lose their beauty outside of the whole. These pieces stand alone as fine poems, but lodged within the loose-but-sure structure of the broader work, they comprise a grander plea, a bitter prayer, something of a treatise. Like the Psalmists, Ford has found, and expresses, that beauty and despair often walk hand in hand.
Blood Lyrics takes as its seed the premature birth of Ford’s daughter with writer Josh Emmons. The child’s life was in jeopardy for some time after the birth, and the early poems focus on this period of intense emotion. Ford bleeds out on the page, wrenching her heart dry with fear and anger and uncertainty. The book opens with the poem A Spell, in which she offers up every good thing in her life to whatever sadistic Other is holding her child ransom.
Take my lights, take my most and only opal,
take the thin call of bells I hear,
She concludes after the listing of her offerings with:
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.
– page 7
Herein lies the subtextual theme of the first half of Blood Lyrics: do not take my child. The following poems carry this plea onward, weaved into the variety of feelings expressed; outrage, desperation, exhaustion, and so many more. And to be sure, this is a book of feelings. There is no abstract remove in which the writer looks objectively at her emotions, dips them in bleach, and presents them to the world, reasonable and sanitary. She lives in them on the page, breathes them in and out. It is remarkable then that she is simultaneously so under control in this writing. Ford succeeds in these pages in both drenching her language in the fluids of her grief and fear while also presenting that language beautifully to the reader. Dismal emotion is contained within a gorgeous lyricism, as in these lines from the book’s second piece:
For the child is born an unbreathing scripture
and her broken authors wait
on one gurney together.
– from Of a Child Early Born, page 8
Ford’s lyricism itself merits a mention. There is no sense here of a poet either trying too hard or needlessly obscuring her language. These poems, while not easy or transparent, read smoothly and flow off the tongue and into the ear with a gentleness that belies the harshness of their subjects. It would be a delight to hear these poems read aloud by their author, though no doubt the heaviness of their emotion would be even higher and harder with that reading.
I have stated that the book deals plainly with Ford’s emotion in response to her daughter’s peril, but the settings of her language are in fact quite physical. She places us in the children’s hospital, makes us sit in clean waiting rooms, tells of receiving details of dosages, has us take down a whiskey bottle one night, stretches us on more than one gurney. So visceral are the materials of her writing that at times it edges into body horror. She forces us to look past the balloons and teddy bears to experience the sickly pallor of a children’s ward; she makes us feel the primal fear and disgust of the human, mammalian body betraying its owner. Opposite a poem titled Children’s Hospital sit orphaned lines (page 11) telling us her joy has evaporated, concluded by an explanation of sorts – so I sing of hell / and the brutal body.
Around the halfway point of the book Ford steps back from the terrifying specificity of her situation and begins to reflect on broader human suffering. These poems unflinchingly rebuke the warmongering of nations, of our nation. One poem is comprised entirely of the names given to drones and missiles – Savage, Sinner, Scapegoat, Peacekeeper, etcetera (page 45). Rather than losing her voice in this broader highmindedness, Ford maintains the beauty and savagery of her language while also keeping hold of the first section’s guttural emotion. This is neither self-righteous posturing nor revolutionary idealism; it is the clear-eyed observation of a wounded mother, bitter and exhausted and scraped too thin to care about the rightness of any given politic: every death is a child’s death, every grief a mother’s grief. We can’t do this anymore. But you go and name your missiles.
In the book’s final poem she addresses the anticipated accusation that this is nothing more than a hurting mom’s sentimentality by claiming it and daring us to invalidate that:
If you wish, call me what the postpartum have long been called:
tired mother, overprotective bear,
a body made sensitive
to the scent of fire and fume,
just as your mother would have been
when you were born, you who are alive
to read this now.
– page 62
Throughout the book, both in the first half dealing with her child’s precarious health and in the latter half dealing with humanity’s brutality to itself, Ford peppers in questions of theodicy. Early on this is personal, Jobian, and later scales out to take in what has become of humanity at the hands of whatever god, or ghost of one, is overseeing us.
Strange we must be
to the maker who made us
less weary in love than he.
– from Mathematician, page 22
There is indeed a weariness to these passages, as though the parent writing is less angry with God than disappointed. These are blended with an Arminian awareness that humanity makes its own choices; the implication of God is not made equal to the indictment of him. While the author’s questions reference God, her rebukes are aimed at humanity:
If we are at war with a holy book in our hands
let it shrivel to slag; its teachings
cannot survive the drone
and will not gleam while villagers drink the ditch.
– from Our Long War, page 31
Perhaps this reviewer’s favorite individual piece from the book is the poem Choir (page 54), which I won’t reproduce in its entirety here. It stands out from the book by only tangentially, in the final lines, touching on the themes described above. It speaks of the delight it was to once know certainty; whatever faith the poet once held is watery and no longer of aid. The regret, however, is only for the feeling of the comfort; the cost of it was too high. She concludes: we would have despised anyone / to keep our song.
I’ve shared so many things I found remarkable in this thin volume of poems, but I’ll share one more that is critical to point out at this point in the review: this book is lovely. It is splashed, however sparingly, with hope. The book’s grief, terror, blood, anger, doubt, and bombs do not scorch the earth of this poet’s heart and mind. She holds on. She sees where good might lie, however far off. Even in darkness, there is an object permanence to the joy that is hidden from her view. As she concludes in Song of Sadness:
Don’t say it’s the beautiful
I praise. I praise the human,
gutted and rising.
– page 23