Buzzed Books #41 by Amy Watkins
Monica Wendel’s English Kills
The speaker of these poems is a teacher contemplating becoming a mother, but the book doesn’t slap you in the face with that point of view; in fact, only one of the poems overtly mentions the decision to have kids. In “Better Ones,” she begs her spouse to move to a bigger apartment “for when a baby comes, but that’s far off,” she says. Surrounding this are poems about marriage, change, ambivalence, fear, and loss–or is it fear of loss?
In 2002, I became pregnant just as our country prepared for war. I wanted my daughter and loved her fiercely, even before her birth, but I was terrified. The world and even my own neighborhood seemed overrun by dangers both physical and existential. I shuddered at the news stories I read obsessively: Children killed in terrorist attacks and drone strikes, struck by cars at school bus stops, abused by authority figures.
Maybe fear of loss is part of preparing to parent. Several poems in English Kills refer to lost or missing children. In “Ferguson, Missouri,” Wendel’s speaker dreams she is hiding under a bridge with an acquaintance who calls out repeatedly for his son, but he can’t remember the child’s name. When she wakes, she says, “I wonder whose child will be next, whose no, no I heard.” Obviously the reference to Ferguson is specific, but such grotesque vulnerability also feels universal in a dangerous world.
In the next poem, she dreams she and her spouse “drove to West Virginia / to climb inside a mountain.” She writes:
[…] In the darkness
of the mountain’s hollow inside
I ordered shrimp. Each pink body
curled on the plate like a tendoned larva.
Maybe it wasn’t really a shrimp between us.
Maybe it was something we had made.
That disturbing image is followed by a handful of poems about one of her young students who runs away on the subway. All these references to children disappearing underground bring to mind Persephone, the most famous lost child of the Western canon.
Wendel combines meaningful literary allusion with powerful personal and historical reflection, all in just 15 pages. In a recent blog post titled “Small is Beautiful,” Michael Young writes:
A poet should write and construct the best book they can, and if that collection is under 48 pages, then that is how long it’s supposed to be. To ignore a collection because it’s only 20 or 30 pages long rather than 60 or 80 pages is simply the error of a mind that thinks bigger is better.
Wendel’s slim but muscular collection supports Young’s claim.
Pair it with something potent in a small glass, like sherry or madeira.
Amy Watkins (Episodes 124, 161, 164, 192, and 209) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. She is the author of Milk & Water (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and the art editor for Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.