This is a book review I wrote for Ilyse Kusnetz’s class in writing book reviews at Sierra Nevada College, while working on my MFA. As Ilyse told me, it was probably not timely enough to have published in a journal, as the book had been out for 2 years at the time I wrote the review, but I offer it here, as both a recommendation of one of my favorite books of poetry and a remembrance of Ilyse and her good teaching. Ilyse lost a battle with cancer and left this world last year, just months after so brilliantly teaching this class. Ilyse’s husband, Brian Turner, and others have immortalized her words and her voice in a very cool new project called The Interplanetary Acoustic Team. I encourage you to click on the link and listen to the teaser track, “Light Sketch,” at the bottom of the page, featuring both Ilyse’s poetry and her voice. Anyway, here’s the review:
Blood of Our Blood
Katie Ford, whose background as a divinity school student has always led her to explore how we position ourselves in a universe where violence and suffering exist and God looks on, continues that theme in Blood Lyrics, her 2014 poetry collection (Graywolf Press). This collection addresses the questions of her earlier books: Deposition (Graywolf, 2007), which Ford describes in a 2007 interview with Red Mountain Review as exploring “clear correlations between the ways theologians and religious leaders [write] and [speak] and the ways humans perpetrate violence”; and Colosseum (Graywolf, 2008), which, according to Sasha Dugdale’s 2009 Poetry magazine review, addresses “spiritual desolation” in the face of a “backdrop of constant mortality.”
In Blood Lyrics, Ford explores motherhood and its lines of conjunction to the decimations of war. Certainly that alliance has existed through time—Mother’s Day was originally conceived as a banding together of mothers against war, and various groups have formed such as the turn-of-the-20th-century American War Mothers and the more recent Another Mother for Peace. Ford, here, draws a parallel between her own fear and struggle in the days following her daughter’s extremely premature birth and the struggles of soldiers on the battlefield, observers of war, and all who are touched by combat and its corollary violences. It is the best kind of parallel that is drawn in this collection: the kind we should be able to see but don’t, until a poet as deft as Ford shows it to us. Of course mothers feel each other’s pain. Of course the enemy combatants are the sons and daughters of mothers. Of course it is blood that connects us. Of course.
Ford begins Blood Lyrics begging intercession, casting a desperate spell offering an unnamed power “my lights, …my most and only opal,/ all that is nimble, …/my eyes,/…their cotton” in exchange for compliance with one demand: “do not take my child.” Throughout this first section, Ford takes us through the terrors of parents on the brink of losing a child, a daughter born too early, a “child of grams” who “weighs seven hundred dimes,/ paperclips, teaspoons of sugar”. We are taken into the Children’s Hospital, where “a child’s body breaks the heart/and the mother can’t know/if she counts as a mother”. The fear is palpable, the terror of living on an earth where this could happen, where “the earth laid down/its brutal head/ [and] would not lament” .
Ford laments, and not only for the child she may lose, but for the children of other mothers in far-away lands from whence we get news, though the relationship between motherhood and war is more implicit than explicit. Occasionally however, Ford gives us signposts on our road to recognition: “Here is the board, here the water./ Baptism is as bad as they say”. The enemy (whether foreign or not) is humanized, made banal: “Torturers button their canvas shirts/…straighten their cots…bite their toast” and one can hear the unspoken and have mothers, too, when Ford tells us, “theirs is the zeal of children.”
Ford grapples with beauty in a world where, in Baghdad, “loosened souls” are “hastened into the kingdom/of unspecified light”; where, in Bobigny, “not one in seventy tongues/…are speaking now” and where prayer “chants your own secret incompletion into death”. She asks that, in such a world, “the pear and fig fall prior to their time,/…the radios die/…each year decay and each decade”. In this world, “gratitude is not allowed…not without offense”, and yet there is still beauty; there are still “vineyards and orange groves/ [that] rise after seasons of sudden freeze”. Even amidst that beauty, there is disillusionment. “To bomb them,/we mustn’t have heard their music,” yet this poem’s speaker “[tries] to believe in us” and receives “a letter/from a friend: don’t be naive.” Again a question is asked: “How God can bear it…”; not how God can bear the calamities of death and injury, but how God can bear “the sound of our florid voices, thankful/for the provisions at our table”. How to manage that? How to live in a world where “[our] lives should feel like cut-outs of lives,/ paper dolls drifting to the ground, /ready for chalk outlines” but don’t? How to live in a world where “the garden plot [is] wasted at the gate/…the finch…/so trivial”?
That Ford provides us with such minimal answers, such inadequate remedies (“make an instrument of your broken lung,” “photograph the massacre”) is a clear-eyed antidote to the empty jingoism to which so much of 21st-century America subscribes. She wants us to know that she knows we might dismiss her position in “that sentimental watershed called new motherhood”. She knows that we might think “because [her] child was threatened” she may “too quickly conclude/that no one should be threatened,/that we shouldn’t kill those asleep in their bedclothes/somewhere we haven’t heard of”.
Few readers will leave this collection unaware of the blood that runs through us and through our children, the blood that is spilled in our names, the blood that bonds all mothers to each other and to children. Few readers will assent to Ford’s invitation at the end of the book:
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 or fume,
just as your mother would have been
when you were born, you are alive
to read this now
We are alive, and we are more alive having read this collection. Only time will answer Ford’s ultimate question: “whether something outside of us can reach in and affect change”.