167 pages, $16.95
Review by Brynne Rebele-Henry
Noy Holland’s 2005 story collection What begins with bird is a catalogue of conception. The female characters are a host of surrogates charged with the rearing of their own wombs, babies both imaginary and not, and the men are damaged bruisers, temperamental, mentally unstable fathers unaware of their growing broods, lumberjack drop-outs, quick to lose control. Tinged with love and the catatonia and soreness of afterbirth, Holland’s prose forms an ode to the lilt, bulge, hobble, and gilded calamity that is pregnancy, the fallopian galaxy of it, and to the burlesque that is parenthood. Holland frequently uses the garden of fertility as a metaphor— the stunted growth of roots that result in insanity, the barren ovaries of plains and mountains and the hardships of existing in a body—and equates the tangles of birth, abortion and menstruation to winter, when trees strip their own leaves in a form of reincarnation.
The scenarios in “what begins with bird” and “someone is always missing” are more or less the same. The younger sister, recovering from an abortion or miscarriage or the lover who left her, is sent by her father to visit the older sister who recently gave birth to her first child. Staying true to the mythical quality of the prose, the sister uproots the previously harmonious home in which sorrow and malice are disguised with veils of linoleum and waffles. In “someone is always missing,” Rose takes the newborn out of its crib and into the garden while her sister is sleeping:
“Watch me,” she said to the dog. She walked into a patch of cactus, a cluster of pale, puffy crowns whose spines broke off in her arches. She sang, “Baby, baby.” Her sister appeared in the light from the house and held her hands over the rim of the hill. Rose took the baby’s harness off, tossed it over her shoulder. She tossed the meat down the hill to the dog. Rose minced around in the cactus and then could not think what else to do. The wind had begun to blow as it does when day begins in this part of the world. Her robe was flapping open. The baby was sucking at her, a bony, gummy mouth. Libby called out. Rose heard her. She could barely hear her. She was thinking of the baby against her, how small she was and silky, and silky and creased and round. She thought the baby would weep soon. It would look up and speak her name.
In “what begins with bird,” the visiting sister becomes the surrogate mother in her mind and hides and abducts the baby:
I hide the last egg, open the door. He is screaming. I find her lying in bed with the baby, my bed, a cigarette smoking on my bedstand, my gown in a heap on the floor. “I was trying to—” She can’t talk right. She’s got the nub, the grizzled button, tucked away in her mouth. I sweep a finger through. She was trying to what? I don’t ask her. She didn’t do anything, she was lying there, she found it dropped to the foot of his sleeper. No use in trying to ask her: did she yank the nub loose or gnaw through the leash, take a bite of his hide, so sweet, so soft you scarcely know you have touched it?
Every word gums through the paragraph like a bruise. The family in this book resembles wisdom teeth, sprouting through homes and minds and cross-pollinating over oceans and continents in an inescapable solar loop that ends in the thresholds of home.
Ultimately, this collection highlights how birth and death are the same: the permanent entrance from one warm wet place to another, the mobius strip cycle of life and growth and reproduction that starts in the womb and ends in the ground or incinerator. These stories encompass the broke-bone fever of captivation (physical and mental) and resonate like a sage-fueled witch doctor. They are stories that stay with me, that refuse to be left behind, that just won’t quit.
Brynne Rebele-Henry’s poetry, fiction, and visual art have appeared in The Volta, Souvenir, Alexandria Quarterly, and other magazines. Her work is forthcoming in Revolver, So to Speak, Ping Pong, PANK, The Offending Adam, and Pine Hills Review.
She was born in 1999 and won the 2015 Louise Louis/Emily F. Bourne award from the
Poetry Society of America.