31 pages, $10
Review by Chris Caruso
Miriam Bird Greenberg has hitchhiked over ten thousand miles, worked as a deckhand on a catamaran, and is a daughter of a goat raising anthropologist. These life experiences freed her from a topography that defines location and self as fixed and static entities. Her second poetry chapbook, Pact-Blood, Fever Grass, reflects on these themes of location that teeters between the familiar and a visionary quest. I had to sacrifice my belief that I understood the methods of self and place. This collection led me to follow Greenberg and enter her covenant, believing in her powers of divination.
Greenberg plays the role of a backwoods witch, her poems acting as premonitions of what is possible when the constraints of defining are removed. Her poems disrupt the cultural constraints brought about by labeling, and there is a haunting between what is known and what could be known, the plausible and the impossible. “A Problem of Taxonomy” lets a wunderkammer create a “problem/with taxonomy, I tell the kids.” The act of naming and placing what is real against what is fictional allows the logic of sleeping “inside /a cougar to stay warm, or sometimes just a goat/though a cougar is warmer” to exist alongside a grandmother who loved to set off fireworks. The wunderkammer is a box of all possibilities occurring, an unshuffled deck of tarot cards, a potion not yet concocted; it is a device that removes the hierarchy of roles and locations. Within it everything is re-envisioned free of the constraints of defining.
Children are the focus of the text and represent the uncertainties that, like prophecies, exist in a constant state of “what –if.” Greenberg creates tension between the historical and the erasing of the weight of the past so that “the children have given themselves Hitler mustaches/yellow with pollen…doubled over in laughter at the goodness/of their good idea.” Viewed as the next soldiers and leaders, children will commit atrocities not only of violence but by continuing the process of using labels to declare who is of value. Or perhaps the children are arriving at the conclusion that such naming is a game and it should be laughed at.
The danger of believing what is placed upon an individual is seen in the poem “Esau.” A local legend is used to convince a group of poor children they are possible monsters that will steal the livestock and food of hardworking citizens. This truth brings about a hyper vigilance and questions if the monster “Could be me?” “Keeping Off the Dead” offers the result if the cycle of naming inherent in language is broken. A child begins like “a baby animal, yipping small sounds that grow to yelps” and through this rejection of language and categorization, the child is able to seed anew the land and bring others into the same process. The results: “Away flee the ghosts of the land from their rotted stump” that allows “a noise unheard since the confusion of tongues.”
Pact-Blood, Fever Grass works because it kept me from ever becoming grounded or complacent in my reading. I had to be vigilant for the prophetic insight that might arise on the following line. Much like prophecies, Greenberg does not give answers but merely presents a path by which to travel. History is unable to be pinned down as biographical or as a fevered vision of what might be. These collisions have “The men in their ghost shirts before dawn” and birds that “recall/their names in the shadows”. The men again in their “fish scale suits…studying bones. They are drawing lots./They are observing patterns in the flight of birds.” It is in this absence I was left to decipher these prophecies.
Chris Caruso has an MFA in Poetry from Boise State University. He is fascinated with the limits and transgressions of borders/boundaries especially the margins between words and images. He is currently revising a book and two chapbooks of poetry. His current home is Boise, ID.