…a closer look at EveryHerDies

Behind the Titles: A Closer Look

at EveryHerDies by Jennifer MacBain-Stephens

Featuring ELJ Publications’ April Jones and Amber Hollinger

April:

This collection is, to borrow a line from the introduction, a series of “prose poems [that] speak to the indelicacy of human nature–our desire to build fences when the pain is not ours.” The poems aren’t about what you think that will be however. They are about infected deer and a family’s struggle to separate themselves from any reminder that the sick creatures exist. That being said, there are some profound lines in this collection I’d like to look at.

Amber:

Profound lines indeed. As a preliminary note: I firmly believe that this collection, by Jennifer MacBain-Stephens, is one of the best short collections of prose poetry that I have ever read.

April:

Starting with “(After Aunt Margaret Built a Higher Fence),” which is a poem about how the deer still come to try and eat the flowers even after the narrator’s aunt builds a higher fence to keep them out. There is a line following a description of the disease, which sounds quite painful as it talks about how the deer’s throat is eroding, that says, “All things in pain do not cry/ out.” What a beautiful line. In humanity we’ve adopted this idea for some of our more heroic figures, the quiet hero, the one who suffers in silence. And, we’ve made it out both ways, to be a good thing or a bad thing. Here is a reminder that this suffer in silence is an animalistic trait that we’ve borrowed. This collection is full of subtle reminders that aspects of human nature can be traced to the animals we overlook.

Amber:

Generally, I’m not a fan of blood and gore, in most art. But these poems are a pleasure worth the pain. The language does not evoke senseless violence or the mere glorification of decay. Instead, it brings a pound of fleshy materialism to the doorstep of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The author presents suffering and pain and disease in beautiful, terrible detail. The work is crafted in a much more Zen fashion than a colorful zombie script or a vibrant battle report; much of it could be sung like a Buddhist chant. It is a gruesome prayer: for nature, for ourselves… what we do to/for it and what it does to/for us … how we are both a separate part of it and a connected one with it… and what it all may mean as we try to coexist, side-by-side.

April:

What do you make of the spacing in this collection? I’m thinking specifically of “(Nurse)” which is a poem about a dream the narrator has about trying to comfort the dying deer. An example is found in the line that reads, “Trying to comfort and save comfort and save comfort.” I love prose poetry because of little things like this. Instead of using commas or extra spaces to really distinguish between trying to save and/or comfort this creature the poet lumps them together. By lumping them together we get two things. First, we get the constant shifting of a dream. We don’t know what the narrator is trying to, and neither do they. Secondly, we get innocence of a child here. In a child’s perspective being comforted is the same as being saved. Think of kissing boo boos here. The narrator thinks that if it can kiss the sickness away that the deer will be all better. Did you see this in any other poem? You can also include lack of punctuation in the spacing question as well.

Amber:

Agreed: I love prose poetry and most hybrid styles for many reasons; one major attribute being their sexy rule-breaking! Reading with the eyes is also, of course, visual. Many readers and writers seem to forget about visual qualities of the written word—especially in prose. The best writing is fearless even in structure, wherein the author can play with space and time and other doors of perception. It’s not only lovely but important to remember to honor and utilize the space, the symbols, the punctuation or lack thereof, etc. in the created piece. As MacBain-Stephens demonstrates, in good prose poetry, one “line” or “stanza” could be read 7 different ways—sometimes even backwards. Can allow readers to visit veritable dream worlds.

April:

What did you make of the line, “‘It/ is there burden’ Then why are we afraid.” From the poem “(Early)” which is about how daytime brings bravery and at night time the deer come back and stick their heads through the fence to eat the plants and Christmas lights off the house. This is another example of those profound lines I was talking about earlier. They seem to be everywhere in this collection. I find absolute truth in the idea that humans are afraid of sickness and death. Think about the recent interest in Ebola, or our preoccupation with cancer. This line also asks a very important question, why is it “their” burden? Why can’t it be shared? For me the answer is more of a rationalization to  get out of harms way, or avoid the sickness because of the fear/ darkness(remember this poem is about being brave in the day light). What are your thoughts?

Amber:

As you’ve alluded to, exploring death, disease, and the natural world—intertwined with the human world—in this way allows for deeper meaning and deeper questions. We are persuaded to think about and feel about suffering and death, in silence or otherwise, including the maddening methods or obscure calls upon “courage” we may invoke to distance ourselves from these aspects of existence. What of the paradox where it is normal to view suffering and death in nature as abnormal? Normal to suppress grief—apart from (shallow?) sympathy—related to the suffering and death of strangers/outsiders, unless (or until) it directly affects us? Normal to associate life with “winning” and death with “losing” some universal game? In this story, a sick deer, like death, becomes a remote notion, far-off other, to be pitied and to be feared.

April:

Following the poem where the narrator explains to us what the disease is and how “It doesn’t affect the taste of the meat.,” we come to a poem called “(Others),” where we learn more about the disease namely that the deer bleed through their skin. There is a line that reads, “They don’t act like themselves. We don’t like ourselves.” They is referring to the deer just to clarify. In this poem the narrator and her family don’t do anything to the deer. It’s simply a more in-depth poem about how the disease affects the deer. So, the question becomes why don’t they like themselves if they haven’t necessarily done anything to the deer? For me the answer is their inability to face the deer’s sickness. They begin to feel the guilt that is associated with pretending that something isn’t wrong when clearly it is. Was this the same answer you got? Did you see something else in this poem?

Amber:

As a mostly vegetarian, I really love that line. More broadly, this piece, again, brings us back to ideas of disconnect and connect: to nature, the natural world, and natural processes. Again, we are encouraged to examine the cognitive dissonance in seeing a human being as entitled primary (/ the subject / the property owner) who is separate from—and perhaps in charge of—all OTHER, lesser animals (/ objects / the surrounding owned) on the planet. YES, in their heart of hearts, humans often have massive love and empathy for (other) members of the animal kingdom, whether or not they call themselves “pet-loving” or “nature-loving.” YET, right or wrong, left or right, the fact remains that, as a species, we hold ourselves above all others and above nature itself. We kill, eat, dominate, and destroy what we please in our environment. We hunt animals—our neighbors, as this story reminds us—for food, hunt them for sport, raise them for slaughter, grind them up, use them, abuse them, take from them, push them out of their homes, push them into ours, befriend them, study them, experiment on them, on and on… And each human—of any culture, of any affiliation—can find a way to rationalize the correctness or incorrectness of each such action with thoughts, feelings, and arguments about what is natural and unnatural. Perhaps we ought to be ashamed of what we have become…. As an ironic, related side note: many animals still scare the shit out of us, especially when they are discovered to be diseased – they threaten our mortality – they remind us of our mortality – they (sh)are our mortality. Our current relationship to the animal kingdom is sort of a sick cosmic joke. Our overall role in the natural world has become as diseased and distressing as what is happening with the deer in this book.

April:

This collection is really quite superb. I wasn’t expecting it, which made it all the more impressive. Who thinks to address humanity’s issues with death and sickness by using deer? Sheer genius. You’re going to want to read this collection.

Amber:

Amazing pieces: that read as superbly as independents as they do one engrossing whole. They say a great poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom. This great poem begins in horror – but intrigues and illuminates all the same; hence, it is of-the-light. And indeed, readers will be left more informed and aware of the world within them and without. Such a treasure reminds us why we (must) read, why we (must) write.

 

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