Rachel McKibbens is far from the kind of academic poet that I am more familiar with. Her bio on the back of her 2014 chapbook, Mammoth, lists her accomplishments as a “nine-time National Poetry Slam team member, the 2009 Women of the World Poetry Slam champion and the 2011 National Underground Poetry Slam individual champion,” as if wordplay and metaphor-building were acts of breathtaking athletic prowess. Combined with her time teaching poetry at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, McKibbens’ approach to poetry is oriented towards community-building and engagement.
For sure, the poems in Mammoth reinforce those ideas. But the greatest surprise of McKibbens’ collection is how deftly the poet handles her personal grief and trauma. The speaker in these poems, still recovering from the premature death of an infant, speaks blunt truths with the uncanny precision of a therapist. The poem “Salve” opens with “You want only to become magnificent/In the naming of terrible things,” the closest the collection ever gets to a thesis. In the space within these pages, McKibbens harbors both the cold hyperreality that comes with disease and death (“After her organ shut down/the nurse shook her head:/No more liquids”) and its nightmarish counterparts, a body with “anemone’d cells” or the rain that “sleeps like mice beneath my skin.”
And yet, for all its macabre tone and subject, in Mammoth a pale light still shines through the window onto these poems. Perhaps reflecting her background work in hospitals, McKibbens is remarkably adept at mixing in moments of catharsis, even dry comfort. In the remarkable “Torch,” the speaker describes having sex in a hotel with her husband merely feet from her two children. The poem ends, “Then a nearby truck’s horn/tears a hole into the sky. Oh God, it’ll wake the children! / Thank God it could wake the children.” Horror, grief, trauma, pleasure, and relief all folded into the same continuum.
Although not a light collection, McKibbens strong mastery of tone, her fantastic imagery, and its relative brevity made this a very quick read for me; the average reader could probably blaze through the whole chapbook in 30 minutes. Mammoth is a powerful examination of traumatic loss, but is made even stronger for what it suggests about recovery—that perhaps even the most shattered can still find ways to pick up the pieces.