It comes as no surprise to the reader that Rachel McKibbens is one of American’s most accomplished spoken-word poets, having served nine times on the National Poetry Slam team and winning two spoken word championships. The strength of her poems lies in their strong, consistent voice—one that speaks with authority and uses the cadences and expressions of natural speech to create a natural tension that moves through each poem and the collection as a whole.
Mammoth, a collection of seventeen poems, centers on the theme of grief, specifically the grief upon the death and dying of the narrator’s niece and the compounding of that grief with other people and events. The poems are written in free verse, from different points of view, ending with the most poignant and moving poem in the collection. “Drifter,” in the voice of the now-dead child, includes these provocative lines: “If I had reached my second birthday, / would I have wished to be less temporary, / or to have never been born at all?”
Each individual poem is strong on its own merit, but this chapbook attempts to create a narrative arc—something not common to all chapbooks—and while that occurs through most of Mammoth, there are hiccups. The first two poems seem a bit out of place in the collection, and because of their placement, tend to confuse the reader about the true trajectory of the chapbook. This decision about ordering may be more emblematic of the more loose relationship between poems found in spoken word competitions, and most likely works better on a stage than it does on the page.
These first two poems relate the narrator’s experiences of becoming a mother, and losing an unnamed, vague male friend or relative, and do not contain the sharp focus on the topic that soon becomes the real theme of the collection: the death of the young girl from a kidney ailment. One other less topical poem, “Torch,” occurs in the middle of the chapbook, and though it refers to grief in a vague way, makes more sense in the arc of the collection because of its placement further into the book; because of its relationship to the poems that precede and antecede, its placement works.
McKibbens has a knack for connecting the inner life of the narrator with the real world through the use of scene and narration, rather than through bare allusive imagery. The ugliness of the experience of dying young, in a hospital, is represented unflinchingly in this scene from “Greetings From the House of Defeat”:
. . . she sat up for the first time
in three days, grey lids
painted in a Morphine fog
and pleaded only for water.
Later, McKibbens relates this scene that illustrates the raw pain of everyday interactions and thoughts that haunt for months after a death, in “Small Talk”:
. . . Do you need anything?
How about a little goddamn honesty. How about
calling it what it really is. How about stop
your fucking smiling . . .
Mammoth relies on “goddamn honesty,” and moves us with its rawness and its courage in tackling a subject usually handled with euphemisms and sentimentality, neither of which are much indulged in by McKibbens. The collection ends with two poems that bring the cadence of the chapbook to a slow close. “Salve,” the penultimate poem, encourages a new start for the survivors: “. . . your flesh is still yours. / What better power to have than that? None. / None.”
Rachel McKibbens’s Mammoth is a worthwhile read by a poet whose fearless intensity and skillful use of sentence and scene are both moving and memorable.