Review: All Bird: Brandi George’s The Nameless

Review of The Nameless, by Brandi George. 
Kernpunkt Press, August 2023, 199 pages, $18.00
Review by James Brock.

The late Dean Young famously instructs poets, “We are making birds not birdcages,” in The Art of Recklessness, expressing a gravity-defying Warner Brothers Cartoons ethos and New York School surrealism. Young committed to those ideas since his days as a graduate student (and one year as a nursing student) at Indiana University, some forty years ago. His ideas about recklessness broaden the scope of poetry, embracing creative processes that are truly disruptive, chaotic, comedic, and thrilling. (Anne Carson, Thylias Moss, and Denise Duhamel were busy with their own poetic larcenies those days as well.)


Meanwhile, there lived a punk-goth farm girl, haling from Ovid, Michigan, with living visitations from faery tale creatures and Old Testament demons; a Lady Gaga little monster who survived exorcisms and sexual abuse and suicide; a love-wrecked and love-worn lovechild of Walt Whitman and Thumbelina; and, eventually, a professor and Ashtanga practitioner. She would write unlikely long books of poetry, improbably to have them published. And that poet, Brandi George, has now gifted us with an incredibly demanding, rewarding, pleasurable, harrowing, and funny book of poetry, The Nameless. It is a monumental book that is all bird.


Part bildungsroman, part memoir, part enfevered vision, part nature study of fungi, and so, so much more, The Nameless is also the work of a serious, careful versifier, one whose mastery of iambic meter is as light and feathery as hydrae. It is also a book that runs some 200 pages, a visionary accomplishment published by Kernpunkt Press—a press that must be praised for its faith in the most unlikely.


Structurally, The Nameless operates ostensibly as a memoir, divided into two sections, and subdivided into short, individual chapters. And while one is to distrust the autobiographical in poetry as being merely factual, clearly the effort here by George is to construct a poetic record of her life. The speaker in her book is self-identified as “We”—and while that first appears to be a nod toward a gender-neutral self-naming, the “we” who speaks is a dissembling of voices, polyphonic, amorphous, and morphing. This expansive idea of self, certainly Whitman-like, finds its operative metaphor in the mushroom, in fungi. Yes, inside the pleats of the cap of a mushroom are ungendered spores, where 10,000 individuals can fit on a pinhead, and a single fungus constitutes the largest organism on earth, covering an expanse of over four square miles.


George’s “We” constitutes a self that is wracked with auditory and visual hallucinations, an identity we might consider as post-structurally fractured or profoundly schizophrenic, but one that becomes a representation of the poet, a being who is something of a receiver, without the usual filters, who hears the language of air and death in everything and who must then sing.


The book begins with death, where We, as a child, is the victim of sexual molestation—her parents instruct her to forget it—and, from that moment, death’s spores enter We’s body:


                          so now when we
completely forget      it Happened

the Thing forms      a fairy ring
inside our body     Now Death

lives inside us

Invariably, then, Death attends, embodies, and accompanies We through the book—a fact of her life that she has long been taught to ignore and deny. And, of course, in Ovid, death is everywhere, within and without, but with the promise of change and metamorphosis. For We, this means enduring an exorcism at her parents’ behest, the parents convinced their adolescent daughter is possessed by demons. They burn her poems. The irony, it seems, is that We is indeed possessed, but by Death in all its recombinant manifestations.


The book chapters are often prefaced by George’s brilliantly fractured tales of Thumbelina dying a new death with each iteration. We clearly identifies with Thumbelina—the strangest of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales—whose queer desires and chaotic imaginings are continually corrected by her elders. George’s Thumbelina is “genderless, many-faced, guiltless, green, and as mysterious as twilight,” a runaway spirit who meets death recklessly, fully, casually, and intentionally.


And in this large book, there are abundant touchstones for We beyond Thumbelina: Kurt Cobain, tarot cards, success and the po-biz, and even animal husbandry. This is a poet’s memoir, after all, a testimony of the empathetic spirit, and here, with death living inside her, We’s empathy is almost debilitating. She feels too much (and this seems to be her chief sin, at least by her family’s reckoning). For instance, We recounts her work at a dairy farm, where her job is to separate the male calves from the female calves, after which the baby bulls will be sold for veal:


back in the barn we try to console the new calf
name him     Bocephus    after Hank    but without his mother

                                            he’s petrified
trembling    we hold him to our chest like a child

           his grief is so deep we can feel it    glacial    nothing will ever
absolve us of this


As much as We disassociates herself from her family, from middle-America banality, and from the grind of capitalism, she is inescapably complicit. Where others in her family and community routinely deny responsibility, she feels it keenly—it is the death in her. The poet’s task, it seems, is to receive everything, to name it, to own it.


Even so, much of the book is doomful, doleful love poetry, a tribute to We’s beloved Annette, an equally wild spirit (and later to We’s husband Michael, who co-authors several poems in the book). Here, the poetry is tender:


In the backyard we practice
flipping our hair
She-Ra mermaid rock star
it’s our thing hair      then eyes then

will we ever be beautiful?

          our longing for beauty is
crush of petals down our shirt
     leaves under our feet
dandelion heads on the sidewalk
                       sunburn like a hand


So, amid all the chaos, the disorientation of hallucinations, and the broken wheel that is the self, George’s reckless poetry continually finds its purchase in these fleeting moments. This unguarded work seems the very product of Muriel Rukeyser’s question: “What would happen if one woman told the truth of her life?” The world that Brandi George has split open contains all the invisible names of death, all the fecund beauty we long for, and a billion seeds that will germinate from the dead.


Her Affective Labor

Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles by Diane Raptosh

Etruscan Press, 2020

Paperback, 116 pp., $17.00


Cover of Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles by Diane Raptosh.


Diane Raptosh is the poet of the unlikely.


Of course, any creative act in itself is rather unlikely, whether it is the cosmic creation ex nihilo in which the universe is manifested out of an accident of strong and weak forces converging and dissipating, leaving some errant subatomic particles behind to crash together for the big bang, or the simple clapping of hands, a rhythm, a disruption, a repetition. A creative act is the convergence of everything, an impossibility, which only has to happen once, and there it is: the dreamy reverb by David Roback, the breath between H. D.’s lines, the abdominal contraction before Bill T. Jones’s turns.


Over her thirty-year career, Raptosh has produced wicked, loopy, political, surrealistic, and unforgettable poetry: experimental and wild, a free-roaming poet of the Idaho sagelands. Her work leaps madly into the mud-pools of language with a child’s abandon, but with an intelligence that is hard, uncompromising, and disturbing in its own playfulness.


Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles completes Raptosh’s verse trilogy, a project nobly supported by Etruscan Press. The first in the series is American Amnesiac (2013), a book-length, ghazal-sequenced monologue spoken by a former Goldman Sachs exec, who seeks to recover his identity, to reconstitute himself as an improbable and decent citizen. In the second book, Human Directional (2016), Raptosh leaves the individual to explore the collective and atomized human consciousness via a slapdash of prose poems, exploded catalogues, and single-line jokes. In her trilogy, we are stuck in the hell-scape of an American post-capitalistic society: racist, punitive, commodified, cruel, and degrading. Yet, multi-vocal and therefore hopeful, precisely because of the fissures and fractures that occur amid all the digital noise.


With Dear Z, Raptosh brilliantly answers this world with a set of letters addressed to our pre-embryotic, single-cell existence: a single fertilized ovum, a “love speck,” which drifts down the fallopian tubes. Perhaps finding purchase on the uterine wall and becoming, and perhaps just being flushed out of the system entirely and not becoming. We will find that in Raptosh’s poems this difference matters perhaps less than we’d think.


The voice is materternal, not that of the mother but of the aunt: intimate, loving, world-weary, and transgressive. It is a voice that is fully queered and unmoored, wholly original:


Dear Zero,


Most humans evolved only once—in what’s likely

East Africa, 200,000 years ago. So don’t freak


when I shout out We share the same mama:

Mitochondrial Eve. Unlike the one in the Garden


of Eden, mtEve was not the sole woman on Earth,

but the one who made her descent into everyone.


So pray tell, teeny homunculus, as the line

from “Time of the Season” by the Zombies,


that British Invasion band, goes: Who’s your daddy?


Please know that should you come be, Big Data

will quickly conceive you as processing stream,


a more or less numeral entity—lacking internal lyric:

that giddiest hymnal. That solemn bee. The think feeling


fist that is inwit. Queerest iota, does this kind of talk

smack of hokum-humanist seething on my part?


Our shared mother mtEve was mostly a kink of statistics,

a ringing quark of a person: a true lovely, who probably


knew to venerate horses.


Here is a whirlwind of what Raptosh does so singularly well: the careening slant rhymes and punning, the clack of assonant syllables against sharp end consonants, and the driving free associations that make perfect sense. But amid all this dazzle, Raptosh is in impressive control of her material.


In this passage, she isolates “inwit,” a word she introduces in Human Directional, and a word she parses out in her essay, “Poetry is Where the Action Is”:


. . . inwit suggests the inner senses and interior sensibility: that collection of inner faculties the poet sets store by. Inwit is, by my reckoning, the very womb in which the poet thrives.


It seems to me that the entirety of Dear Z is an exceptionally crafted articulation and enactment of inwit. Indeed, one suspects it is a quality deep in our mitochondrial DNA, somewhere in our circuitry, we just know we must somehow “venerate horses.” Our capacity to engage in affective labor—to love, to imagine, to be awed, to empathize, to connect—surely comes from that first “mama” that Raptosh names.


Throughout these letters to the zygote, the speaker faithfully accepts the binary of becoming and not becoming, and she celebrates this suspended (and free-falling) state. After all, even the zygote that does “not become” has “been,” a sack of genetic coding as ancient as the first evolution.


Dear Z,


in the presence

of your latency—


that vacant shoe,

those shades


of facelessness—

let’s say


I think I feel

the sound of dots moving.


Our ancestral connections, both to the past and future generations, are but Morse code taps on our own genetic coding. We have the same mother running through us, the sound of dots moving. An un-extraordinary miracle-mirror. A tapping.


Diane Raptosh gives us a speaker who possesses that womb-wisdom, who is generous and critical in her advice, especially when the news is harrowing. We have a great poet among us with commitment and daring and craft, who teases us and indulges us with her unconditioned and unconditional wisdom.


Voicing Ghosts

MOTHERBABYHOME by Kimberly Campanello

zimZalla Press, 2019

Vellum paper and oak box or readers’ edition book, 796 pages, £47.00 GBP




A vexing problem for the poet is how to write for the dead. Inherent in the endeavor is an appropriation, a betrayal, and a reduction. I know this dynamic well as my first book of poetry, The Sunshine Mine Disaster, was an attempt to speak to/for the 91 miners who died from carbon monoxide poisoning in the most productive silver mine in the United States in 1972. There’s a point where the dead unveil the poet’s futility and hubris, where the dead say “not enough,” where the dead say “too much.”


Or I think of Muriel Rukeyser’s attempt to capture the thousands of deaths caused by silica exposure from the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster in the 1930s. There, she traveled with photographer Nancy Naumburg to study, document, and capture the suffering of the laborers and their families. The result was an abbreviated, incomplete section of U.S. 1, “The Book of the Dead,” where the project resisted containment.


Thus, I come to Kimberly Campanello’s MOTHERBABYHOME, an excavation into the deaths of some 796 infants and children, who were housed from 1926 through 1961 by the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home under the administration of the Bon Secours Sisters, on behalf of the Irish State in Tuam, County Galway. These children were lost and buried in unmarked graves. Perhaps thousands of others were illegally adopted. They were, in essence, shame-ridden chattel of the Irish State and the Catholic Church; neither they nor their mothers had bodily autonomy.


Campanello’s work is a 796-page compilation of conceptual and visual poetry, of great expanses of nearly blank pages, disruptions of language and fragments, poly-layered type, explosions of text, all on large, letter-sized sheets of lightly transparent paper. In a brave collaboration with Tom Jenks of zimZalla Press, Campanello constructed both a reader’s edition, a bound paperback volume with a map of the institution grounds on the cover, and an “avant object” edition, a small set of individual copies made on loose sheaths of vellum paper housed in a hand-made oak box. Physically, both editions approximate the size of a coffin that could very well hold the skeletal remains of an infant.


The fragments—while highly manipulated by the poet, as they contort and bleed and reiterate on the page, as they communicate with other fragments visible through the layers of paper—are all external to the poet. They come from contemporaneous letters, documents, reports, decades of anguished cries and discomforting disavowals. They also come from current expressions voiced on the internet and in newspapers in response to the disclosures of the deaths by historian Catherine Corless in 2012. And so, among the fragments are harrowing words of mothers, rationalizations by priests, legalistic dodges by the government, and angry protests by Catholic apologists.


On one hand, it mimics the chatter of our currency—these could be tweets lost in the algorithms—and on the other hand, it channels the dead, directly, in their own words, buried, misaligned, and decomposing on layer, upon layer, upon layer of page. And as an anthropological record, the one lineal linkage is the chronological listing of the identified dead, the infants and children, all in impossibly tiny font (4-point, perhaps), with the years punctuating the individual sections.


One poem is a repetition of a single fragment, “programme of DNA,” reprinted three or four dozen times, overlaying one another, to form tiny stars, coalescing signifiers. Another poem is a four-page catalogue of diseases, ailments, and medical conditions. Clinically, the work on any single page may echo some early 1980s L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E experiments, a flashy and active deconstruction of language. But there’s a source content to Campanello’s work that goes deep and has absolute essence, and there’s an argument that challenges the reader to do the exhumer’s difficult and soul-demanding work. This book is a distressed artifact.


The final tenth of this book is a study of the word “delay,” a point that is amplified by the delayed report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission, which was supposed to have been released this February (after one extension), and will not release its findings until early 2020. The deferral of accountability continues, remains suspended. MOTHERBABYHOME is clear and uncompromising in its keening.


Campanello herself acknowledges antecedents to her task in M. Nourbese Philip’s brilliant Zong! and in Thomas Kinsella’s Butcher’s Dozen, in honoring the voices of the unjustly dead. That is, from them, she has learned to put aside her own voice, to contend directly with the recorded voices themselves, and to cull through the officially sanctioned narratives. But it is in her indebtedness to H. D., who re-positions the poet as ritual maker, where Campanello’s considerable genius and courage come to the fore. Here, she compiles these documents and records, captures and releases all the noise among the living and the dead, and in composing upon ghostly translucent sheets, she builds a coffin and a monument. Each page is prayer. Each page is holy.


I need to say two more things.


First, the book, in its entirety, overwhelmed me. Its weight, these ghost voices and their truths, has the heft of the remains of one baby and her mother, times nearly 800. I feel that weight looking at just one page, which reads, “reverence / for / the grave / may / Dunne Patricia 25/03/1944 2 mths / derive / planting / centuries.” The grief expressed, released, is not individual, not of a single lifetime, but what will require centuries of collective work. There is no easy reconciliation.


Second, Kimberly Campanello’s steadfast commitment in this avant object is breathtaking and humbling. This is the work of a great, great artist, and of a single, attentive human being who listens with intelligent receptiveness and with full love.