Prose Feature: The Nature of the Oracle: A Review of Katie Ford’s BLOOD LYRICS (Graywolf Press, 2014), by Colleen Abel

July 31, 2015

In her third full-length collection, Blood Lyrics, Katie Ford has proven herself the master of poetry that balances the interior with the exterior, the personal with the historical. Her debut volume, the stunning Deposition, juxtaposed violent experiences with the Christian passion story. Her next book, Colosseum, set an evacuation from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina against ancient Rome. In Blood Lyrics, Ford aligns a narrative of the premature birth of a daughter—and the fraught time after that birth when the child’s survival was uncertain—with the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ford’s taut, intelligent writing, combined with the complexity of emotion and her self-conscious admission of the risk inherent in undertaking a project like this one, is striking.

Part of the book’s power comes from Ford’s ability to write from a place of uncertainty. The mystery of whether the speaker’s premature daughter will live is as painful a mystery as the end date of a seemingly interminable war. These unknowable elements then point to a third: is there any omnipotent being out there? The book wavers between wanting the comfort of answers and recognizing the dangers that can accompany such certainty. As the book opens, the speaker’s personal anguish is clear; Ford begins with a desperate portrait of doubt in the form of a small, untitled proem:

I run to the gates and rattle them—
just tell me what will happen—

a few sad beasts come forward,
but as for the oracle, the oracle
will not come forward.

Ford divides the book into two halves. The first, “Bloodline,” consists of eighteen poems that concern themselves with the birth of the speaker’s daughter. It is not Ford’s method—in this book or in her previous ones—to offer overt narrative: the focus remains squarely on the interior space of the lived experience. In the case of Blood Lyrics, this replicates the claustrophobic effect of panic; the reader remained trapped in the uncertain present of the speaker’s brain, unafforded the distance and order that narrative-making can provide. But the brief glimpses of narrative that “Bloodline” offers into hospital hallways and bedsides with “orderlies snapping smelling salts / from chalky bullets against / all the mothers falling” are all the more devastating for their infrequency. The speaker, of course, is one of these mothers: in the poem “Of a Child Early Born,” she says, “I lie still, play dead, am delivered decree: / our daughter weighs seven hundred dimes, / paperclips, teaspoons of sugar.” This is the fragile daughter about whom the oracle is silent, and “Bloodline” powerfully communicates what it is like to exist only in the blind present: the reader is as in the dark as the speaker about the daughter’s fate. In one of several untitled, bracketed lyrics that have the same beseeching, seeking tone as the proem, the speaker begs, “Tell me it’s April, / tell me you live into a little girl.”

Ford has always been a poet steeped in religiosity—she has a graduate degree from Harvard Divinity School—and Blood Lyrics stands beside her earlier volumes in its relentless investigation into the act of belief. Perhaps nowhere, though, has Ford presented a more apt occasion for this interrogation than in writing about a woman on the edge of losing a child. In the book’s first half, the speaker tries to find comfort in whiskey and the everyday pleasures of “the newspaper … flung against our door” and snow falling at night more often than she seeks comfort in a higher power, whether that is God or an oracle stubbornly incapable of telling the future. But the beautiful tension of the poems in which the speaker invokes God comes from the speaker’s spiritual frame of reference—Ford is not afraid to write of “the soul,” for example—combined with skepticism of faith’s usefulness. After the speaker tells us that her daughter weighs only as much as “seven hundred dimes,” she invokes the Gospel of Matthew:

. . . the good nurse
laid out her studies
as a coin purse
into which our tiny wealth clinked,
our daughter spilling almost
to the floor.
You cannot serve God and wealth
but I’ll serve my wealth and live.

Defiant refutation—this time of Matthew 6:24, You cannot serve God and wealth—courses through “Bloodline” and sometimes softens, but never loses its power. In “Mathematician,” the speaker struggles through another uncertain night—Ford invokes the liminal state of near-sleep many times throughout the section; the speaker is frequently dozing with “half-shut eyes” or she is newly waking—and alludes to the Book of Genesis “when the first dark fell / and the father reckoned up / the world.” Unlike the God of Genesis (who wiped out his beloved creation in disappointment and disgust), the speaker claims:

I need no sabbath
from the count
seated in my closed, open,
half-shut eyes.
Strange we must be
to the maker who made us
less weary in love than he.

The juxtaposition is pointed: Ford’s vigilant mother dozing beside her infant daughter’s hospital bed is in stark contrast to a creator depicted in the Old Testament as cruel and frequently capricious. This passage also shows Ford’s best musical gifts: the delicate music of the chiming “e” sounds and unobtrusive alliteration, as well a quietude that tempers Ford’s defiance. It isn’t that Ford rails against God in these poems, it is that “Bloodline” is a record of a speaker who alternates between desire for a higher power and a will to keep her attention on “prais[ing] the human, / gutted and rising.”

Ford weaves linkages between “Bloodline” and the book’s second section, “Our Long War”: the children’s hospital of the first section mirrors an immigrant hospital outside of Paris and then a makeshift hospital in Baghdad where “loosened souls / [are] hastened into the kingdom / of unspecified light.” God appears here, too, in ways that are tellingly different from the opening section. For example, Ford treats the destructive God of “Bloodline” more tenderly here: “We must forgive God God’s story,” Ford writes in “Little Goat.” This is a crucial statement to make after the speaker’s indictment of the God of Genesis in a poem like “Mathematician” in “Bloodline”—like many who struggle with belief in a higher power, Ford’s speaker oscillates between a defense of religion against those who would use it to harm others, and an intelligent skepticism. But this doesn’t feel contradictory: if anything, it points to Ford urging us toward nuance, perhaps as good a description as any for the project of poetry. Ford acknowledges the temptation of seeking answers in religion—her own speaker has broken down and done this several times in the preceding poems. In “Choir” she professes, “I once believed in heavenly clarity – / do you know how good it feels to sing / of certainty.” But uncertainty has been Ford’s project since the opening lines of Blood Lyrics, and the finale of “Choir” suggests that it may, in fact, be the preferable state, given the destruction that religious certainty can bring:

Inside the mouth, certainty
is a fruit breaking apart.
That is how good it feels:
we would have despised anyone
to keep our song.

All of this wrestling with what cannot be known is emblematic of what is perhaps most memorable about Blood Lyrics: the evidence Ford leaves of the struggle to write it. Ford is clearly aware of the dangers inherent in writing about and juxtaposing motherhood, war, and God—namely, sentimentality, self-aggrandizement, and aestheticizing tragedy. Especially in “Our Long War,” the reader can feel her thinking through these problems; at one point, Ford even chastises herself: “Stupid poet,” she mocks. Ford presents a defense of her project against potential accusations from her audience, anticipating, perhaps, suggestions that she has appropriated tragedy or speaks from a position of liberal guilt about privilege. (“How can God bear it,” Ford asks in another poem, “the sound of our florid voices, thankful / for the provisions at our table—”.) And in the single-poem section that ends the book, “Coda,” the poem, “From the Nursery,” asks the reader, “When I looked up from her hospital crib / to see the wider world, could I help it / if I saw a war?” She anticipates the charge of sentimentality, expects the reader to believe she has “too quickly conclude[d]” that all life is precious as the result of her daughter’s fragile beginnings. Ford offers a justification for the construction of the book, for placing the poems about her daughter beside the poems about torture, bombs and drones. Her level of sensitivity to the issue, her defensive stance, might strike some readers as unnecessary, but it strikes me as savvy, and offers a rare moment of Ford dropping her meticulous, sparse language in favor of something more conversational. Part of this switch in style is to indicate a past experience. Through her use of intense introspection and lack of narrative in the poem’s opening half, Ford succeeds in trapping her readers into the same future-blind state that her speaker experiences in the earliest days of her daughter’s life. But in “From the Nursery,” the speaker has the benefit of hindsight, and she defends her seeking the certainty of an oracle: “I felt I had been dropped from a considerable height / where the future remained, as it always had been, / stridently unknown.” The phrase “as it always had been” is critical here: the speaker realizes now that she is no more or less knowing than any other sufferer of tragedy. What remains is Ford’s true subject: the record that humans, “gutted and rising,” leave behind of the searching they do in times of trial. Ford ends the poem:

If you wish, call me what the postpartum have long been called:
tired mother, overprotective bear,
open sore,
a body made sensitive
to the scent of fire or fume,
just as your mother would have been
when you were born, you who are alive
to read this now.

This is another gesture of defiance, this time directed at an earthly audience, rather than at God. But by this point, the reader is so full of admiration for the intricacy of emotion that Blood Lyrics has evoked—and the astonishing beauty of the language—that it is hard not to feel Ford has earned the last word.

—Colleen Abel

Colleen Abel

Colleen Abel is the author of Housewifery, a chapbook (dancing girl press, 2013). A former Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, she has published work in The Southern Review, Colorado Review, Pleiades, Phoebe, West Branch, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the PhD program in creative writing at UW-Milwaukee, and lives in southern Wisconsin.

Previous post:

Next post: