“Animal Instinct Dictates Only Fear”: On Miriam Bird Greenberg’s In the Volcano’s Mouth

T. J. McLemore

Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 101 pages. $15.95.

The desolate, hypersensory landscapes of Miriam Bird Greenberg’s debut collection point to a world in ruins. It’s tempting to imagine, even, that Greenberg has pioneered a new poetics in this book; these could be firelight travel songs to sing after the apocalypse. “We sat in the ruins,” one poem begins, “and made tea from the flowers.” But no, we come to realize—this is America’s present tense, its postindustrial rural countryside, a poverty-stricken, flecked, and blood-fringed affair. It’s often eerily anachronistic, a country of corded phones and train tracks. Various hungers skulk about, sometimes leading to a gentle touch but often leading to a knife. In one poem, for instance, the speaker imagines old folks sitting on a liquor store porch talking as three girls eviscerate a goat hanging from a tree; the poem could be set in any century at all. The speaker turns from the spilled viscera to describe the porch scene:

When a wind came, the screen door leapt up
on its leather hinges, which never creaked,
and slammed shut. Mud daubers in the muck
by the spigot blew sideways around my ankles.

There’s a skein of need knotted through almost every image in the book, a haze of deprivation. Seeds can’t take root; girls kill their own meat. A longing for water—often to slake thirst but also, as in the case of the spigot, to wash blood from one’s hands, or, as in the waters of Lethe, to soothe memory—reappears throughout the book, often in an image of dowsers trying to divine groundwater:

Every seed left unharvested breaks

open, sends out its small claim
on the soil. Look out over the hillside

stitched by bees. Dowsers pace the pastures
in search of unseen rivers.

These etiolated, ghost-freighted landscapes arrive in Greenberg’s narratives of hardscrabble hitchhiking and train-hopping across the old highways and rail lines of the American West. It’s a vagabond of a book, each poem almost like a bead on some Ginsbergian rosary. A constellation of poems narrating the speaker’s wanderings—both alone and with a lover—holds the book together and comprises many of its most memorable moments, tales of “tweaker visionaries and run-of-the-mill mystics” united by “the train’s eternal boneshake.” The poems take us to rock quarries and Cadillac graveyards, abandoned houses and boxcars in Mexico—“ghost countr[ies] of the erotic imagination,” to borrow from one of Greenberg’s poem titles.

The book insists on finding intimacy and even beauty inside its ruins. Throughout her wanderings, the speaker often is “consumed by the fire of [the] heart’s tumult,” sharing in the “burnt offering” of the world with another, sliding into an ecstatic, confessional lyricism. But at other times, the bonds of travel seem to render any direct affection superfluous, as in the book’s “them two” poems, which relate a couple’s travels in the third person. The two won’t say it, but they love one another so deeply as to want

                                        to walk into a cold river

weighted down with stones
                                        just to stand alone for a moment
                                                            through a hollow reed

There’s hunger here—in lineation and syntax as well as image—for connection and separation, an imagined rite to celebrate both memory and oblivion. The heart, in these poems, is insatiable and feral.

In mapping desire, Greenberg enacts a visceral tension between tenderness and violence, just as the book proposes the inseparability of beauty, independence, and terror. In “Heaven and Earth,” which describes an affair between two men in an orchard, one of whom is transgender, the two understand that “there comes / a last time for mending, for sharpening / a shovel’s blade to dig through roots.” In another poem, the speaker puts on a black lace bra for her lover and associatively declares, “I’ve held the throat of an animal, / and broken its neck.” Sexual desire becomes simultaneously instinctual, graceful, and wolfish; “there are ways,” Greenberg tells us, “of making violence / into an offering.”

An unsettling thread of primitive magic arises in this collapsing of love and violence; the line separating humans from animals begins to vanish. In this world, children can converse with animals. The speaker’s simple cousin slinks into the shape of a coyote. In the collection’s final poem, “After I Die,” a wild litany inspired by Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” the speaker is reincarnated in many shapes, both human and animal, to satisfy the various dark hungers of the body. Most compellingly, in “Love Poem,” some men—who act as if they were “born / in a volcano”—metamorphose into birds of prey when they reach puberty. They carry rabbits, an animal that appears throughout the book as a figure for domesticity and submission, back over the rim of the volcano and wash “their bloodied hands / in kitchen mop buckets.”  Inside the volcano’s mouth, certain hungers—particularly male hungers—become the desire to skillfully devour. The poem closes with a catalogue of predators—a fish, a wolf, a thief, a butcher—each “regarding the object of his affection / gently.” And the poem’s chillingly clean final image: “The caress a butcher gives the goat, // the steady, swift blade that follows.”

But only a few characters we encounter in Greenberg’s travels are sinister or dangerous. A fundamental goodness lurks in the corners of the world, beyond the demands and depredations of the American Dream, its domestic sterility. Even so, the speaker’s instinct toward self-defense competes with her desire to trust the characters she encounters, as when the kindness of two white-bearded truckers strains against the speaker’s temptation to carry a knife while hitchhiking. Greenberg owns and then interrogates the dangers of a lone female traveler trusting strange men, writing that

                              Everyone knows

what happens to women

                              who hitchhike. . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
       as though the perimeter of knowing ends
with womanhood

                                —and yet, this never happened
to me.

Instead, a woman’s hand reaching to unlock the passenger-side door becomes a benediction. Importantly, Greenberg emphasizes that it is, for her speaker, a choice to become vulnerable in this way, to place herself at the world’s mercy. Late in the book, we see a carful of Salvadoran workers sympathize with what the American hitchhikers are “playing at”—having done it themselves in earnest—and they make room for the travelers, sharing their breakfast; those “who had no food to spare / gave prayers.”

This is a dazzling debut from a farseeing poet. In the book’s notes, Greenberg mentions the terror of surrendering to an “autobiographical impulse,” inviting us to imagine the poet herself within the ghost countries of the volume, on its rails and highways. The reader, too, must journey through these poems, observing the distant “lit windows of houses” as we reevaluate the confines of our safe, stable lives. This is a poetry of no school, no trend; it’s simply fresh language with an ear to the ground. It takes its risks as easily as climbing into a stranger’s car. We would do well to listen, to walk away, as I did, “dazzled and enraptured / with the glorious confusion / of it all.”

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