I worry about hyperbole whenever I hear someone talk about a physical reaction to a piece of writing, so I’m hesitant to describe Rachel McKibbens’ book of poems, Pink Elephant, as a gut punch—but damn, it is. At one point, it also sent willies down my spine, too.
This is a collection of poems not to be trifled with.
“I am the star of the violence,” she warns in her first poem. In the second, “The First Time,” she and her brother are trying to run away. It might be any two kids running away from home, as almost all children are apt attempt at some point.
But subsequent poems make it clearer and clearer—and more horrifying—why they’re trying to escape. Jealousies, abuse, alcoholism, molestation, terror. “God was too busy for kids like us,” she realizes.
She watches her father beat a man with a crowbar at a gas station as the man’s wife watches impotently.
She watches her stepmother get dragged over the glass of a shattered taxicab window as they tried to escape. “The sprinklers came on / in the courtyard / as I made my way up the sidewalk, / following a trail of blood back / all the way home.”
When her father admits, drunk, that he killed the family dog years earlier, her fury finds itself. “That night, I learned vengeance can mean / one less knife at the dinner table; / an infuriated child tucked beneath / her father’s bed, / waiting. / Waiting.”
Even when her father is not the main antagonist, he helps heap on the misery. In “For Peter’s Sake,” she gets molested by a stranger on a church playground. “Proud, I told my father,” she writes. In response, “he smacked me like a housefly” and swings her into the car by her hair.
McKibbens is insidious in her efficiency, though. She frontloads “For Peter’s Sake,” for instance, with the phrase “The first time”—as in, “The first time I was molested….” The awful implication of that sits like a big ugly thing over the rest of the poem. Another poem in the collection, “The Doll,” tells of molestation, too. It is one of the most devastating poems I have ever, ever read.
“The Balance” tries to conjure the good memories she has of her father. “To live at all, I have to remember these days, too / place them on the highest shelf like glass figurines caught mid dance,” she writes. They are the memories that power her own attempts as a parent to break the cycle of violence. Poems chronicle that struggle to become the kind of parent she wants be, not the kind of parent she herself had feared. Her own childhood, filled with large-scale violence, boils down into all the small ways a parent can hurt a child. Check out the heartbreaking “Central Park, Mother’s Day”:
“To forgive my father means to uncover / the value of my own life,” she writes in “How It’s Done.” Pink Elephant searches, searches, searches for that value.
McKibbens’ poetry is not for the fainthearted, but Pink Elephant is a collection that’s so powerful, so unrelenting, so uncompromising, that you can’t afford to ignore it. After these poems hit you in the gut, they’ll sit there for a good long time afterward.