By Kathryn Kirkpatrick
Press 53, 2011
Reviewed by Dorine Jennette
Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s Unaccountable Weather links the health of body, land, and spirit in lyric and narrative poems that recount the speaker’s treatment for breast cancer. Some pieces are semi-surreal lyrics, while other poems take the form of monologues from a patient. One strong lyric is “The Garden of Lost Breasts,” in which the breasts “arrive on the backs of herons, / in the pouches of possums.” Once in the garden, the breasts find that “[b]ecause they have often fed others, // the animals refuse to eat them”. In the monologue “Donna Goes Dancing,” the speaker gets carried away on the dance floor and flings the prosthetics from her “Dolly Parton bra” at her surprised but laughing partner. Still other pieces, such as “Called Back,” travel the speaker’s memory to non-cancer-related experiences of violence and oppression. Collectively, pieces treating oppressive episodes bind the collection together, for Kirkpatrick links gender-based and class-based violence against people to violence against landscapes. She then connects habitat destruction to its inevitable consequences for human bodies, steeped as we are in “plastics and pesticides”. Through her persistence in drawing the reader’s attention again and again to interconnectedness and its consequences, Kirkpatrick’s Unaccountable Weather, though not an overtly “political” book, sings a quiet but insistent ecofeminist anthem.
Unaccountable Weather is organized around the story of one speaker’s experience with breast cancer, so the reader encounters interactions with medical machines. One such scene unfolds in “Department of Mammography, Because I Want to Live”: “I tango with the machine, lean away / from my captured breast, hand on metal”. This image, and others like it throughout the book, shows how Western medical treatments attempt to divide the body falsely into parts. The speaker leans away from her own breast as though it is a foreign object; meanwhile, her “tango” with the machine figures the machine as a person, even a lover. This false separation of the body’s system into parts, alongside the false personification of a mammography machine, is arguably the kind of dualistic (men-and-technology good, women-and-nature bad) vision that has led Western civilization to poison groundwater with pesticides and mining slag runoff, among other errors. This confused, outmoded man-vs.-nature dualism is exactly what Kirkpatrick’s poetics here oppose.
Fortunately, Kirkpatrick avoids the trap of equally simplistic nature good, man bad thinking, that is, she avoids reversals of Western dualism that do not refuse dualism altogether. Instead, she charts the nuanced relationships that arise between patients and Western medical professionals, whom she affectionately conflates with images out of Western mythology: “wood-sprite in the white coat / green man in scrubs, / radiation goddess with her resident”. For example, in “Radiation Treatments”:
Don’t look back he tells me
as he holds out his hand
this technician, technically not
lover or friend. But how many times
light-footed, on his way to somewhere
else, does he gentle my body
beneath the staring plates,
cast out the demons
as I reach back for the metal rail,
see the damage, the scar
still calling me by my name.
Similarly, in “Physical Therapy,” Kirkpatrick recounts the experience of a healer’s touch on a mastectomy scar:
What once was private and sexual
is now in the public domain,
though there’s intimacy still
in the vulnerable altered
body, so that hours after
the scar’s been touched, I
sit beside myself in a public
space, diffused, remapping
my flesh . . .
In these poems and others like them, Kirkpatrick identifies moments of connection that belie the disconnections of a Western medical setting. Kirkpatrick especially identifies those intimacies—patient to patient, patient to healer—that are not usually named, those that don’t have familiar labels, yet exist and have power, nonetheless.
We lack neat labels also for the brutalities that Kirkpatrick identifies in these poems: a young hunter leers at the genitals of a dead doe in “The Poem I Didn’t Write,” and in “Called Back,” an adult man grabs a teenage girl’s breast in a hallway. Kirkpatrick doesn’t assail the reader with big-ticket episodes of violence, but rather identifies small moments in which a larger violence briefly, shockingly arises. Often, that violence is based in Western culture’s gender-based power discrepancies. Yet again and again, Kirkpatrick looks beyond a refutation of gender-based violence to refute gender as a category altogether. In poems like “Alter,” “Glenda in the Garden,” “Chemotherapy,” and “Physical Therapy,” the speaker encounters the world’s paucity of responses to bodies that do not conform to expected gender types. For example, in “Alter,” the speaker is asked, “Are you a man or a woman?”. In “Chemotherapy,” the speaker is startled by her own image in a mirror: “Now I’m sacra / to myself, a neutral suggestion, / transpersonal form”. And in “Physical Therapy,” the scene unfolds again, this time with
. . . a stranger’s face registering
my half-inch hair, what manner
of being?until sunlight finds its way
through the latticed glass panes—
I am here.
That parting “I am here” resonates as the poet’s ultimate answer to the question “What manner of being?”: throughout the collection, she insists on valuing being, being alone, as reason enough to assign worth and value life. In “Finding the Heart,” the speaker digs a grave for a deer heart discarded in the woods. And in poems throughout the book, such as “Unaccountable Weather” and “After the April Freeze,” the speaker registers her companionable relationship with plants and trees, whom she describes and honors as if they were people.
Kirkpatrick’s plants-are-people approach gives an anthropomorphic center to her poems of the outdoors. For example, the new growth of the Japanese maple in “After the April Freeze” becomes an extended metaphor for the speaker’s recovery experience. Throughout the book, in fact, plants and trees are drafted (grafted?) into service as figures for the speaker’s body. On the one hand, this mirroring of person and plant is appropriate to Kirkpatrick’s theme of connectedness: the same chemicals that make plants sick can lodge in our bodies and make us sick. On the other hand, at times Kirkpatrick seems content to let bushes and trees become mere ciphers for human experience. Here simplicity crosses over into the simplistic, and the effect is unfortunately saccharine. While Kirkpatrick clearly values the nonhuman, when she allows her connection to the nonhuman to blur into identity confusion, she diminishes her expression of its value.
Yet in terms of craft, the poet’s willingness to blur categories creates her major achievement in Unaccountable Weather, as she blurs the boundaries of poetic modes. Kirkpatrick pairs narrative and association in ways that one might call “experimental,” except that “experimental” connotes difficulty, and Kirkpatrick’s work is extremely accessible. Her project does present the potential for difficulty, because narrative and association offer contradictory approaches to experience: narrative unfolds events in sequence over time, whereas association defies sequence, so that years-apart episodes can pack into a single emotionally charged image. To combine narrative and association in one piece, therefore, is to take on the difficulty of mode-mixing juxtaposition—yet whatever the writer’s challenges may have been, Kirkpatrick’s juxtapositions never yield difficulty for the reader. The reader never bogs down, never feels oversaturated, but can breeze along turning pages as though the book were a novel—albeit a novel told in short, associative episodes.
Unaccountable Weather is far from being a book only about and for human bodies with breasts, or human bodies with cancer. Unaccountable Weather expands its scope to include the planet’s body, linking pesticides to plants, plant to animals, and animals to all human bodies, which face all kinds of frailties. This inclusive, ecofeminist approach reveals the links between class oppression, gender oppression, and the hapless destruction of the planet: Kirkpatrick shows how inevitably our destruction of the environment destroys us in turn. Yet Unaccountable Weather is not all gloom and doom—far from it. Here radiation-wielding technicians become healers with mythical powers; the men who are the physicians, friends, and lovers of the cancer-surviving women play crucial roles in the book; and given time, the damaged land recovers. All in all, Kirkpatrick’s ultimate subject in Unaccountable Weather is not cancer, but connection.
Dorine Jennette is the author of Urchin to Follow (The National Poetry Review Press, 2010). Her poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Verse Daily, The Journal, Puerto del Sol, New Orleans Review, Los Angeles Review, and The Georgia Review. Originally from Seattle, she earned her MFA at New Mexico State University and her PhD at the University of Georgia. She is an editor for World Trade Press, and of the American Poetry Journal. She lives in the Bay Area.