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September 19, 2021

Mouthbrooders, by Amy Nawrocki, is a collection of contemplative poems, an exploration of the relationship between the creature self and the life of the mind.

Central to the exploration and in the middle of the volume, the title poem shows us a speaker whose brain is teeming with ideas but who is having trouble choosing the right words to embody them:

With no mind for words, no voice
to echolocate underwater, no sinkhole
to burrow or free unforgiveable limbs
from pen caps whose plastic scratches
leave no trace of helpful blood,

I take on the company of cichlids and catfish,
mouthbrooders who clutch their young
in hopeful jaws, and search for a more
buoyant form of the art of persuasion.

Send me one of those fry harvesters
who coax the unspoken out from
worried tongues without harm,
without sugar pills or counterarguments.

In other poems, things and ideas get lost, unmoored, as in “Aide-memoire” when
“I wander in circles around the kitchen
looking for the water glass filled after
the open refrigerator door told me
my purpose for standing there.”

Or in “Knowing and Not Knowing,” when
“The cat steps down the basement stairs
with the purpose of one looking for the last buoy
before losing the horizon in a sea storm
and cries something between request and apology
as if the cold cement floor would swallow him
and I am his only hope.
I know, I mutter.”
The cat, in this poem, functions much like the dog in Stephen Dobyn’s poem “How to Like It,” always one of my favorites but especially in fall, with “roads still to be traveled.” The dog says “Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk./Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find.” Because, Dobyn’s speaker says, “This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.”

Like the speaker looking for her reading glasses in “Hourglasses,” readers of Nawrocki’s volume are glad for the reassurance that “there is no failure/in blinking yourself into clarity.” Appetite is literal as well as metaphorical, and “who will butter our bread/ if not the crepuscular calls/of hunger from which we have/happily never escaped?”

On the other hand, however, “Aster Place” celebrates a moment when the mind flies free of its confines:
“A pen has just fallen to the ground,
its owner too lazy or mesmerized
by blonding clouds to move and catch it.
An aster blinks.
Say purple and you don’t really get it.”

The mind cannot be allowed to fly free for too long, lest it slip what moors it to reality:
“It’s easy to paint a picture of a valiant rescue,
the clamor that alerted me to the den earlier that afternoon,
a milk snake forgiven, resettlement efforts and no loss of life.
But we do not live in times of benign migrations.”

What is essential is not entirely invisible to the eye, in this volume. When a bird hits “The Uncurtained Window,” the speaker fears an end to all its flight “because she’s seen this before, watched mobility/feather away into unanswerable dust,/bent her knees and clasped hands/around wounds that did not heal.” Anyone who has ever experienced even a temporary loss of mobility will feel how essential flesh and bone is to power what in this case seems borne on the breeze, what so often symbolizes human freedom from the bonds of the body.

Respect for the way the body tethers us to the earth runs through this collection, from the way “bread is baked on Tuesday,/the rising episodic and calculated/by slow hands and the need for/patience” to the sight of a woman “too agile for a cane, too/capable for hand-holding” but who nevertheless needs help.

Leafing through these pages, there’s always a chance of “food or sport,/the fish decides; the man hopes.” But the possibility of something more continues to present itself, like when “the trees have held onto their leaves/for longer than expected.” We think, and we plan, and we give in to the demands of the body so that we may think some more, aware that although there’s always a possibility that “we’re going to lose/this one” we can keep reaching out with our bodies: “free my/hands; cut off my hair.”

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2021 10:28 am

    This seems intriguing and is a new poet to me. Thanks for sharing these lines. Loss of mobility is something I fear my father will soon face, and it will not be a good experience for him or those around him who want to help him adjust. He’s not good about asking for or accepting help.

    • September 21, 2021 10:30 am

      Even for those of us who are less conscious of our bodies than others, loss of mobility is a big adjustment, not only in terms of pride and independence but also in terms of how well the mind works in confinement.
      These poems are more general than that, but I love the way they connect our intelligence with what we carry it around in.

  2. September 21, 2021 2:06 pm

    I like what you quoted. A lovely collection by the sound of it. Though I kept reading mouthbrooders and “mouthbreathers” 😀 Probably because between swollen sinuses and allergies this time of year I am very much a mouthbreather!

  3. September 27, 2021 7:52 am

    Oh, that feeling of not being able to translate my ideas onto paper (or screen), scrolling for hours through the thesaurus for the closest word…it’s maddening! I’m wickedly glad to know it’s not just me.

    • September 27, 2021 9:00 am

      Isn’t it great how the best poems can capture a feeling many people have?


  1. “The way the body tethers us to the earth” | Amy Nawrocki

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