Megan Peak—Girldom (Perugia Press, 2018)

When I was a baby poet, one of my formative books was Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, a rich, surreal piece of Texas Gothic which explored the pitfalls and alchemies of southern womanhood, a world of silvertongued stalkers and family secrets. This was the poetry of ten years ago, which already seems so far away, as more and more writers approach “uttering the unutterable” as meaning “expose your pain, indict your trauma, and destroy it.” Megan Peak’s Girldom is, in many ways, the next phase in the trajectory that propelled Journey, Melissa Morphew, and other southern writers of the early aughts, landing within the world of #metoo & beyond to tell readers that whatever the bastards take, they will keep very, very little.

To call a book like this brave or inspiring would be to reduce its power; it is beautifully invincible in the loft of its soar. This is not to say that pain does not shine through. There are razor sharp images throughout Girldom, skies half-wrecked, stairs pouting cracked wooden lips, bluebirds buried in snow, all the grimace and scowl of the natural world when we look at it through pain. The most searing, cutting images in this book surround the central event, but do not specifically illustrate it. The images in its place fill in the wicked plunder of predators; in “Before Spring,” we see a foal in fog. “She has stepped/on a rattler, its fangs already deep in her ankle./Her eyes dilate, grow round as her new belly.//What the heart does next is cruel: how it lifts/in panic, the quick livening of the body before it slackens.” If this is the supposed innocent state of nature, what chance do people have? “I want to know what about this world,” Megan asks, “is tender.”

Failing to find tender, the poems of Girldom recast the obscura of magical icons: celestial haloes, precious stones fused with bone, and the almost-breath bodies of birds. These are not escapes, not dreams to ignore growing up around young men weaned on toxins. They are the antibodies, tinctures for the bites left by the bold teeth of boyhood. In her work, Anna Journey often swerved to avoid the fangs. Megan Peak has pulled the goddamn fangs out. A spirit has wrapped old leather wings around these poems; nothing can hurt them, and many will hurt themselves trying.

I admit a weakness for images that nobody else thought to write down. It’s why I write, it’s why I read, to be shown another face of what everyone feels. I welcome “sequins falling like a burst sputnik to the snow” to do the old work of Icarus. Girldom is not the first great book of poetry about overcoming violation, but it is one of the wisest. Mark Doty once wrote of “how the world gives luster as it falls apart,” but Megan Peak has shown us how it does the same while pulling itself back together again.

~ Seth Copeland