Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife Knife
by Kelly Gray
Quarter Press, Fall 2022
Reviewed by Rhienna Renee Guedry
Within the first pages of the short story collection Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife, we are swiftly embedded in a shining world that draws on the familiar, yet defies what we expect to find there. While the cast of characters in this collection are familiar to lore, old wives’ tales, and even fairy tales, they exist in fresh and unexpected ways throughout. In her prose, Gray examines how our grievances and hurt have the power to change us. The aptly titled story “Switchblade Serenade” provides us with our weaponry:
“I let myself bend down to listen to them, for one of my abilities is to hear the stories of knives. They sing right out of their blades, a cut of bird song. The cleaver moaned guttural of cracking bone, the paring knife crescendoed to the removal of soft flesh. And yet, it was the switchblade that sung the loudest of all the knives.”
Violence is a heavy and persistent motif in Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife Knife — even directly in the title, which echoes a key subplot within the first story of the collection, “Coyote Story.” In it, there is a critical subplot in which Frank the tiger cuts off his paw. “With blood in our mouths, we are all Frank, forced to speak the obvious…as animals, we never want our wounds to be obvious.” Yet, Gray makes it clear that intent and weaponry do not guarantee solutions. Indeed, harm and danger may encircle us; ensuring transformation is inescapable in this mortal life. Many of us are wounded. Gray makes easy work of relating to her characters. Still, our shared agony is not born from violence, but rather from lack of intimacy. Violence—whether small, self-inflicted, reactionary, or the result of desperation—leaves its mark on us. But it is our desire for connection that propels our bodies towards our need to be known by one another.
Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife Knife also explores the different ways truth manifests itself. A mercurial thing, we know truth is told and experienced in various ways. Truth—the pursuit of it, the obfuscation of it, the slow reveal—is a compelling refrain echoing through many of the works in this collection. As readers, we are reminded of how we have power over our own truths, including the truths we keep from ourselves.
In “The Burden,” a tale that reads as half-parable, half-nightmare, our narrator describes the uncanny physical reality of a body swarmed by bees…internally. “Am I a fucking hive?” she asks her partner. She goes on, “You look unimpressed, as if every woman you have taken to this beach has insects crawling from her folds.” That one of Gray’s characters experiences bees taking up residency in her body is not about plausibility (although we believe the telling) but in fact, deeper meaning and possibility. By gesturing towards a canon of writing while sitting just outside of it, Gray pushes the bounds, and puts her trust with the reader to infer and interpret the message through their own lenses, histories, and traditions.
Gray’s craft pays great attention to the smallest of details, yet its largeness is in her ability to draw from folklore, magical realism, and nature writing, while defying the pure boundaries of any one tradition or genre. Some stories are uniquely poised with symbolic themes, like “The Rat King,” an allegory of high-stakes membership of how human cis-men run dominant culture and ruin lives with their thirst for power: “Their tails dragged in their power, tangling and twisting, tying each rat to the group. Sticky gum power. The Rat King rose…”
Much of Gray’s vibrant revelry focuses on the living beings of Earth, breathing life into an impressive array of creatures that occupy natural and recognizably man-made worlds interchangeably. In this collection of poems and stories, animals are not just our domestic companions, not answers nor omens found at sea (“I let the waters rock us”) or in the sky (“the vultures tipping above us”). Indeed, in Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife, animals can be our lovers, ancestors, even coworkers (“she would come home, covered in ink, but we were never sure if it was from the copy machine or the fact that her boss was an eel.”).
Gray’s prowess as a writer allows her to tackle such themes, while immersing us in stunning and haunting imagery and language. Each section of the collection is a vibrant mix of genres and styles, and the pieces have an impressive breadth to them. “Sylvia,” one of several knock-out stories in the collection, may be the strongest in terms of showcasing Gray’s craft. She writes:
“A house made of wood and stone, a bed built, a coop constructed. They move about their tasks methodically by day, seasonally by year. Spoken language is of little use. Sylvia keeps a few books of poetry, scraps of fabric in a wooden trunk. William understands maps and astronomy, migrations, places called feeding grounds. Sylvia can only squint at the wind picking up and dropping things. During the day, water takes all forms, removing words like sky, sea, land, estuary. They are all one, grey and against her ear. At night, the squall is shapeshifting. It takes up in her desire, colored blue, ice and bluster. Her breasts are two half-moons under the sheets, an upside-down world of soft tending and pulling. Most nights, but not all nights, he fights the urge to cum in the deep of her warm. Her inner wet washes over him and the wind becomes a hush. He shoulders into the release, his jaw unable to close. Outside, a fox screams. The geese rearrange themselves, the stars do not move in the sky.”
This is far from a simple list of domestic minutiae and coupling: instead, Gray uses it as an incantation, a spell, and ultimately, to the delight of her readers, a lesson in poetics in prose.
Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife Knife is about connection as much as it’s about licking our wounds. The reality we know is that duality exists: in truth, in our lived experiences. Some of this is an inheritance, whether from Mother Earth, our beloveds, and those who passed down traditions to us. Gray’s writing is a fierce reminder of our commonality as creatures beyond our species. It is also an acknowledgement that some of us came from tigers and wolves.