She Named Him Michael
By Heather Rounds
Ink Press Productions, May 18, 2017
69 pages, $15.00
Reviewed by Katya Ellis
Heather Rounds’ deeply lyrical novella She Named Him Michael explores the famed ‘Miracle Mike,’ a chicken who survived headless for 18 months in the late 1940s, and how he shapes and expands the lives of an isolated sugar beet farm family. Right from the start, we sense that this is more complex than an anecdotal tale of the family’s transition from a quiet farm to the hectic life of the fair circuit. The opening mantra frames the novella as a meditative exploration on loss, isolation, and the cyclical pattern of life:
At first, one may be reluctant or unable to witness one’s own shape – the length, width, thickness of it – as an artifact among all others, endless. It all has a beginning and end. Your beginning will end, too. You will end, too.
This refrain permeates the novella, a backdrop glossing routine events with magical complexity. Here is where the poetry of Rounds’ novella lies, in the lyrical motifs of ‘lavender light,’ a ‘stream of blood and water,’ and ‘chipping bones,’ stringing the story together and highlighting the poetic evident within the mundane.
These lines are windows into the psyches of the family as each member grapples with issues of mortality, grief, and loss in the ‘light of his absence:’ the death of the younger brother in World War II. These feelings collide with Michael’s first appearance in the novella, as the son, Shotgun Foot, and his wife Claire, believe that he gives them a chance to leave the small world of the farm, and therefore their grief, behind. ‘Though everything grew as always, the days of the fair came different than days before. With the fair, sleep and waking collided.’
Rounds does not shy away from detail in her grotesque depiction of the gurgling, choking, and mucus-filled Michael – his characterization reminds us that he is not a miraculous mystery, but merely disfigured, wounded, and in great pain. In a standout scene, Rounds critiques the capitalist commodification of pain, contrasting the ‘waves of loudness’ of the audience with Michael’s gurgling, choking, and ‘milky bubbles’ of mucus, a distant echo of the peanut-crunching crowd of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus.’ The horrific spectacle created through the exploitation of Michael’s pain is difficult but necessary to read, and will cause readers to contemplate and question capitalist society’s creation of entertainment outlets based around gaining pleasure from witnessing others’ pain.
As the novella progresses, Shotgun Foot and Claire soon learn that escaping the farm does not mean escaping their sorrow. Though they seek self-fulfillment in their escape from isolation to the bustle of the fair circuit, their move is characterized by ‘weak and colorless light,’ and their trailer is small and cramped, a nondescript box in a row of other boxes, echoing the sparse landscape they have tried to escape.
Rounds’ novella is divided into small fragments of prose, rapidly oscillating between the Arizona trailers and the farm which the mother still inhabits, closing the distance between the two spaces. These narrative shifts cause the mother’s experiences to overlap into those of Claire and Shotgun Foot, reminding us of their shared grief and struggles inescapable solely through distance and a change of scenery. Shotgun Foot lies in the dust, grounding himself in the ‘existence of nothing,’ and Claire is still surrounded by ‘the stream of blood and water.’ Although their location is different, ‘the light of his absence’ still dominates their lives. Rounds’ depiction of their persisting grief is both poetically tragic and personal, prompting me to pause and reflect upon my own struggles to process grief. Rounds’ novella is brilliant in this respect: the tragic beauty of her characters’ experiences sets up a framework for personal contemplation and growth.
All is reinforced and mirrored by Michael, whose ‘permanent scab’ reminds Claire of the fatal wounds of her brother-in-law. He is a method of transference, a way for Claire to displace her grief towards her brother-in-law’s death and her inability to bear children by functioning as his caretaker. Rounds’ illustration of this relationship is a brilliant paradox: though Michael is seen by the family as an avenue towards freedom, a way to escape their isolation and grief, he is ultimately a constraint. Claire’s days become governed by her duty towards Michael as she ‘[finds] herself doing nothing more than waiting for the gurgling and the choking.’ Readers will be moved by Michael’s vulnerability and Claire’s dedication and love for him, despite him being more mutant than animal.
When I started reading She Named Him Michael, I was unsure of where it would take me. However, as I was drawn further and further into the novella, I realized that it is more than just an imaginative account of the life of a headless chicken, but rather a poignant meditation on life, grief, suffering, and a family’s quest to escape, heal, and find progression. She Named Him Michael does not simply illustrate fictional accounts of grief and pain, but invites readers to reflect on their own experiences and emotions. It calls on us to look inwards, to challenge what we see, and to grow.