Blood to Fruit
David Robert Books, 2015
83 pages, $16.20
Reviewed by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
In Tayve Neese’s gorgeously dark first poetry collection Blood to Fruit, the reader is immersed in a world where nature and self are hinged in a lyric sisterhood that leads to a transformation into becoming a mother. When reading this collection of poems, it is as if the reader enters the body of a sleek train just birthed from a mountain tunnel. It is divided into seven sections and each opens up into a world upon itself. The reader enters each section as if it is a train car—connected to the weight of the collection as it moves forward, but sealed like an individual room.
In the first section, a woman gives birth and the natural world around her vibrates and responds. For example, in “Prophecy of the Four-Legged” the soil “bleated” while the woman moans in labor and the donkey and ox quiver “when the child slid into this world/of ovens and knives.” Not only can the natural world sense the risk the child faces from the moment she is born, but also the complicated transformation the woman is facing becoming a caregiver. In “Emitting Smolder” the sky and grasses swaddle and sing lullabies to the woman who has recently under gone this transformation.
We feel the rush of air between worlds as the door of section one closes behind us with a click. In the second section, we witness a bleak world. A world where meat is rare and hunger is real. The opening poem “Ode to my Mouth” is an exquisite chant that showcases Neese’s skillful ear. The poem begs to be read aloud with lines that sing off the page: “Sinew, muscle/ Heart beat, bone/ Kill mouth, kill mouth/ Mouth made throne.” In “It Was the Year of Cold Soup” the speaker describes her world and time as “It was the year of blood-knuckle,/ time of empty husk and wither.” But, even in this desolate place Mother Nature reflects the speakers pain and provides comfort. In “Thinking of Homelands” Neese shows this camaraderie by opening and closing the poem with an address to a mother: “Mother, are your fields/ still trembling?” As the door closes on this world, we still feel its weight gathering behind us.
Again the rush of air between worlds as we open the next door and enter a train car filled with the rush of wings, the bodies of so many birds. The third section opens with the haunting poem, “Father Convicted in Genital Mutilation, Daughter Age 2” where the father who mutilates his daughter’s genitals becomes an Ibis. In “Light shudders when it has to face the rooster,” there are so many birds on the horizon they threaten to swallow the amber of the setting sun with sheer volume, but can’t succeed because sunlight makes it’s “daily nest/ in the curves of lenses/ in the iris that swirls, opens.” In this section, even thoughts are given incisors and wing in the koan-like “Zoology”.
When we open the door to the fourth section the air quiets. In this car we return to what is corporeal and tied to the earth. We revisit the ancient stories that root us underneath. In “For the Weavers” and “Giving Backbone” roots and grasses weave bodies together, or are used to create a lovers’ spine. The sensual ode to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music and art is followed by the reclamation poem, “They blame the she-dog,” written for the mother of Romulus to redeem her from the blame for his future violence:
They will blame her for Rome’s
bark the nation’s fetish with tear,
mar, its symphonies
of bone and sword. But they forget
the father, the god of war, and overlook
how the dog’s jaws did not once
pierce the skin of either infant.
When the door shuts we vibrate with the stories that have been dug up and given new light.
What grows from this uprooting is acceptance. When the door opens and we step into the fifth section we are again surrounded by birds, but these are birds newly hatched from the knowledge of all of the cars we already passed through. In “Cantata for Bella” the speaker, who was hesitant of her transformation in the earlier poems, now understands the way her body has opened up to protect this newly birthed child from the “world of ovens and knives” as it ends: “Once, I was nothing but music/ over your unripened bones,/and one bird at the sill//offered her quick gold note.”
The final two sections of this collection are by far the strongest. They hold the iron weight of every car the reader has passed through to get to them. There in the dark, final cars is a song of love and reckoning. The poems of section six are a love song to a lost mother. In one of the strongest poems in the collection, “Under Ground, Over the Aquifer” the speaker confronts this lost mother, and accepts the inheritance of dependence. Or, in the beautifully titled poem, “She does not want this origin, the sea” the speaker confronts this tether between the self, becoming a mother, and the inheritance from the mother she once had: “I know you say, –It is enough!/ the length between the girl, her mother.//There are tethers turned to rust—/but not hers.”
When we step into the final car, the final section of Neese’s collection, there are windows everywhere that look out at the world that has opened up to the speaker as a place of light. The carnivorous trees of “The Orchard” are left behind. In “Bee Legends” a time when healing was possible is discovered and reclaimed. The final poem, “Spring Pivot”, a force to be reckoned with, erupts with the transformation that was driving the force of the train forward in this strong collection: “I am a woman//silent through the orchard/keeping sleeping buds from turning fruit.”