First, a clear landscape of cold New England, not the bustling suburbia it seems today, but a quieter, emptier version, where the landscape seems both in desertion and in wanting. And then the birds, not frolicking or chirpy or lifelike, as birds as metaphor often signify, but as ominous secrets, held under tongues, watchful in observation, bearing witness, and other times dead and grey. And finally, a wave of uncertainty learnt best through delicate but visceral images of “cuts on fingers,” “plant cords around ankles,” “crumpled and blue hands,” and so on. Jackie Sherbow’s debut chapbook of poems is a potent little book that awakens the visual of the dormant, that makes sleep and the lack of it kinetic, that holds the feminine with great fear. 

In Harbinger, the title forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, Sherbow gently and ruthlessly tackles fear, the feared, and the fearful, through throwback images of Salem and the women who would make it notorious, weaving the gruesome folklore through present day images of a young woman, or is it many young women, bearing wounds in similar and dissimilar fashion. The poetry in the collection shifts from the real and tactile, like in the poem “Dining Out,” about a dinner between a couple reaching an impasse that can inflict a particular brand of hurting, to the fabulous and surreal in “Crow,” which harks back to Salem, to birds, and to some more birds, and then to witches. What we get is a petite collection that is as meditative about pain as it is a night-crawling narrative. 

Jackie Sherbow spoke to Atticus Review about the resident themes that guide her chapbook, the colonialism of New England that is quite often overlooked, and the witches of Salem.

Cover art by Melissa Calderone

Where does the title “Harbinger” and the collection come from?

Writing this collection, I was thinking about the idea of where fear comes from and the ways in which it can inform our actions and infuse our everyday life. Fear of things real or imagined can lead us to all kinds of thoughts, feelings, and decisions—it’s a powerful emotion, and sometimes we even look for it and court it. Fear can be lovely or intriguing, and sometimes the things we fear are the things most important to us. But it can be used to manipulate. The title came from the objects or events that symbolize and embody fear or oncoming struggle or disaster—objects and events that gain potency because of our emotions. Historically, harbingers were anything from a sudden illness or weather change to the death of livestock, or something unexpected turning up at home. In the book and in modern life, I think a harbinger could be anything from a piece of stone found on the beach, to a dead bird on the sidewalk or dying houseplant, to a teen magazine sitting on an end table.

So much of the work seems to bridge the past to the present with a kind of genteel, affectionate sadness for the child in the past to understand how everything has come to be. In many ways then, is childhood the harbinger of the story? 

I think that’s a really interesting way of putting it. I do think that the anxieties we gather during childhood inform the rest of our lives. The framing of this book was inspired by the events and images surrounding the Salem witch trials of 1692. While the speaker in these poems is contemporary, it’s worth noting that while children are traditionally socially powerless or disenfranchised, during those trials, this dynamic was flipped.

How essential is the question, “what if?” to the collection? 

Quite essential, in that this question is at the root of so many anxieties and fears, but also precipitates imaginative leaps. What if the thing we fear comes to pass? But what if the thing that shouldn’t be possible is possible?

Tell me about the narrative voice in the poetry, to whom or to what are they reaching out? What are they watching for? 

I think they are seeking order and peace in their mundane, everyday habits, and in the larger context of society and pop culture—but also in their internal life. And, while the fallout of fear is often turned outward, I think the speaker is also watching out for what’s potentially dangerous in themselves and those closest to them, and their home.

The sea, its smells, its sound, the birds that glide over it kept pursuing me in the collection. The sea is also a harbinger to land. How resonant is that image to your process of writing? 

I wrote a lot of these poems and organized a lot of this manuscript near the ocean: in southern Connecticut, southern California, and southern Queens. I grew up near the water and have always seen the sea as a source of strength, peace, and inspiration—but also danger. (Honestly, I am also just one of those people who tries to put the ocean in everything I write, and I often have to take it out…)

In the poem Divers, the poet says, “New England witches were especially fond of yellow birds,” and then in Full Moon, the poet says she holds a “yellow bird in my mouth underneath my tongue,” and then once more at the beginning in Goldfinch, “a yellow bird a yellow bird a yellow bird.” The yellow bird seems to hearken to the witches of Salem. What allegiance does the poet have or seek with them? 

I tried to see the accused and the first accusers in Salem on parts of the same side, and those in power—the wealthy, the ministers, the magistrates—on the other. In these poems, I wanted to bridge the gap between the first accusers (mostly young women and girls), and the accused (initially and most often women, former criminals, or social outcasts). I also wanted to imagine that the victims of this tragic episode actually did have supernatural power and could have thus survived. What would make someone act out in such a way? What would make you believe someone you traditionally wouldn’t listen to at all, and disbelieve someone else? How do we use fear to gain power, and why does fear speak to us so strongly? How does it feel to be accused of something or accuse someone? And how do we move past this fear? Those are some of the questions that the real story made me think of, and they informed the collection. (To anyone interested, I would recommend Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem 1692 as a detailed and contemplative account of this time, which has many parallels to today.)

picture credit: Emily Hockaday

The recurring image of the yellow bird: is it a symbol of hope? a secret? or a bridge to the past? 

My intent was for the birds to symbolize whatever it is we keep closest to us, are most ashamed of or are most afraid of. For the speaker in Harbinger, these are often anxiety, fear, and depression. They can act as specters, but come to keep the speaker company, like friends or familiars. Ultimately, fear can be met, understood, and neutralized.

Night and images of night: the crow, the dark, shadows, the inside of a mouth, fill the collection with the premonition that was warned by the title. How does that image settle into your own work? 

This felt natural, writing these poems. I was thinking of the dark as places where anything could grow—which either fills the speaker (and hopefully the reader) with fear or with curiosity and wonder. I found writing the poems with brighter settings were more disorienting than the dark ones in this collection.  

“The Safety” (a poem about Amelia Earhart as a young pilot in training) is such a tender piece of prose poem. For me, the ending seemed to indicate that it was safer for Amelia Earhart to have flown away. Was that the intended idea, or does it have a more open conclusion for whoever reads it? 

Thank you very much! I did intend for it to be open—but, in the way you describe, for the reader to consider what the idea of “safety” means. Safety is often an illusion—cheery, I know, but that means that danger can be an illusion too.

Is this work part of a larger collection? If yes, what other themes and stories can be expected? If no, what finite story do you hope this one to share?  

This chapbook was meant to be an exploration of how our brains, bodies, and everyday lives unfold within the social power structures around us. I also wanted it to speak about a specific history that I feel is very relevant today. I have a collection in the works that I hope will explore colonialism with the early New England settlers through the lens of violence, the earth, and superstition. I hadn’t thought of them as part of the same collection, but I think they will have some similar themes and images. 

You can pre-order a copy of Harbinger by Jackie Sherbow here.

Jackie Sherbow lives in Queens, NY. She is the author of Harbinger, an upcoming chapbook from Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in places like Sierra Nevada Review, Coffin Bell, Luna Luna, and Day One, and have been part of the Emotive Fruition performance series. She works as the managing editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine as well as the editor of Newtown Literarythe literary journal dedicated to the borough of Queens—and was a participant in the 2018 Queens Council on the Arts Artists Peer Circle. Her work has been nominated for the 2019 Best of the Net Anthology.