Sister by Nickole Brown, a poetry collection you won’t be able to put down

There have been very few poetry books that I felt compelled to read in one sitting, but Nickole Brown’s Sister was definitely one of them. The speaker of these poems asserts herself from the very beginning with the urgency of a hushed whisper, an elder sister speaking into the ear of her younger sister. In “Preface” she whispers: Sister, we come from/ water we made ourselves/ with the suckle and swallow of our unmade/ bodies submerged in a sac so sweet/ with our vestal piss that we breathed it… (13) If the tone from that little snippet makes you feel exhilarated and a little uneasy, get ready for the rest of the collection.

This is a book of poems that startles and galvanizes, revealing a relationship in all its complexity and a persona with a full range of emotions, shame, joy, passion, envy… Each poem is meticulously wrought, the diction carefully considered, word choice both luscious and brutal. When Nickole Brown told an audience at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference that it took seven years to feel that the work was completed, I think we were all a little amazed, but now having read it, I completely understand. The poems do not feel “over-written,” but truly crafted.

The subject matter of Sister is the tumultuous childhood of the speaker, one filled with secrets and incest, as well as the relationship that she has with her younger half-sister. Events are revealed through gritty detail rather than explicit explanation. In “It Is Possible He Thought,” a little girl’s confusion over her step-father’s actions is balanced between what he might have done and what he did do, “…it is possible he braided/ my pigtails after showing me/ this and that/ and exactly how fast.” This confusion sets up an impossible dissonance for the speaker; how to survive the crucible of anger and self-loathing.

Some of the most devastating poems in the collection are a series interspersed called “What I Did” parts I through VII. In each, the speaker describes self-incriminating incidents such as letting go her sister’s firefly collection or poking pinholes in her parents’ waterbed. However, the real catalyst behind these is guilt, two-fold, that of the young woman wondering if she might somehow been responsible for her step-father’s unwanted advances and the guilt of leaving her sister behind to perhaps face the same treatment. In the last of these poems, the speaker says:

If you were in the driveway
I didn’t see you,
a seven-year-old knock-kneed kid
kicking gravel nowhere
with the side of your bare
foot.

I was in that white car – half tank of gas,
loud muffler ready to drive North fast,
no apologies,
no saying
goodbye.

I’m going to leave you with a poem that starts the first section of the collection. In it, Brown exhibits the graceful phrasing and imaginative descriptive detail that still haunts me days after I’ve finished Sister. This is a book that I will read again and again to immerse myself in its uncompromising beauty.

Footling

~Nickole Brown

We have heard her tell the story
over and again, like this: an early spring
tornado, a still, yellow sky,
nuns who said must have felt better
going in than it does
coming out as they gave her
a hot compress and dimmed the lights
for pain.

She was half my age now, sweet
sixteen and barely healed
when God smacked half the trees
flat and she curled down
under a mattress
in an empty bathtub
in an empty apartment,
a newborn suckling
the tips of her fingers. The porcelain,
cool white womb, had a drain

ready to carry anything
it could swallow to the swollen
brown Ohio, and though the tub
was dry, she used her heel
to flip the drain open, asking
the river to take it, all of it,
especially that moment the month before
when she didn’t know better

but to sit up and grab the slippery blue
feet first, an impossible breech, a twist
with a snap that meant
leg braces, special shoes, a grown woman
who would never walk right
in red heels. Frightened in this storm,
she wanted the tender word

birth but knew better now. Birth
meant forceps, rips, umbilical cords
wrapped around the neck. Birth kneaded
the abdomen for more birth, recovered
with douche singed with a drop or two of Lysol,
boiled a set of glass baby bottles in the same
pot that made the pinto beans. Not much more
to hold and so she touched
the blue leg of her bruised baby, cooed
footling, thinking it sounded
more like the name of some imp
than a complication, footling, her shape-shifter
sleeping inside the cup of a trumpet vine,

footling, because she was so young
and who could blame her, dreaming
away and waiting while wind
tore the silk of clouds to shreds,
plucked off pieces of home,
peeled shingles back from rooftops
one by one.


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