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Cover for Our Held Animal Breath

Our Held Animal Breath

Kathryn Kirkpatrick


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Our Held Animal Breath is a collection of poems grappling with the failure of human political and social structures to effectively address the dilemmas of our crucial historical moment. Registering an eco-feminist consciousness, the narrators of these poems expose the intertwined vulnerabilities of women, animals, and the land to masculinist agendas of mastering nature for profit.

Poems in the opening section explore the ways powerful elites compromise the habitats of human and non-human animals alike. The lives of tethered foxes, bewildered squirrels, displaced buffalo, and factory-farmed turkeys echo the lives of ordinary citizens experiencing degradation and disenfranchisement in the face of climate change, war-mongering, and political corruption. Thus, an old woman rakes leaves before dawn after a disappointing election, a gardener mulches roses with newspapers recording dire headlines, and a meditation student struggles with the consequences of a military invasion.

After establishing this broad context of ecological and political crisis, the collection moves on to poems of interior struggle where narrators confront grief over the loss of loved ones: an old friend dies suddenly and unexpectedly, a beloved cousin falls victim to domestic violence, a friendship dissolves in the aftermath of misunderstandings. However, the poems in this section also evoke the power of animal companions and the natural world to teach alternative relations to others, to the land, and to the self. A dying dog re-grounds his human companion in their mutual habitat, a garden landscape reorients the gardener to the limits of a friendship, and dreams suggest transformative routes through interpersonal conflicts.

Finally, in the third section, joyful alternatives emerge. A woman rebuilds her relationship with her mother in the process of reconnecting with her local habitat. Narrators explore creative opportunities for transformation, establish their ethical bottom lines, and re-affirm their interconnectedness with all creatures on a living, responding planet. One narrator learns to can fruit for the first time, and in the process she rediscovers her love for her mother and her land. Another narrator reconnects with the sexual currents in her own body. The volume concludes with a poem depicting the held breath of a crowd watching the escape of a rabbit who has found a way to survive in an inhospitable urban environment.

Praise For Our Held Animal Breath

Our Held Animal Breath is grounded in a sharp-eyed vision of how things ought to be—and in clear-eyed understandings of how they actually are. In these brilliantly sequenced poems, Kathryn Kirkpatrick leads us to consider how it feels “on the other side of a human eye” even as she shows us “everything not visible”. The poetry is passionate and precise, contemplative and urgent, sometimes lyrical and sometimes wry: a model of “what labor and the heart / can make”. If you’re looking for writing that examines the griefs and sweetnesses, the rage and the rewards, of life in our crucial historical moment—and that does so in language both graceful and sizzlingly direct—don’t wait a moment longer. Read this book.

—Jeanne Larsen

Susan Gager Jackson Professor of Creative Writing, Hollins University

Our Held Animal Breath is a book about what it means to make a home in the world. In delicate, beautifully crafted poems that grapple with large ethical questions—about animals, humans and violence—Kathryn Kirkpatrick looks unflinchingly at the ways in which what binds us to the world is its vanishing. She writes, “Having lost so much, it will be easy / to unhinge language, / to unname each flower and tree.” And yet these poems insist on hinges and connections, on naming and remembering.

------Nicole Cooley

Director, MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation, Queens College-CUNY

Whether she’s writing about personal loss or public tragedy, the poems in Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s Our Held Animal Breath always shine with a steady light. The natural world—foxes and squirrels, the “raspberries in the sloping meadow”—is a constant, quiet corrective in this work to human creation. We want to make the world over by ourselves and for ourselves, she suggests, but it is impossible for this poet to look away from the destructiveness that accompanies such greed. We will surely “lose it.” And yet, these are not despairing poems. Kirkpatrick celebrates love and friendship, even memorializes the relentless hatred one woman can feel toward another. These are poems that refuse nothing—neither blueberry bushes nor bluegrass nor babies. We’re all in it together, Kirkpatrick seems to say, this “one wild rooted dance.”

Sarah Kennedy, A Witch’s Dictionary

Like the “delicate bombs” Robert Lowell called Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, Kirkpatrick’s poems detonate with a subtle, continual power, betraying a lapidary skill well attuned to the legacy of poetry.

Chard deNiord

Wordtech Communications, 9781936370917, 95pp.

Publication Date: September 4, 2012