by Rachael Peckham
Spring Garden Press, $12.00
125 numbered copies, 20 pp.
A short, cohesive prose poem collection, Muck Fire, winner of the 2012 Robert Watson Poetry Award, disturbs and excites. Rachael Peckham’s frank depiction of growing up on a hog farm is skillfully handled with forceful language, lyric tension, and subtle humor. Fitting for a chapbook called Muck Fire, these poems temper a steadily rising emotional burn with the poet’s direct, yet at times innocent, perspective. While giving the impression that her dualistic treatment of her subjects is easy, Peckham introduces us to a flawed cast of characters, takes us on a bumpy rhythmical ride, and makes an intense and distinctive impression.
The rituals of animal husbandry—the raising and eventual slaughter of animals—present new revelations on each page; “…my friend’s dad bred sheep and liked to lean one foot on the fence and repeat he get her—he get her?” (“Ew(e)”). Peckham’s gaze is unnerving, unwavering, at times we want her to look away but she is intently focused on details that surprise. “For as long as I live I’ll never forget the sight of those carcasses, split in half from jowl to tail…” (“The Origin of Sausage”). And, while animal husbandry alone could generate enough material to sustain this collection, it is the toughness and endurance of the poems’ characters that insist on a complex emotional response. Peckham writes in “Hired Hand”, “When it comes time to castrate, he passes me the scalpel on a dare. You don’t have the guts. The runt quivers in his grip…” Vulnerability, foreboding brutality, and trespass characterize the relationships between the people in these poems and is where the metaphor of the slow burning muck fire fully develops.
But, it is also the force and rhythm of Peckham’s language that ratchets up the rawness of the collection’s imagery. “The paint goes on like sauce, rich and thick—they will not win—you paste it over shit forever the color of corn…” (“Proof”). The rhythmic wildness of Peckham’s language is significant. From “Cross,” “Been cross bred so many times, something’s out of whack with the way they react going barn to barn, barn to truck. They’ll have a heart attack. Some of them will keel over just like that.” The language heightens the unusual terrain of Peckham’s poems; they have the power to make us uncomfortable, but discomfort compels our attention. “Reaching out to pet a pig—a gilt by the looks of her swollen parts—she locks down, gets ready for the weight of a boar on her back. What she feels, instead, a firm saddle slung on her midsection marked “M” for Monday…” (Unauthorized Entry). This is no simple depiction of a rural farming life.
These poems break into new spaces and are hungry of oxygen, hungry to turn into flame. In the title poem, the final poem of the collection, the metaphor of the muck fire is elucidated; “…I’d have to explain how muck (shit) can catch and burn underground for months, making so much smoke for not very much show because it’s all down below, climbing up the roots of trees, traveling the whole length of a field. Surfacing only now and then.” Like it’s title poem, Muck Fire, is a slow burn. And, while we are tempted to succumb to that which seems benign and unthreatening on the surface, we should not be deceived. These poems do not gain their power from beautiful or florid language; they are as tough as the world they portray. Peckham deserves praise for not shying away from the complex emotions born from a pointed inspection of the complexities of this rural landscape, the animals that are breed for sustenance, and the people who are dependent upon them.