Abigail Ardelle Zammit on K.D. Harryman’s Girls’ Book of Knots

K.D. Harryman’s second poetry collection, Girls’ Book of Knots, is a loom traversed by delicate fibres, tensile bodies drawn forwards and backwards, slipping deftly through the warp of the past – personal, familial, communal – to emerge clear and triumphant into a language silken and cathartic.  For this is a book about motherhood and mothering, about the aches that shape girls into being, about womanhood and the fruiting body, about secrets half-told, about hesitant, half-whispered advice – but above all it is a book about knots, about entanglements willed and unwilled, about breaking lose and breaking open, or tying fast and hard, so that each silken strand catches the light, is transformed into art.

With enviable unity and intensity, Harryman takes a non-poetic text – The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W. Ashley (Doubleday, 1944) – and uses it as a metaphor for the collection’s formal, narrative and thematic strands.  Its three main sections surface through brief erasures: ‘Lashings and Slings’, ‘Holdfasts’, and ‘Bindings’.  The poems hold fast and loose within them, testament to the care and precision with which the writer has worked the ropes. I cannot imagine a better sequencing for any of the pieces.  Each is in its right place, followed and preceded by that which makes it simultaneously whole and interdependent.  The taut warp of the main poetic body is held together by erasures played and replayed, configured and reconfigured so that they may ‘reach inside / again and again for some shining thing / worth carrying home’ (‘Human’). 

That this is the art the poet has ‘seize[d] upon’ to transform Her Story (Chapter 1: On Knots) is clear from the collection’s sinuously-woven metanarrative.  In the title poem, for instance, the imperative voice directs us to ‘[l]ift the wooden lid of the trunk where the / book is buried’ and to ‘[p]ocket a secret length of cord’; this is an intertextual reference to the original book itself – the 1944 manual that has been transformed into a bible for girls where the mariner’s language gradually gives way to a feminist discourse.  The knots are the trials and tribulations of a girl’s daily existence, and the book of knots is a new-spangled text, an object as taut as the box poem where the writer’s craft has been bound into a lifeline.  This is how we keep afloat, how we can latch on:

Tighten, coax, work slack strands taut.
Make something, girl—a sling for worry,
One for shame, one to hold gratitude, one
To bind dread.  (‘Girls’ Book of Knots’)

In a climate where bypassing the mode of the confessional is almost unavoidable, Harryman plays with formal and linguistic strategies so as to keep the integrity of her personal space safe from the scrutiny of the voyeuristic gaze.  There are sinister sexual undertones in some of the poems, the slashings of violence and abuse in others, but the diction plays its ‘secret game’, ‘hiding’ its ‘secret length of cord’, ‘lock[ing] the door’, making out of the unspeakable, an art-form (‘Three Conversations About the Same Thing’, ‘Bringing up the Nets’, ‘Girls’ Book of Knots’, ‘Why’).  In the brilliantly-conceived ‘A Word Like Rat’, an aunt recycles fallen hair by binding it into an oval, which she calls a ‘rat’, then uses it to shape up her bun; the poem travels all the way to the father’s death, to a grief and guilt so unspeakably intertwined, that the poet has to reconfigure language, make up a secret code, which is itself an analogy for the collection’s stylistic innovation:

                           I want a secret like that one.
One you can hold, give shape to, crush. One –
you can burn to cleanse the room of your heart.
I want a word that means this secret and
the thing it takes its name from
Like Aunt Sandra’s rat, a rat, with teeth, a tail,
a regular word, so that if we met for coffee
and you said, Are you ok, I could say,
All summer, I have been thinking of spoon, of shelf
which would mean the way my father died
alone, how my mother knew it was better that way,
how I had wanted to look him up but never did. 

Here, as in many other poems, the tension is masterfully balanced between each couplet and its slow-burning vowel sounds.  Contrastingly, in one of the most formally original poems, each of its sixteen pages becomes a PowerPoint screen, lines written, then fading out to give room to the rest, vanishing like that unforgettable childhood in West Kentucky, and like those memories, always present beneath the surface.  Suggestion and insinuation are dredged up via powerful rhetorical questions; what they address is not merely the personal circumstances of the speaker, but that thick mess of suffering and release, which is the communal life of the whole town.

Who snuck you into the woods?
Did your father kill a man?
What are the catfish hiding
Who made it to the other side?

About family, community, social context, and the self’s struggle with it, Girls’ Book of Knots has much to say.  What makes the reading such an affirming experience are the narrative layers and superimpositions where textual strategies for fade-out, white-out, and variations on the same pattern create complex entanglements and honest appraisals.  ‘Chapter 16: Binding Knots’ makes it clear that ‘family’ is ‘a recognizable knot’ – ‘they confine / or      they hold’, while ‘Chapter 13: The Noose’ claims that ‘[a]ny loop becomes a Noose’; but when the line from Chapter 16 appears again below the third section heading, ‘Bindings’, ‘confine and constrict’ are now a fade-out grey and three scriptural words float to the surface: ‘two or more                             together’.   Once we’re nearing the collection’s end, we come across the sixteenth chapter again, and this time the poet has shifted terrain, moving on to a universal perspective where ‘time’ becomes ‘a                knot’ and family, or individual histories, can be read as the ‘lashing of small stuff’. 

What the contextual discourse of the collection seems to imply is that the self can never entirely escape its construct – that primary experience where childhood and adolescence were played out: ‘Here is always a little there, back / in Kentucky’ (‘From Here’) despite the ‘many offerings’ placed ‘at the mouth of the tomb / where I tried to bury that girl’ (‘Lazarus’).  But the poems themselves are also an offering – elegy and homage – words for the dead, those drugged, abused, accidented –  tragedies of fate and circumstance, from which, miraculously, the speaker has been saved despite the odds of domestic violence and financial hardships.  Indeed, one of the ‘salvaged’ (Chapter 26: Miscellaneous Holdfasts).  

Meanwhile, the self-reflexive language of the book keeps turning in on itself, reflecting on the act of composition, binding it into the act of telling.  So the incisive greyed-out discourse of ‘Chapter 26: Miscellaneous Holdfasts’ has been re-contextualized to fit the thematic unity of the collection: ‘It may seem unprofitable to resurrect such material, much of which is obsolete today’, but ‘[t]he fact that something is not required today is no reason for believing that it will not be needed tomorrow’.  This explains why in the selected text, the words that stand out most conspicuously in black print are played out as an act of faith.  To me they seem to say: Reader/daughter/woman, if I’ve been saved, if I can forge myself anew, so can you: ‘Here are                                                              hooks’.  Not a grand smithy of the soul, this, but a humble carpenter’s workshop where change is possible, within limits; so, in the brief but powerful ‘Self-Portrait as Table Leg’, the speaker escapes the father’s spell, the blight that threatens to take up her young fruiting body;

               growing up and out
of his reach like
a branch the blight had
not yet reached, one that
could still be cut away
carved, turned into some
useful, forgiving thing. 

Having been brought up in Kentucky, the poet keeps returning, literally and poetically, which is why this collection is also an act of love towards the people to which her heart has been tethered since birth.  Only an insider can write about the ravages of a tornado on a small city the way Harryman has done, never shying away from the complexity of her artistic incursion, which is the risk of representation that every honest writer must wrestle with.  She skirts the territory with sensitivity and tenderness: ‘Say it’s beautiful, but don’t:

The land you knew
            your people
Together, you can call the animals [...]
Who are we without our street signs
             What is one house without that other little house
                            (‘After the Tornado’ – For Dawson Springs, Kentucky)

Girls’ Book of Knots is most conspicuously a book about mothers and daughters – about being a daughter, and becoming a mother, about giving birth and being ‘loosed into motherhood’ (‘Whipping’).  Here, as elsewhere, the leitmotivs move seamlessly across the poems, dredging along with them their words’ histories and etymologies, their meanings flourishing and multiplying in the book’s formidable loom – ‘Origin Loop’, ‘Buntline Hitch’, ‘Binding Knots’, ‘square knot’, ‘half knot’.  Sometimes, the vocabulary of one generation is replicated within another’s: ‘my daughters snagged / kite strings in a stand of dirty pines’ (‘Grief during Drought’), which a couple of pages afterwards is followed by the persona’s memories of stealing a scarf when she was a young girl: ‘[m]y fingers snagged threads as I / knotted it like a sailor’ (‘Lazarus’).  The primal loop starts from her grandmother, who taught her ‘how to weave blades of grass’, and moves on to her mother’s voice, singing in bars, then coming home to ‘hum[] /  a song from that small stage inside her’ that the exploitative labour market ‘couldn’t touch.’ There is also the persona’s sister, whose child was born prematurely following a gunman’s assault on a grocery store, as well as other mothers, those suffering and exploited, bearing the grief of lost children. 

Perhaps the bind that is the hardest to master, the hardest to pass down, is that of the female body, so easily damaged – like that fall from a bike which ruins her teeth, teaching her to ‘gather what pieces you can find’ (Damage) – so difficult to control, since there are so many expectations that are laid upon it.  How do you teach your daughter that her body is her own territory, when as a mother you lay claim to it, wanting ‘that familiar weight, heavy bloom / of her scented head’?  (Territory)  Often, the mother’s tone is anxious, filled with dread, knowing the wild precariousness of the world: ‘Teaching children / to stay alive, so much easier / than teaching them to be human – to stand alone / on the corner anywhere, / wholly visible’ she says with admirable candour, the language stitching each word to the next, like water, like letting go, so that her daughter can ‘swell /into her own shape’ (Axis):

                      Lay out a rope.
Tell her to gather each end.
Say stitch them tight
or burn them down.


What the mother has the power to offer is not absolute knowledge, but hope – that useful ‘overhand knot’ which ‘when pulled tight / can be used / as a stopper / to prevent unraveling / or slipping through.’  What the poet-creator gifts us is not certainty, but ‘a foothold’:

for climbing up
for climbing out.

     (‘Useful Knots for Girls’)

Abigail Ardelle Zammit is from Malta and has had poetry and reviews published in a variety of international journals including Matter, Boulevard, Gutter, Myslexia, Poetry International,The SHOp, Iota, Aesthetica, Freefall, Ink, Sweat and Tears, High Window, The Ekphrastic Review and Tupelo Quarterly.  Abigail’s two collections of poetry are Voices from the Land of Trees (Smokestack, 2007)and Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin (SPM, 2015), which won second prize in the Sentinel Poetry Book Competition. Abigail holds a PhD in Creative Writing (Lancaster).  Her most recent manuscripts have already been shortlisted in three international competitions.