“The Poem Must Be Mess Because We Love Each Other:” Negotiating Self-Story Around a Longgone Mother’s Return in Gabrielle Bates’s Judas Goat
“How do I grieve the loss of something that’s been returned to me?” asks the speaker in “Eastern Washington Diptych,” one of the pillar poems in Judas Goat, Gabrielle Bates’s astonishing poetry debut. Whereas there is no dearth in contemporary poetry debuts that revolve around a father’s absence—the powerful works of Ocean Vuong, Edgar Kunz, and Paul Tran come to mind—the fundamental absence haunting Judas Goat stands out: early on, in the poem, “Little Lamb,” the speaker reveals herself as a “soft daughter wobbling/ around the longgone/ space of a mother.”
With bewildering lucidity and unflinching observation, Bates explores how the injury of a mother’s early absence—despite a later return—inclines the speaker to be both continuously exposed to violence, and drawn to it. This is especially true in the context of intimate relationships. In the poem “The Mentor,” she writes:
We walked together for a long time,
and as we walked, he traced what I said
back to my left breast, down to the tender hole
where I was once attached to my mother
Here, the mother’s absence is not solely marked by a physical hole, the navel (and whatever other orifices are implied); rather, it is linked to a larger phantom pain, which seems to result in the speaker’s ongoing vulnerability to bodily (and sexual) violence.
And the speaker’s way of being drawn to the mentor as he skillfully knives their way through the woods is not unlike the way she is drawn to the lover—however trusted, adored. In the poem “In the Dream in Which I am a Widow” she confesses being attracted to the inherent violence within him: “it never spilled/ in my direction—” she writes, “though I lapped at its opening, / determined to get a taste from the source.” This is a speaker who understands love as violence-adjacent. To engage in love and intimacy then, means accepting the ever-present possibility of injury, loss, absence.
Astoundingly, across her unwavering awareness of and proximity to violence, the speaker in Judas Goat is not driven toward a punitive impulse. Yes, there is hurt, and fury, but also compassion. Always compassion. In “The Dog,” the book’s arresting prologue poem where the speaker’s lover hesitantly recounts having witnessed a hair-raising accident involving a dog and a train, she finds herself “split between compassion and fury” at an unnerving thought: “how easily/ I could imagine a version of our lives/ in which he kept all his suffering secret from me.”
The speaker’s willingness to funambulate this complex emotional line, to be suspended in the uneasy air between fury and compassion, opens up space for generosity, grace, toward those we love but who may have chosen to keep their distance. The question that arises: is it possible that a loved one turning away from us is not trying to hurt us, as much as to save us from their own hurt?
Still, a mother’s turning away from her child, an arguably less-encountered departure (personally, culturally) than a father’s, is momentous. Indeed, the speaker’s longing for a mother in Judas Goat translates into an even deeper longing—for an origin myth, a coherent story of self. Fittingly, Bates invites a range of mythic, religious, and folkloric feminine figures into these poems, including Mary Magdalene, Gretel, and Mamuna (a swamp demon from Slavic mythology, which seems to gesture to the Deep South backdrop of the speaker’s childhood). Each of these protagonists’ story is marked by its own strain of unsettling-yet-formative violence. And unlike the way of cultural myths, which are often intended to elucidate, comfort, or guide, the effect of flickering between so many of them throughout the book is disorienting, possibly revealing the speaker’s restlessness.
But it’s through the more directly religious, specifically Judeo-Christian and often jumbled references, that the speaker’s ache for story clanks against the incongruent-self most loudly: a poem titled “Sabbath” but where mushrooms resemble “Catholics bearing ash,” an annunciation poem titled “Conversation with Mary” where the answers Mary provides swerve farther and farther away from the questions asked, and a poem titled “How Judas Died” which juxtaposes alternative narratives of Judas’s death, and in which the speaker concludes: “which or both or neither, I am listening.”
As a reader, I am stirred by Bates’s suggestion: it is not a single story we choose, or invent, that the self forms around. Rather, it is the negotiation between strands of stories—a negotiation that demands dwelling in uncertainty, withstanding discomfort, and above all, imagination.
On a craft level, this is precisely what the book’s sequencing is doing—weaving strands of self-story within and across its four sections. Alongside spanning mythologies, it spans localities—from the speaker’s coming of age in Alabama, to the life she’s built as a newly married woman on the coastal north—lending the book a dynamism, the tincture of a bildungsroman.
And this motion is often mirrored in the microcosmos of the poems themselves. One of the best examples of this is the aforementioned poem, “Eastern Washington Diptych,” where a number of narrative and meditative threads braid into each other in long lines that sprawl across the page. “There are so many narratives, and each one obscures meaning,” one long line reads, revealing the poem’s disorderliness as its very project: the threads of self-story resisting a single narrative. They are ambitiously asymptotic, persistent in their longing.
“The poem must be mess because we love each other” Bates writes in “Mothers,” a motherhood-daughterhood poem which similarly sprawls across the page and in which the poet breaks the reader’s heart and mends it all at once. Perhaps, embracing the incongruency of self-story is made possible by embracing the incongruency of our most formative relationships, and the incongruency of love itself.
Considering the multiple poems that “must be mess” in Judas Goat, the poem “Salmon” stands out— both refreshing and moving in its straightforward syntax, narrative lucidity. Written in neat couplets, it depicts the speaker and her father sitting at a sushi bar in her “new city.” They discuss a recent funeral in which a son elegized his father. They share what seems to be a quiet intimacy, comfortable as it is comforting.
Like the even, grounded couplets themselves, this is a scene that does not fidget in its place or try to run away from itself. It is comfortable in its steadiness, comfortable occupying a single place and time. That love can offer such a stable place where intimacy holds and lulls, seems to be the suggestion.
But even here, lucidity is deceptive:
The ivory salmon is pale and impossibly soft.
The sliver of steelhead, orange enough
to pretend it’s salmon. How else to say it.
I am my father’s only child, and he is my mother.
We dip our chopsticks into a horseradish paste
dyed green and call it wasabi.
Even when the story seems to be one thing, it is not: a steelhead pretending it is salmon, a father assuming the place of a mother. There is no one way to narrate a logic so slippery. Moreover, the speaker knows: everything here could slip away, is ephemeral. Neither this moment nor the father’s loving presence are guaranteed to last.
The poem, “Illusion,” which appears in the book’s final section and reads as an Ars Poetica, provides insight into the speaker’s eventual commitment to love— both for the mother upon her late return, and in marrying a college sweetheart, despite being warned against “marrying early love,” in an earlier poem, “The Lucky Ones”.
In “Illusion,” girls watch a bridge that only seems to be aflame, possibly due to a fire beyond it:
It’s night; the bridge is intact.
They allow themselves to be tricked
because to believe in the burning and after,
when the sun rises,
over the unburned planks—
to touch the whorls of wood,
find them cool—
That kind of reward
This poem’s final lines, especially, illuminate the speaker’s understanding of the commitment she’s made: the kind of reward love bears, requires sacrifice. Or: when choosing love, we accept that constant possibility of loss, hurt, departure. There is no certainty. And if there is, just like in art, it lives as an illusion. If there is resolution, as in this poem, it is offered to us through choppy syntax, flickering lines that in themselves, seem aflame.
And yet, the speaker accepts all of love—its reward and sacrifice. This is dramatized in the poem “Anniversary,” which closes the book:
Hands. Fingers. Ring of rough steel he bought
For $35, whose ends don’t fuse but overlap
Like an overbite—the symbolism isn’t
Lost on a woman like me:
There is a beginning and an end, April,
and one of us will go before the other.
From a speaker who knows violence and loss so intimately, this choice is anything but obvious. Still, the penultimate poem, “Mothers,” operates with that same conviction:
In a language neither of us knows,
[my mother] is telling me she loves me,
and I am repeating the sounds back to her,
It sounds like the heart trying to leave the chest.
And we hear it all: the heart trying to leave the chest, the understanding that love is not about certainty or legibility, as much as about learning and relearning trust. And it’s about endurance: the patience to let a story—its thorniest strands—braid into whatever it needs to be.
Gabrielle Bates is a brilliant poet who demands a lot of her readers, simply because she demands that much—and more— of herself. As readers, we work hard, despite receiving no guarantee of easy coherence or simplistic resolution. But this is precisely how we learn to enact our own trust and endurance all throughout the gorgeous pages of Judas Goat. Bates’s is a voice I will return to again and again, for its stunning precision, unflinchingly daring inquiry, but above all, because I trust it so very deeply.
Avia Tadmor is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in The New Republic, New England Review, The Adroit Journal, Iowa Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry received support from Yaddo, the Rona Jaffe Foundation for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop Series, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.