With such a title as She-Giant in the Land of Here-We-Go-Again, maybe it would be best for you, the reader, to pull a blanket over your head and read in dim light, to try to see something with pure sight, undiluted by what you already know, undulating to the sound of another consciousness experiencing place, time, relationship, and memory. In this debut full-length collection by Kristina Andersson Bicher, poems travel through landscapes and personas and then back to the poet’s lyric, stitching together a she-giant’s quilt. Just like a quilt, this is a multi-fabric, patterned collection covering marriage/divorce, mental illness/wellness, myth/landscape, with a close attentiveness to feminine experience.
Early on in She-Giant, the poem “In the Garden of Mental Illness” makes several matter-of-fact statements about this particular place.
Friends come with cards and casseroles and then they stop coming.
People speak of earthquakes.
People comment on your shoes because everyone is looking down.
Shoelaces are not allowed.
Ditto leather belts.
The barrage of declarative sentences describes, chastises, and atones all at once. The landscape emerges out of the mindscape and returns: “cloudless,” “sun keeps burning into our heads,” and even “pills smell like jasmine.” Another poem, “Sugar for Krister,” repeats the thematic quilt block at about the midpoint of the collection:
I will buy a pastry
for my brother
in his Bellevue hospital bed
I am the one
who brings Baked Alaska
to the apocalypse
and this is my oblation
to the inscrutable god
of genetic misfortune
This one takes up the lyric voice, both plaintive and observant of the necessities of metaphor. The relationship, clear and urgent, takes the weight of its placement in the center of the quilt. Then in “Antietam (I),” a two-stanza poem close to the end of the book, Bicher pulls the pattern closed with a return to the declarative descriptors, but still with a sense of investigation and inability-to-understand sewn into the style. The poet takes the lines and phrases of the first stanza, places an asterisk, and reshuffles them to create the last stanza. A new meaning, or an under-the-ground meaning, escapes into the poem.
Krister is a ghost. We left
him in the mountains. Friends and
doctors assured us of our
rightness so we left him. In
a hollow, amid red hills,
a porch-swing swings, empty and
Krister is sitting on it.
Sitting on it a ghost we left
mountains friends and us of our
we left him in amid red hills
swings empty and sitting on it
Krister is him in the doctors’ rightness
so a hollow a porch swing
This pattern of extended meditation on dealing with the mental illness of a loved one was my favorite. The sense of loss carries over into other parts of the design, as in the poem “Missing,” which recounts a long drive with her ex-husband from the place and time after leaving her brother. She seams this together with military history, landscape, relationship, and time.
This man who bought me an expensive watch, right after I lost
an expensive watch. I see now how this was love. We left my brother Krister
behind, which is also love, I tell myself. I don’t feel so good, was the last thing
Krister said. My ex is laying out Civil War tactics and I’m thinking about
the cows. On the drive down, whole battalions of cows scrubbing bare the hills
and now only fields of fog...
Even as the thoughts laid out in this excerpt touch each other, they angle away again and again through the startling enjambments and the caesura-like, mid-line leaps from one person’s expression to another’s. The effect is reflective, like light sliding across car windows, as the speaker listens, remembers, and observes in turn, reporting these curves line by line.
Bicher takes the opposite tactic in “Reading the Ruins,” a short poem based on the Icelandic Rune Poem. Here, each line is its own discrete pattern, an entity, a definition by metaphor. In the Icelandic form, two nouns are set in metaphoric relation to represent a third. So, here, Bicher starts off this way: “Marriage is a lamentation to the clouds.” And onward to “You are a disease fatal to children.” And, devastatingly, “Fear is the leavings of the wolf.”
This type of language recurs in other poems, like “The Mothers Speak to Gods & Giants.”
We are a comb
to pull water into strands,
a slotted spoon.
Our legs are tree trunks,
our locked arms chain link.
The poem “She-Giant” also leans on this tactic:
I am the Next-Big-One-
to-Blow. My body
over these seething
fields; no joke, I bear
char marks, black
I want to see this she-giant, hear her voice, feel the tremor of the earth at her steps, smell the fire she has lit. Then, I taste the blood on my tongue when I bite it in fear at her approach. This brings me to another major pattern in the collection: poems that invoke the eruption of the volcano Laki in southern Iceland in 1783. “Prophecy (I)” opens with an epigram from a famous work recounting the natural disaster, Fires of the Earth by Rev. Jon Steingrimsson. “Today, it rained black sand.” And the poem traces what had been.
What once was hill, now deep bowl,
where love, split earth. Clouds
lie thick on our tongues…
Those are no ordinary clouds. They are clouds of sulfuric acid rain, which affected all of Europe with harmful effects to plants, animals, and humans. The article “The Summer of Acid Rain” in the 2007 Christmas Specials series of The Economist quotes Steingrimsson’s explanation of the local effects of clouds containing hydrofluoric acid presents this gigantic event in all its gruesomeness: “The horses lost all their flesh. The skin began to rot off along the spines. The sheep were affected even more wretchedly. There was hardly a part on them free of swellings, especially their jaws, so large that they protruded through the skin.” A more recent reporter on Laki, journalist Alexandra Witze, points out that Laki is not what we think of ordinarily as a volcano. In a 2015 interview with World Science Festival, she explains, “It’s not a big fancy peak with stuff going out of the top like Mount Fuji or Mount St. Helens. It is a long chain of craters along the landscape. It almost looks like a bunch of meteorites came down and smashed one after the other. What happened during the eruption is the ground ripped apart along this very long line, and what has been described as “fountains of fire” started to shoot up. You didn’t have ash blowing out of a single cone, you had sheets of fire coming out of this big rent in the ground.” In Bicher’s poem “After the Fire,” a landscape erupts from lyric skin:
but look: now the burnt tufts
of hair are virgin forest
a mountain range has bloomed
from my temple to my jaw
ropey and smooth
and now a river like a root
shoots down your neck
into the roiled valley
of your clavicle
a new continent broken
from my back, pink and pricked
Pulling a blanket over one’s head does not really protect oneself from a lyric like this. Bicher’s folding, creasing, and piecing of landscape, history, geology, and emotional experience illuminates the myth-making dimension under the surface of our minds and experiences. In the closing stanza of her poem “The Weight of Myth,” Bicher observes wryly, “All over the past we walk without thinking. / Step on everything without even knowing.”
A. Anupama’s writing has appeared in Waxwing, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. She leads writers at Ramapo College, Writopia Lab, and in the literary community she co-founded, River River Writers Circle (RiverRiver.org). Her chapbook, Saffron Threaded, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Anupama lives with her family in Nyack, New York.