Instructions for Killing the Jackal might not actually be a manual for killing Canis aureus, but it could be a guidebook for poets hoping to write with originality and confidence. The author of a previous chapbook, Silt (Dancing Girl Press 2009), and the poetry editor for Guernica, Erica Wright’s first full-length collection is clever and sleek, a swift read with sufficient gravity. The book is a paradox, and yet so is the jackal: monogamous and loyal, yet fiercely yapping when it discovers carrion. Wright’s collection includes small towns and abandoned TB hospitals, as well as poems set in Europe, where antiquity and myth bleed into the contemporary moment. Violence and pain subtly coexist, to the benefit of both elements.
A book that includes “killing” in the title creates expectations of violence, and Wright delivers, with a wit that salves the reader in the midst of squirming. “Woolgathering” introduces this penchant for poetic violence in country locales full of “dark, difficult terrain.” The narrator concludes that William Blake would “skip the city” and choose the “outskirts where grays begin / to grow olive then hunter then lime,” a place where “damage / stayed localized” and “men warred for sport.” These small towns seem to cultivate violence, as in “Air Rifle,” where “there’s comfort in small graveyards, / tended and shaded by what grows tall.”
"Taking a Punch” uses implied violence as a thread through multiple stages of content. Early lines nicely establish setting:
Near enough to hear the rough language
of men, I watched my father and uncles
string an electric fence between yard and field.
In response to the “worry on my face,” the men explain the fence is only meant to “pinch” beasts, to tell “them their limits.” Afterward, the curious young narrator starts by throwing sticks at the fence and then “grabbed hold, felt my skin snap, released.” The sting of pain allows Wright to transition to questions of pain across gender. The narrator’s brother promises “it would hurt less if I didn’t cry,” so she doesn’t, though later relationships end badly. The older narrator chooses to simply “nod, numb myself until morning.” The poem’s final act is even more inventive, revealing Wright’s curious talent to yoke explicitly different topics within a single narrative. During church, the narrator reacts with near-laughter because the preacher
believed men could help falling for other men
anymore than I could have
stopped from grabbing that fence,
seeing for myself if I were being lied to.
The transition is intellectually clever and shows that Wright is not merely using pain and violence as single-note tropes.
Violence is not located purely within the pastoral. “Myth Making,” an inventive poem that appears late in the collection, begins bluntly: “The women are all bored with sex.” They bring “their toys to the dump” and “[behead] their beloveds.” Not even the king of this ambiguous setting is safe. His “hands were tied,” and the queen “wishes her blood / were as red, that she could wear it / as accessory.” Wright makes the reader feel guilty for being entertained by such brutality, but she provides penance through quieter moments. “Note to Slip in Your Pocket, Never Slipped” contains such lines:
I never told you about the night
your friend sang to me as I clutched
his infant son in my lap and asked
when’s Susan getting back from her sister’s?
As if my refusal had anything
to do with him, he shrank and snapped,
you’re holding him wrong.
It’s an entire poem within an excerpt, not to mention a clever delineation between italicized speech, which is whispered with a tinge of desire, and the more direct, castigating speech. The latter leads the narrator toward a depressing conclusion: “I don’t know how to hold anything.”
Other poems in the collection speak to a particular brand of American poetic surrealism, birthed by Russell Edson’s prose poetry and honed by Zachary Schomburg in Scary, No Scary. A few such poems, like “The Story of Horses,” feel a bit incomplete in their transitions, but the better selections have wide reach. “On the Cyclical Nature of Disaster” is the type of poem, like the title work of Schomburg’s collection, that redefines the reader’s sense of poetic narrative. The work begins with treating men as things to use “as you have them.” The narrator continues: “Once I let a prophet stay, fixed up / the couch for him.” Soon, when the “house next door caught fire,” he is asked to leave. Certainly “Disaster / has a way of turning up around prophets.” The lines are delivered in deadpan and refer forward to the book’s final poem, “Rome Affords No Prey,” which gives those lines from Titus Andronicus a modern tinge. That same direct tone returns in the representation of a body metamorphosed by the sea, made “crystal—fine and resistant,” which will be grated “between forefinger / and thumb,” spread “over every meal / you serve to your disciples.” It is refreshing to read a poet comfortable in presenting unusual material without apology; Instructions for Killing the Jackal offers such treatment to a wide variety of subjects.
Nick Ripatrazone is the author of two books of poetry, Oblations and This Is Not About Birds (Gold Wake Press 2012), and a forthcoming book of criticism, The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature (Cascade Books 2013).
Instructions for Killing the Jackal
Black Lawrence Press 2011
$14.00 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-936873-10-4