To Those Who Were Our First Gods, Nickole Brown
Review by Wendy DeGroat
It’s fitting that I needed to sit outdoors amid squirrels and finches and summer humidity, to sweat a little, as I embarked on this review of Nickole Brown’s chapbook, To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a prayer, praise song, and plea that calls on readers to recognize our connection with and responsibility to “the animals with whom [we] share this land.” *
It’s perhaps fitting as well that I would sketch its trajectory while eating potato chips and sipping Sweet Baby Jesus porter. Nickole, who first discovered poetry in a summer workshop midway through high school, describes the surfeit of verse in her childhood this way: “I was raised on the literary equivalent of grease and plastic—if you don’t count the King James, there wasn’t anything to read in the house but Cosmo or maybe a potato chip bag or two.”* That early absence hasn’t stopped her from becoming an accomplished poet, editor, and teacher; her Southern, often hardscrabble childhood providing a wellspring of experiences and insights integral to her success.
I first learned about Nickole’s poetry from poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar Brown who suggested I read Sister, back then in its original edition from Red Hen Press (2007). In this first collection, Nickole navigates the terrain of childhood sexual abuse through a conversation in poems that she’s been unable to have directly with her sister due to the distance between them. It’s a journey she describes as a novel-in-poems but that reads more like a collective memoir-in-poems.
To Those Who Were Our First Gods reflects several stylistic throughlines from Sister and Nickole’s subsequent book, Fanny Says, a biography-in-poems about her grandmother. As was true in those poems, the speaker in First Gods is in constant conversation—with the Lord, with Samson, with Mary Oliver, with the animals she yearns to hear speak to her, and with the readers themselves. This is illustrated in these opening lines of the chapbook’s longest poem, “Against Despair, The Kid Goat,”
Reader, meet the two women who sunk
everything they had into taking in broken
This poem combines Brown’s engaging practice of embodiment with what she refers to as “an oral culture of bossy, storytelling women who always had something to tell you or something to tell you to do,” * her speaker leading the reader through the sacrament of imagining their own bodies in the motions of these two women.
Thus the reader is directed “to be / those two,” and “to try, / to always try, despite the odds.” The poem continues, “Reader, I want you tired, every joint / in your body stiff and worn.” And after the kid goat has a seizure, it directs, “Now, use your arms” then “push together the furred slits / of his lids,” and later, “Now, get on your knees”, say his name (Peanut) while you “stroke his scrawny / goat neck.”
The yearning, so much a part of Brown’s poetry and often amplified by repetition, is also here, as it is at the end of the first poem, “A Prayer to Talk to Animals”:
Fork my tongue, Lord. There is a sorrow on the air
I taste but cannot name. I want to open
my mouth and know the exact
flavor of what’s to come. I want to open
my mouth and sound a language
that calls all language home.
The concept of home is another throughline that persists from Brown’s earlier work. “But now [she’s] writing about animals, who, because of us, increasingly either don’t have a home left or find that home spoiled. *
My favorite poem, the one that made me grin and blush, then stop reading so I could call friends to read it to them, is the middle poem of the nine in the chapbook: “Self Portrait as Land Snail.” As the speaker describes the options the land snail has for both solitary and companion procreation (the latter being the better option, the speaker asserts), Brown’s distinctive voice rises from the page:
I couldn’t make this shit up
if I tried—this is no metaphor
but scientific fact—a telum amoris—literally,
a weapon of love—
Cupid’s got nothing on this
mollusk congress, and because you know
how snails go, the foreplay is slow—
slow, slow, slow—my kind of sex—
This poem is deftly placed at the fulcrum of the manuscript.
To Those Who Were Our First Gods also provides plenty to study in terms of structural elements. There’s the effective and moving narrative arc, the first poem expressing a yearning to speak to animals book-ended by the last poem which asks instead to understand animals and speak for them.
There are a range of forms, from poems in a single verse, familiar vessels for the prayer and elegy they convey, to ones organized in sections, and a poem in couplets. This latter form is perhaps symbolic of the contrasting styles of the two lesbian poets in conversation within its stanzas: Mary Oliver with her quiet reverence of nature and Nickole who “speak[s] in a queer, Southern trash-talking kind of way about nature beautiful, damaged, and in desperate need of saving.” *
But don’t let me mislead you into thinking that To Those Who Were Our First Gods offers only more of the same distinct voice and accessible, engaging poetry you’ll find in her previous books—although that would be reason enough to click “Add to Cart.” There is something new here too: a heightened sense of immediacy, an urgency that pulses from the lines. With this work, Nickole Brown has moved from subjects long known—her sister and grandmother, her Southern upbringing— to a territory she was warned against when she was growing up, that of the animal and wild.
When sharing this chapbook’s origin story with Jen Sammons at Oxford American, * Brown explained that soon after she revealed a long-held wish to have “gone into environmental conservation and worked to save animals,” her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, pointed out that it wasn’t too late for her to fulfill that wish. Nickole started her study by reading books and observing animals at a nearby zoo “from a comfortable remove that’s not too unlike reading”—this from “a girl who left behind her body and became a book, and never had . . . gone outside much until [she] was forty.”
It was not until she immersed herself in the sweaty, smelly, mucky, heart-wrenching, yet rewarding work of volunteering at animal sanctuaries and wildlife rehabilitation centers that these poems surfaced. I suspect that an earlier Nickole Brown, before coming into her sexual identity and fully into her own body—gifted poet though she already was—would not have written these poems with the same intensity she achieves in To Those Who Were Our First Gods. I’m glad she wrote this chapbook when she did and can’t wait to read her related essay-in-poems, The Donkey Elegies—and whatever comes next.
*Nickole Brown quotes are from the following sources:
A Conversation with Nickole Brown, Oxford American, a Magazine of the South
Interview With Poets Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown, By Robert Drinkwater, UMF Department of English Blog
Private communications: e-mail conversation with Nickole Brown (14 June 2020)
Nickole Brown received her MFA from the Vermont College, studied literature at Oxford University, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She worked at Sarabande Books for ten years. Her first collection, Sister, a novel-in-poems, was published in 2007 with a new edition reissued in 2018. Her second book, a biography-in-poems about her grandmother called Fanny Says, came out from BOA Editions in 2015 and won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years. Currently, she teaches periodically at a number of places, including the Sewanee School of Letters MFA Program, the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA, and the Hindman Settlement School. She lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville where she periodically volunteers at a three different animal sanctuaries. Since 2016, she’s been writing about these animals, resisting the kind of pastorals that made her (and many of the working-class folks from the Kentucky that raised her) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it. To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a chapbook of these first nine poems, won the 2018 Rattle Prize, and her essay-in-poems, The Donkey Elegies, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2020.
Title: To Those Who Were Our First Gods
Author: Nickole Brown
Winner of the 2018 Rattle Chapbook Prize 2018
Finalist for the Julie Suk Award
Wendy DeGroat is the author of Beautiful Machinery (Headmistress Press) and is currently revising a documentary poetry manuscript about Grace Arents, a Progressive-era philanthropist and educator, and Grace’s companion, Mary Garland Smith. Wendy’s poetry has appeared in Cider Press Review, Commonplace, the museum of americana, Rogue Agent, Rust + Moth, The Wild Word, and elsewhere.She is a librarian and mindfulness teacher in Richmond, Virginia, where she also curates poetryriver.org (a resource site for documentary poetry and for diversifying the poetry taught in high school and undergraduate classrooms), encourages writers to find inspiration in quirky historical artifacts found in libraries and archives, and serves as a small-group facilitator for Living the Richmond Pledge, a workshop that empowers participants to take an active role in ending racism in their communities.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.