I consider myself an avid poetry reader and writer, but over the past few months, my voracious reading has dimmed to a trickle. I would write maybe a poem a month and wasn’t reading new books at all. That all changed when I got the email about Judas Goat, the forthcoming debut collection of poetry from Gabrielle Bates.
On top of being a dynamic poet, Bates hosts The Poet Salon, a poetry podcast with Luther Hughes and Dujie Tahat. The podcast hosts sit down with other poets and discuss the guest’s work over their favorite cocktail. I became familiar with Bates because of this podcast, and when her book was announced on Twitter, I was immediately intrigued by the title and the cover. It’s bad poetic practice to let a pretty cover sway you, but perhaps I’m not all that interested in being good.
Bates’ debut collection is the haunt embodied. I know it might sound cliche to talk about poetry as haunting, but the images she conjures arrest you in their wildness and their brutality. In one poem, the speaker recounts an incident with a goat:
“WHEN HER SECOND
HORN, THE ONLY HORN
SHE HAS LEFT,
goes up through the white and copper-topped
tunnel of my eye and enters the basket of bone,
we are no chimera the ancients ever dreamed.
At once too mundane and too fearsome.
At once too separate and too dependent.”
The image, the horn through the eye, is jarring and elastic. It stretches around your brain and becomes the only thing you can see, a fixation. Judas Goat is full of these images, of this language that makes you want to look away while pulling you closer. The collection explores love and intimacy between partners, between parent and child, and between a woman and herself.
All the while, even as the speaker of the poem moves, we feel still grounded and tied to the South that Bates grew up in.
Once I started Judas Goat, it was nearly impossible to put down. But I found myself writing down lines and words of my own, spurned by the richness in the text I was reading. Every poet will tell you that in order to write poems, you have to read poems, but I hadn’t felt compelled to write in a long time. This collection shook something loose in me.
In “Saint of Ongoingness,wp_poststhe speaker muses
“The question dawns in me late in December:
Don’t I deserve joy? Rhetorical.”
I think this question really permeates throughout the second half of the book. The question of joy when you’ve lived through a messy life, one probably fraught with trauma, the shared trauma of not just being a woman in the world but a woman in relation to the world. When you come out from the other side of that, joy is a word on the tip of your tongue that you can’t quite reach.
The question of joy stays with me because, after loss of any kind, we find ourselves scrapping toward it. Clawing as if through mud but also like a spoon ringing in an empty bowl. There is joy to be found, surely, but of course there are also imposters.
In “Rosificationwp_poststhe speaker states:
“We lie to each other all the time. What else can we do?”
And it makes me think of how we lie on our quest for joy, stating with assurance that the next thing, the next publication, the next job, the next love, will bring us joy, but these things are, again, imposters.
In opposition, the lie in “Rosification” is the truth that resonates throughout the other poems. The speaker tells us of a lost mother who has been found again, a marriage that couldn’t find itself, the joy and pain of friendships. It’s a blisteringly honest collection.
The poem is the one place you can lie or, put more delicately, exaggerate, stretch the truth. But these poems cut to the bone, and as a result, spur emotional reactions. Bates’ poems meet at the intersection of the human and the animal world. I have always thought the animal world is incapable of lying. Yes, some birds practice mimicry. Some bugs pretend to be snakes, but in that quest for survival there is a truth that remains untouched.
The goats and snakes and rabbits that appear in these poems ground you as the reader in the speaker’s reality, making her world more real and more true. You can’t always trust a poet to tell the truth, but you can trust a snake to bite.
Bates writes with such precision it’s almost ghastly. I love the way we move through the collection. Most books of poetry aren’t linear, we don’t move from darkness to epiphany, and I think good poems really resist that urge to tie everything up into a neat bow. The urgency with which she writes, the way she compels us to see the world of her making, is stunning.
Through all of the book’s themes, Bates finds a way to reach the reader with sharp and salient language.
“Conversations with Marywp_postsends with the lines
“How did it feel
Cold blood on the cock of God
Such a damning and startling image but one that, again, pulls you in and beckons you to ask questions, to feel something other than complacency.
I hope that a second collection is in the works for Bates, though I know that expecting the next book out of a poet can be selfish and tedious. For now, I’m stuck on the poems in Judas Goat, returning to them when I need a splash of cold water to the face. These poems wake you up only to make you tremble with their frankness.