Black Lawrence Press
June 24, 2017

Welcome, Sarah McKinstry-Brown!

During the month of June, we are celebrating the authors that came to us during our last open reading period. Today we bring you Sarah McKinstry-Brown, author of the poetry collection This Bright Darkness, which is due out in January of 2019.

The Author

Sarah on Writing CouchWinner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and two Nebraska Book Awards, Sarah McKinstry-Brown is the author of Cradling Monsoons (Blue Light Press, 2010), and has been published everywhere from West Virginia’s standardized tests to literary journals such as Rattle, Green Mountains Review, Ruminate, The South Dakota Review, Sugar House Review, and Smartish Pace. An editorial board member for Spark Wheel Press, Sarah teaches creative writing to first-generation college students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and is the proud founder, curator, and host of feedback at KANEKO, an interactive literary reading series.

 

 

 

On Writing This Bright Darkness

The poem that kicked the door open for This Bright Darkness came to me during my residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. On day five of my residency, I was feeling pretty stuck when I looked out the window next to my writing desk, and, for whatever reason, envisioned a clutch of honeysuckle climbing a crumbling wall. I turned back to my computer and wrote the lines, “Leave the heart out of this. Strip down to your nerves and let him have you without asking. Save the slow opening for the blind honeysuckle working its way up the crumbling wall…. With the salt of his skin pooling in the dip between your clavicle, how easy you’ll become kindling, the whole world shuddering above you.” When I reached that last line, I knew I was writing from a POV that wasn’t my own, and I knew that the voice I was writing in was that of an older, more seasoned woman giving a younger woman advice. What I didn’t know was that this poem would grow into a whole collection of poems.

The book explores the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship by retelling the story of Persephone’s abduction. Though the collection is rooted in a well-know myth, it moves back and forth between modern and ancient times, using a variety of voices (Demeter, Persephone, Newscasters, Searchers, Grandmothers) to explore that myth, asking the question: How does a woman stay alive (spiritually, emotionally, physically) in a world where the fact of her body makes her vulnerable to acts of violence?

As the book began to take shape, I’d sit down to write without much of an idea what was going to happen next. I felt a bit like a fiction writer. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I felt like a person walking through a dark room with her arms outstretched, trying to feel her way through to the other side. I learned pretty quickly that the voices of the women in my poems were going to be my only guides.

These poems were also shaped by my experiences as a mother of young girls. Watching my two small daughters slowly become young women informed the writing of these poems, as did my husband’s work for a video crew that covers national news in the Midwest. His work gave me insight into cases of abduction, rape, and murder; his close-proximity to these horrors coupled with my own experiences as a mother of girls, continually pushed me to consider all the ways our girls collectively disappear or are taken from us, literally and figuratively.

Though This Bright Darkness was born of a few quiet weeks during a residency, I spent the next five years working on it from my couch. (Surely I’m not the only writer out there who feels like she’s being punished if she has to sit at a desk to write?) Even when I wasn’t actively working on the book, when I was teaching and mothering and cooking and walking the dog and loading the dishwasher and driving to and from school and work, I was always thinking about the book. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this book has kept me company for a very long time. I’ll miss spending time with it, but I’m so grateful that it will soon be out in the world, keeping the company of friends, colleagues, family, and perfect strangers.

 

 

Excerpt

 

Persephone’s Statement

He said my mother had set the whole world
on fire, so what was the difference? I was always

thirsty. He said the body is a ladle. He promised
I would learn to burn beneath his gaze;

that if I closed my eyes
and told him where to put his hands

I’d hear the brook where I used to bathe.
He said the body is a field,

said if I softened beneath him,
the grass above us would green again.

No. I don’t sleep. When I dream,
it’s always the same

Mother leans in to kiss the top of my head,
and I am pulled under. My hair,

once famous to the sun, gone anonymous,
fused with the old cottonwood’s roots.

The world above me is on fire. The rivers are flowing backwards;

the sky is falling; the calves in the fields cannot drink
from their mother’s teat, and the grass doesn’t remember

green. It’s my fault. If I soften beneath him,
he promises the sky. I open.

.

.

Demeter, Watching Persephone at Her Mirror

She slips out of her dress, turns
this way and that, cursing her breasts,

her stomach, her thick thighs.
Her eyes are crushed geraniums, her mouth

a study in sorrow. Hollow girl, full
of echoes. She pushes her food

around her plate, only pretends
to put the spoon to her lips. How

do I tell her that Man’s desire is hunger,
and we are built for famine. I know

she is trying to disappear, to transmute
herself into light. Air. But the girl

is my stock. And her flesh,
that tightly woven basket,

is built to carry the weight
of every harvest moon.

.

.

Chorus: The Newscasters

Vanished for so long
the disappeared girls always come home

empty, their eyes, boarded up,

their bodies, a series of locked
doors. Their mothers reach for them

and say, with their embrace,
You can climb out now, you’re free.

It’s spring. We keep insisting
that the sky is falling. And the mothers

keep grinding the coffee beans,
listening to our mourning forecasts

while the fresh-faced neighborhood girls
trudge toward school, peonies

hanging their heads under the weight
of their own blossoming.

 

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