by D. R. Hildebrand
When I first opened Kind, the new anthology of poems by Gretchen Primack, I was no more than a dozen lines down the first page when I found myself sinking, slowly, into the chair behind me.
Peas snug in their sweet green
coats, tea snug in its thermos,
absolutely orange tomatoes. Mice
root and clack and fill
their little lungs, each eye bright
as a berry. It is easy to forget Hell
here, and that is what we talk about:
Hell, and forgetting it.
It’s called “Picnic” and before I finished it I had forgotten what I was doing just moments earlier and lost track of what I intended to do next. Line by line I drifted deeper into Primack’s world: gentle yet abrupt; focused yet aware; alarming yet kind. The words, like seamless figure skaters or synchronized swimmers, carry with them every bit as much artistry and elegance as they do purpose, calculation, and surprise. They float. They caress. And they unleash a sort of venom that simultaneously hurts and heals.
I relished you on my tongue, in my
teeth, pushing down my throat and then
churning warm, year after meal
after year. I loved you about to be
served, about to become me, rich
hell, and I’m sorry. You melted
your plush juice into my mouth
and that was my jaw working on
your body, working you into mine
To read, without pausing, without reflecting, is disturbingly difficult.
This is for their mama, who left them
the only way she would have: by
Poem after poem, Primack takes the reader through a series of unexpected, internal checkpoints. First, there is intrigue. Then, there is trust. Next, but only briefly, and too late, comes hesitation, followed by the immediate mixing of sadness and delight, and the confusion and embarrassment that accompany the unusual state of being enamored by a work of art that happens, also, to prod, jolt, and unhinge. At pace with the cadence and the placement of the poems the reader is forced to question not only humanity—in the greater sense of norms, customs, and steep moral codes—but also one’s own humanity, one’s own engagement—within this hell, this horror—and to ask, as Primack does, “Who are the beasts?”
This is what I find most compelling about Kind. It isn’t complicated to answer these questions. The challenge lies in asking them, in inspiring audiences to ask the infuriating questions to which they already know the answers—yet will remain free to deny without the precursor of a question to anchor them—and Kind does precisely that: it inspires question after unavoidable question. Restrained and yet demanding, each poem calmly straps the reader down and waits. And waits. And continues, knowingly, to wait. “To make product from byproduct: / make use of the child, / kill and pack and truck him to plates.” By drawing out questions our contempt begins to build. This violence is insatiable? Does man never quit? Of course we’ve always known the answers. Finally asking the questions is what makes them real. In one haunting poem, “Factory Farm II,” Primack requires us to ask the hardest question of all: to what end? She conjures the scholarly work of Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka, in which he argues that violence begets violence, irrespective of the victimized species, and the result, as Primack presents it, is chilling.
We herd lambs into the chute
like Jews herded into
gas like cattle herded
into processing like Angolans
herded onto ships like pigs herded
into factories like Armenians
herded into marches
like calves herded into marches
like soldiers herded into
marches like pigs herded
like Cherokee herded
like cattle herded like Jews
In an unseeing society, when denial is en vogue and self-reflection shunned, Primack’s refined yet confrontational style shines like a daylong sunrise. Her words remain fixed on the horizon, neither rising nor falling but always alluring, reminding, and illuminating. I turn back to them for guidance. I turn back to them for understanding, for in their calmness there is clarity and in their resolve there is honesty, justice, compassion, and strength.