Mouthful of Flesh

Fossils in the Making by Kristin George Bagdanov (Black Ocean, 2019)

“I’m trying not to / make this a metaphor,” Kristin George Bagdanov writes in “Swallow,” one of many razor-sharp poems in her collection Fossils in the Making; this line captures the entire turbulent journey of reading these works. Employing a huge range of poststructural forms, the poems want to push the reader past anything which might detract from their subject: the nature of being (and, inextricably, the being of nature—climate change and its inconceivably deadly repercussions reverberate throughout the book). Overt metaphors, therefore, and otherpoetic conventions, go out of the window. What results is a collection which paradoxically requires both a great deal of thought and the abandonment of analytical thought altogether. Where it works, there is staggering inventiveness and power.

I eventually gave up, for example, counting the Google searches I needed to conduct in order to understand many of these poems. The amount of context that is required to grasp their depth calls to mind TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” This can be one of the joys of these pieces; the sense of voyage and discovery, for example, in pulling together the puzzle pieces of a poem such as “Proof of Parasite,” which revolves around the interactions of a Mediterraean wild orchid and a single species of scollid wasp, is a true intellectual pleasure. This poem, amongst others, asks the reader to interrogate what it means to be a part of the natural world. Far from finding the restful harmonies of Emerson and the Transcendentalists, parasitism seems to be a foregone conclusion, built disturbingly into the heart of things. Annie Dillard examines similar themes in A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, watching a frog being liquidized from the inside out by a giant water bug. In Bagdanov’s work we, too, are pilgrims, led by the poem into lands we may not recognize and may not ever understand.

Understanding, and what understanding means, is at the core of this book. Divided into three sections that borrow their titular concepts from science and philosophy—Proofs, Wagers, and Remains—we can sense a progression of exploration: from what “is,” to what “might happen,” to what “has happened” and what it leaves behind. Crucially, however, the piece “Lines Written After Crisis” (emphasis mine) opens the book, setting the reader’s feet on a mobius strip that feeds back into itself its rhymes, words, and ideas. “Proof Of Extension” plays with an image of clouds that abuts the next poem, “Wander,” in a call and response to Wordsworth; later, the separate poems “Flesh” and “Mother” reverberate the ideas of motherhood and the body:

Someone growing inside you, you can’t even imagine.
Yesyes I can: all the mothers
mothering me without consent. Yes
I know the feeling of being
consumed from the inside
out. Mouthful of flesh
I speak through, through which:
this being.

There can hardly be a more poignant way to express the poisonous effects of monoculture and Big Agriculture, never mind the inseparable intertwining of our existence with that of nature.

Bagdanov brings these echoes to a literal, forlorn, ambivalent conclusion in her last poem echo/o, ending her collection with an isolated, italicized “o” that could be a death rattle, a lover’s cry of passion, raw awe—or all these at once. This explosion of form occurs in most of these pieces, making use of slashes, dashes, colons, huge spaces and asymmetrical line placement:

I’m on my knees                                   
I’m on my knees


the swamp I move

your own drowning 
is at hand…

Consequently, the poems function at the height of their powers in a space where direct visceral experience of the page bypasses the barriers of rational exegesis. For all their intellectual demands, ultimately these poems ask you to interact with them deeply as physical, tangible things, as real as a stone trilobite in your hand.  

If you believe, along with William Carlos Williams, that “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there,” then the inaccessibility of some contemporary poetry becomes a critical issue: one involving not just social capital or educational gatekeeping, but, perhaps, the care and feeding of the human soul. Add in the overwhelming urgency of climate change, and the issue encapsulates the survival of the human body as well. At times, the poems in Fossils in the Making threaten to sink beneath the weight of their own earnestness of invention, resulting in an opacity for their reader. The question must be asked of this specific book: is inscrutability something that poetry about the climate crisis can afford?  Fossils in the Making is worth your time in investigating the answer. 

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