REVIEW: Motherlover by Ginger Ko

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by Jennifer Fossenbell

What if you wreck your ship in the middle of a dangerous/wavy prairie? What if “I” submits to the power of “you”? Ginger Ko’s debut book, Motherlover, asks these questions in a voice that serves as an audible beacon: staid but urgent like a whispered shout. Hers is a work of reckoning with its own flashing ambition to make dark/light.

Ko’s first full-length collection was republished recently by Bloof Books after appearing briefly through Coconut Books, shortly before that press’s dissolution. In an interview with Grace Shuyi Liew of The Conversant, Ko speaks more about those turbulent events surrounding the book’s origins. Bloof is a fitting new home; their catalogue of poets includes the powerful and peerless likes of Danielle Pafunda, Elisabeth Workman, Jennifer L. Knox, and many others probing language in and through feminist genealogies (among others).

In her conversation with Liew, Ko talks of her writing as resistance to “silencing and repression.” She was, in that moment, speaking of her own, within personal contexts – though recent events and conversations/arguments across literary communities have been echoing that same urgent theme on a public and social scale. Ko: “I was frozen-over and latent for almost a decade. Then I started writing, and this manuscript is what I got from just beginning to take account of all that’s going on…” This narrative surrounding the book’s origins, plus the fascinating/romantic tidbit from her bio that she wrote it in Wyoming, for me saturate the poems with an extra aura of personhood that poses, or maybe is disguised as, the figure of the prairie lighthouse featured in the third part.

Motherlover progresses through three sections, ranging drastically in tone and form, but orbiting around common subjects, among them relationships (and relationship trauma), emotional repression (and the backlash against it), violence (and what it begets… and a person’s surreal, underwater recognition that those things are fucked – even when they have been grossly normalized.

In the first section and long poem, “GASLIGHT,” we find early on a reference to “folie et deux” – literally, madness shared by two, or in psychological terms, shared psychosis – yet in the very next breath, something is already breaking through/into that corrupted bubble: “Suddenly a difference / Sent to illumine the insides”

In “GASLIGHT,” the speaker revisits childhood experiences, including several that speak to a “you” implicated by “folie et deux,” stating at one point nakedly:

I’ve been sorry to you my whole life
that you couldn’t prevent bad things from happening to me

The voice often takes on a blasé tone, as if growing desensitized in the cycle of reckoning:

Again and again I bury you after

I find you cold in the morning.

And at a few striking moments, it becomes almost extravagantly grotesque:

When you slice me open
cutting the bright perfect rind,
you see the insides green and black,
putrid little girl bangs swirled inside with other rot.

The tonal patterns established in the first part – alternating with scary precision between poetic/pretty and menacing/visceral – intensify and continue through the books’ middle section, “BODY.” Here a significant other is often addressed, instead of a parental figure, but we see the eerie recurrence of loathing of self/other informed by what one inherits, told by close-up speakers in first- and second-person that is somehow both intimate and chilly:

I am disgusting. Raised to be a bride, to hate myself for it, I come to
you full of brides.

There is no room in my heart for important men who
surround themselves with flowers. Take the garland of wives
and daughters from around your neck. That you feel safe they
would not choke you makes me sick.

The section generates kinetic energy through its oscillations, lifting and dropping from concrete image to interiority, from kinda joking to dead fucking serious, from brevity to expansiveness, from prosaic language in regulated lines to sonically-centered inventions. Even from the back-and-forth between simple, one-word titles, such as “Flora” quoted above, and those that strain their boundaries, spilling out into texts of their own, as in “Crouching Down to Crawl Beneath, Letting the Desk Enfold Me, I Curl Up For Secular Dreams. Where Is My Legacy? Not Here.” Here the title carries its own distinct voice and serves almost as a short counterpoint poem to the poem that follows:

In dreams I am no one’s lover. I wake up, find my fingers do not
meet when handling your throat with both hands.

Through moments like this, where the speaker fantasizes choking or some other violence against a lover, the poet and reader are pulled along in what we are used to calling a circle or cycle of violence. Though I say slinky is a more apt metaphor: it pulls its own weight. The force acts upon the mass, until the mass acts upon itself. In “I’m Wide Awake in This Recurring Dream,” a speaker recognizes neutrally but can’t alter her own participation in this:

I can’t stop watching myself from a distance
As my splitjaw gapes

Like a triumphant snake’s

In “Nine-Tailed Fox Is Reborn in the Wrong Country,” one of a few centerpieces of the collection, we go through a catalog of cruel imperatives in terrifying specificity. Mother, father, car mechanic, school-bus driver, ex-boyfriend, supervisor, and others are commanded to do her harm, with the alarming but it-makes-perfect-sense effect of putting the power back in the hands of the one commanding: “overpower my lap with your smooth heavy hips” and “break my nose with hardback books” and “twist my shovel teeth around in their sockets so the little / curves face out.”

Ko outlines a few different territories of wanting, from romantic relationships (wanting/loathing to be a bride) to family (fear/guilt/grief), from traces of childhood to presages of motherhood – to which the book’s title makes us give special attention. “Baby Shower,” an understated and powerfully affecting piece, meditates on the speaker’s brief pregnancy and its end, with Ko’s expert cool-cum-poignant tone:

So many years preparing. For nothing, it turns out.
[…]
Afterward the skin on my cheeks frescoed hard and glossy. It could be a tragic Greek mask but I’m actually OK.

Later, in “Prayer for What’s Close,” she returns to a list of wishes, the prayers of a body and soul grown in and among unavoidable cultures of harm:

Let me feel safe enough to have a child someday

It is here, at the book’s center, that something close to resolution is found. In “Prayer for What’s Close,” the speaker buoys herself through acceptance: “I’m ready for the sharpness of this because now I know that it’ll be sharp” and in “Starve the Beast” stirs up some encouragement in the form of a brief manifesto on going forward: “… Heart!     Parcel out what ails you so that we / can start living well.”

Empowerment lies in choosing: to welcome the sting of “sharpness” while rejecting the deeper/uglier threats of evisceration, drowning, being swallowed whole, of neglect, shame, and erasure.

The third and final section of the collection, “PRAIRIE LIGHTHOUSE,” consists of twenty-seven poems titled “Day Mark” and “Night Signature,” a reference to the system of signals used by lighthouses during the daytime and nighttime. Maybe the code-breaker in you can uncover a message in the sequence of titles themselves, accompanied by their simplified symbols, which remind one of full and new moons, of signs for “on” and “off,” even of the “dit” and “dah” of Morse code, and other binary structures that play so significantly in this work.

In one of the “Night Signature” poems, we find an example of Ko’s pairing of precise image with personal experience, often leading to a dreamlike effect with its pedestrian strangeness:

I float prone and try to forget I’m prone. My sinking feet keep
kicking up silt clouds from the bed,
and I do not wash very far downstream

Finally, with a striking move toward minimalism, the final two poems of the book (spoiler alert) are pared down and quieted to a single line each. It’s as if Ko has pruned the shrub to its base, to start again calmly, with a reverberating message of optimism, another prayer: “May this range be one of work and love” and facing it, an answer: “From the top of the fortress two leaps of light take turns.”

There’s a kind of fish that has a bioluminescent belly. Its underside lights up so that when predators look up from the depths, it is camouflaged against the sunlight above. These poems have that kind of protecting/uncanny light: a kind of brilliance against carnage. Glowing as a way of hiding, giving off your own light in the attempt to preserve yourself and the small beauties around you.

So we’re asked again: What if you find yourself wrecked/reckless in the middle of an inherited continent? Let the lighthouse be your body. Let your voice throw the light. How many and what kind of shipwrecks we will avoid in this way. In Motherlover, Ginger Ko is strobing sharp/tender signals into the dark – for her own safety and for ours – if we heed them, if we know how to read them.

Bloof Books, 2016

Jennifer Fossenbell lives in Minneapolis, writes poems, teaches composition, tends a toddler, and is getting ready to move to Beijing. Look her up if you’re in the area: fossenbellj@gmail.com

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