Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Review of Karen Craigo's "No More Milk"

No More Milk

by Karen Craigo

Sundress Publications, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-939675-39-2

80 pages


 Karen Craigo is the author of No More Milk (Sundress, 2016), and she has two forthcoming collections, due out this summer: Passing Through Humansville (Sundress) and Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Tolsun Books). She maintains the blog Better View of the Moon, which deals with writing and creativity, and she is also a freelance writer and editor.

I've never met Karen Craigo in person. We're friends on Facebook, and she wrote a blurb for my prose poetry chapbook The Fire Circle (Blue Lyra Press, 2016). I believe I originally heard of Karen at least ten years ago, if not fifteen, when she was an editor for a literary journal I was dying to be published in. I so enjoyed her chapbook Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Hermeneutic Chaos, 2016), and I immediately ordered her poetry collection No More Milk. After reading the first poem, "Down Will Come," and finding myself in tears, I knew it was a book I wanted to review. (Read my interview with Karen Craigo here.) —Karen L. George

Review of Karen Craigo's No More Milk

The poems in Karen Craigo's No More Milk are meditations, praise songs and prayers about love and loss, connection and separation, scarcity and abundance, resilience and vulnerability. They take place in a garden, a field, the woods, a hotel, a church, at an ocean, at home, in bed, in a car, at a grocery, and a food bank. They pay attention to the sacred and the messy as they examine the mysteries of motherhood, beauty, memory, imagination, and spirituality that fuel and transform us as human beings.   

The beginning poem, "Down Will Come," references a traditional nursery rhyme lullaby a mother sings while rocking her baby. The poem opens with the mother, the "I" of the poem, admitting, "I'm really not much / of a singer." I was struck by the matter-of-fact tone and plain language, and by how the line break adds a haunting meaning to begin the collection with: "I'm really not much" which for me vibrates throughout the collection in its images, themes, and tensions of scarcity vs. abundance.

The next lines establish the collection's intense feeling of intimacy, of a mother beside you, speaking directly to you:  "Tonight / I rockabye the baby." The poet uses a striking image to describe this rocking:

            the way you'd rock
            a truck from a snowdrift,
            grinding gears over
            lowest notes...
It's such an unusual pairing of rocking a baby to sleep with song, which the narrator says she considers "holy," and the above image and its suggested "grinding" sounds. This intriguing comparison establishes a tension in the poem that threads throughout this collection.

The poem continues with the intriguing question:

                      ...Was there ever
            such music as your own
            mother's voice, filtered
            through the drumhead
            of her sternum, growl
            of song and blood
            and breath?

The above breathtaking lines contain such longing and tenderness. They invite the reader to consider their own memories of their mother's voice, and how they might have heard it when they were being carried in her wombsuch a powerful image. The "growl / of song and blood / and breath" also presages other poems that sing of the body. And in the "growl / of song" there is again this unusual pairing that sets up a tension or rub that adds interest to the poem. It also echoes the earlier comparison of rocking a baby to rocking a truck from a snowdrift.

The poem ends speaking about memory and how it can transform with time, ending with an image inferring the vulnerability that memory opens us up to, and the vulnerabilities of babies, mothersall humans alive:

                             ...And even
            if it wasn't beautiful then,
            it is now, in memory,
            her real voice a bough
            breaking crisp on the phone
            hundreds of miles
            from where you fall.

One of the things I admire most about No More Milk is the way the poems connect to each other.  The title of the first poem, "Down Will Come," speaks to the second poem "Milk" by invoking the image of a mother's milk coming down. In "Milk" the mother is "a thousand miles away" from her baby, and is having a difficult time hand-pumping milk. She says:

            My baby and I are near the end.
            It's no one's fault. Each day
            I have less to give.

Such simple words that speak so eloquently, layered with emotion and meaningimply not just this particular narrator, her baby and a lack of milk, but how everyone in the world struggles with scarcity and regret. She opens the third stanza with "The world is dense with hunger" and the literal and figurative image of having to pull her baby's "fist from his mouth / just to feed him," and how "for some / hunger is a fist that never stops / being a fist." The fist suggests that hungerthe many desperate forms of lack and longing that exist in this world. The narrator also implies that sometimes all we can do is nurture ourselves:

            ...I couldn't dump that milk.
            For the baby in the courtyard,
            for my baby, for all
            the babies, I drank it down.

Milk is used as a symbol throughout these poems, as a source of sustenance, a gift a mother can give to her childthe first, elemental nourishment we give and receive as humansthe embodiment of love. In "Hours after Anger, He Wakes Me" a son spilling milk leads to anger, tears, a nightmare, regret, grace, and a prayer the poet describes as:

                             ...vague, no words,
            almost an odor of regret and shame.
            I stayed awake to write this poem
            and to draw a symbol on the fat
            wedge of my thumba secret mark
            that means Love the boy better,
            keep him, pin him to this Earth.

This poem speaks so intimately of love between a child and a mother and its inevitable failings and complications. In "Three Tips for Inhabiting Our Material World" the narrator also speaks of the sacred connection between a mother and son, by telling how he brings her feathers:

                       ...He smuggles
            these to me in secret,
            like the code
            to a lock, and I keep them
            in a vaseglorious
            tail feathers, pin feathers,
            scraps from a wing.
            He knows I love these
            artifacts of flight or battle,
            prismatic, pocket-bent
            or frayed.         

 It's significant that the poet describes the feathers as "scraps" which implies scarcity, and also as "artifacts of flight or battle," and not just "prismatic" but also "pocket-bent / or frayed." These words suggest the complexities and dualities of life that no doubt the mother and the son are continuing to learn and to teach each other. The poem ends with an intriguing and beautiful idea of the son "working on a notion / of placeabout where / we might settle together, / and with what / we may line our nest." This image of a nest echoes so many of the other poems in the idea of hungering for nourishment (literal and figurative), and longing to find a homeyour place in, and your connections to, a family, a community, and the world. The poem "Half-Buried" begins with the lines, "Eyes-down is how you see / the nests of things." In "Ars Poetica" the narrator says:

            I could feel all
            I was losing: I was
            a hollow tree, enough space
            beneath my sternum
            for a nest. There was no one
            to hold me but the world,
            the empty air.

There is such a sense of yearning in the above lines, of wanting to create and nourish, and to also find the sustenance to continue creating.

The ideas of lack and plentitude are also conveyed in poems about money. In "How We Save," parents teach their son about saving and thrift, give him "a dollar / for doing a household thing." But inside his piggy bank is also an IOU, "what it cost / to fill the car and take him / where he wanted to go." The poem ends with a visit to a park with a meadow where they lay in the grass, and the son "blessed / it with a namePlace of Fresh / Butterfly Milk."  I love that the mother in this poem teaches the child about finding abundance through being in nature, which mirrors the idea in the poem "Three Tips for Inhabiting Our Material World" of "working on a notion / of place" and creating a nest.

In "Special Money" the mother is forced to use saved Bicentennial quarters to buy a gallon of milk, giving the reader the powerful statement: "Nothing is so special it can't / be made bread." The poem "What it Means to Wait" contains a waitress whose purse is weighed down with coins that she counts out "for a jug / of milk." In "Offering," instead of money for the church collection, she offers stamps, "a gift card for ice cream," and "a poem." In "One Hundred Grand" she carries dollars "in this pouch I wear. / The thinking is that the law / of attraction will kick in, and soon / I'll be swarmed with greenbacks, ungainly as a mantis in flight."

Even though the title of the collection is No More Milk, and many of its poems examine scarcity, hunger, and need, they are also full of abundance and hope. "Naming What Is" imagines a scene such as the biblical Garden of Eden, where a man and a woman interact with the opulence of the natural world as they name things:

                                                   ...It was all
            so pure thenthey were incorruptible,
            and language moved between them
            like a beast, sweet and lumbering.    

The idea of "naming" in this poem beautifully parallels the son's naming a meadow in "How We Save," and also celebrates language, the spoken word, finding a voice, and creativityother kinds of abundance threaded through these poems.

Besides writing about connection and love between a mother and child, there are poems that feature love between partners. In "Scat with Mourning Dove" the "I" of the poem wakes to a dove's "syncopated song" and "a kiss, whisker sharp, a body / warm against mine." I love the way the poet pairs the feeling of a kiss (which I think of as soft) with "whisker sharp." This kind of duality, this acknowledgement of love's complexity, is reflected in the way the couple join in the bird's song, "yesterday's anger / reduced to syllables in the air."

In "Before We Try 'I Love You'" a couple is testing "the word obliquely. / On the phone, buffered by a dozen states..." The center of the poem contains such a striking image to convey the couple's conflicted feelings about making a deeper commitment:

                        ...But when we speak of each other,
            something catches the word at the trap door
            of our throats. It's like that egg
            the magician deposits in the cave of his ear,
            then draws whole from his mouth.

The egg is such a perfect image for the beginning of things, for nourishment, for everything elemental. In "Gathering Eggs" the narrator says "I'm here for their eggs, / a thing they give easily, / and I get it: some months / entire paychecks are taken / by snake-fingered hands." Such a powerful image of giving and takingthe exchanges we make in life. Eggs also connect to the nest imagery in several poems.

No More Milk contains a central long poem in parts, titled "Guided Meditation: Inventory" which is both an examination and a celebration of the body, what I think of as self-love. We move slowly from the ground up with poems subtitled "Feet," "Legs," "Hips," "Hand," "Arms," "Throat," "Head," and "Crown." The poems begin with a direct address to the reader (as "you") to "focus," "think," "consider," or "move your attention" to a specific part of "your" body. In "Feet" we see the poet's playfulness in the lines: "the feetstreet urchins / who cleave to you." These lines are also beautifully rhythmic, with the repeated long "e" sound. She expresses such reverence and tenderness for the body, as in these lines in "Legs:"
                 ...Let the ankles,
            graceful as the neck
            of the Madonna,
            flop outward in repose.

In the poem "Hips" she says, "They are broad," and uses longer lines to enhance this characteristic, describing the hips with the following exquisite lines:

            They turn slowly like a beam from a lighthouse.
            Imagine you can open them to the light. You can't.
            Your pelvis is solid, the body's firm cradle.

Such surprise and beauty in the first two lines followed by the startling statement, "You can't," which emphasizes the reality of the body's limits. And yet, at the poem's end, it reveals the comforting affirmation that "You can fill you. You can invite / others in. Any time you feel closed or hollow, / remember, there is a secret door, a room." This sense of wonder at what our bodies can be and do, continues in the poem "Arms" by simply stating, "Picture them moving / along the gantry / of your shoulders. / They're snapping / a bedsheet. / They're pulling two corners / together." In "Crown" she says, "I think / hope lives there, or love / things that have no place / near the body's rags and bruises, / its churlishness and fear."

Besides acknowledging the wonders of our bodies, these body inventory poems delve into the body's vulnerabilities. In "Feet" she states "True, / the world will give up / its carpet tacks, / its broken glass, / but promise the feet / you'll be vigilant." In "Throat" she delves into the body's complexities, describing the throat as "storehouse of the body's rage," and the stunning image of how from your throat "truth skitters like a mole rat." I'm reminded of the previously mentioned throat imagery in "Before We Try 'I Love You.'"

The vulnerability in these body poems is echoed and intensified in the poem "In Praise of the Body Broken in Two," where the narrator experiences three days of pain.  The poem ends with wonder, where she compares the body to a cathedral:

            ...the architecture of skin
            and bonesthe arches and rose
            windows, buttresses, crockets, cusps.
            This place is so holy
            you'd have to leave your shoes
            to step inside.

The poet's handling of the body's vulnerability goes even deeper, darker in four haunting poems in which she imagines ways of dying"by Bleeding," "by Bullet," "by Water," and "by Fire." "Death by Bleeding" opens with:
            You've thought of it, but no:
            the wrist is a narrow, helpless thing,
            and you have traced its rivers
            through the skin. All morning
            you've been flexing your hand,
            and you've seen in those cords
            a dear throat, clearing.

This image of the throat and its connection to our breathing, and our voice (especially relevant to a poet) was echoed in earlier described poems, effectively setting up a repeated pattern that resonates every time it appears. In "Death by Bullet," she says "Alive, we can only conceive / of the searing.../ It blooms there, sudden metal flower." "Death by Fire" opens with the chilling image "At the base of the flame / there's a blue answer."

Many poems speak of the natural world and its abundance and holinessright whales she imagines crossing her path, trees creaking in a way that she describes as hearing them grow, a goldfinch returning to its mate "in the usual undulating way: / some wingbeats, small plunge, // and again, again, again." In "Taproot" she admires trees' resilience: "If something blocks their light / they'll grow around it...They point themselves / directly at their need."

The collection's last poem, titled "Fruits," opens with the lines:

I want to say something
about the wild strawberries
how they were all along the patch
and seemed new.

She goes on to describe their beauty:  "so bright, unusually small. / We weren't sure what we were seeing / even after I kneeled to touch one / and noted the surface studded / with seeds." Then the poem turns, as the narrator reveals she's thinking about these strawberries while she's rocking her baby, who's been crying for two hours "a tooth is trying to bloom / in his inconsolable mouth." This baby, the mother rocking to console him, and his "inconsolable" need mirrors the beginning poems so perfectlyand these repeated ideas of abundance and scarcity, and of longing for beauty. The poem and the collection end with the surprising, exquisite lines:

            ...the baby flexes his back
            and lifts his mouth closer
            to my ear. The baby says beauty
            is ephemeral, and the earth
            rewards us when we pause
            before its fruits. Go ahead and write,
            he saystell the people
            what you know. It's entirely possible
            those berries are already gone.

Yes, the poems in No More Milk tell us what Karen Craigo knows of scarcity and abundance, giving and receiving, yearning and loving, vulnerability and strength, beauty and holiness. These poems celebrate and rant about the dualities and mysteries of being human. They resonate with genuine and complex emotional intensity, and an irresistible tone of playfulness, kindness, intimacy, and reverence. These poems will surprise, ground, and nourish you at every turn. 
Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, and enjoys photography and traveling to historic river towns, mountains, and Europe. She is author of the poetry collection Swim Your Way Back (Dos Madres Press, 2014) , A Map and One Year, forthcoming from Dos Madres Press, and five chapbooks, most recently The Fire Circle  (Blue Lyra Press, 2016) and the collaborative  Frame and Mount the Sky  (Finishing Line Press, 2017). You can find her work in The Ekphrastic Review, Sliver of Stone, Heron Tree, and America. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the journal, Waypoints. Visit her website: http://karenlgeorge.snack.ws/


  1. This was simply one of the best reviews I've ever come across. It made me want to buy the book, and that never happens. I might have to buy it when I get paid. Just beautiful.

  2. Thank you, Erin! It is a wonderful book, such a pleasure to immerse myself in, and talk about what made it so exquisite in my opinion.


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