‘Blood Lyrics’ by Katie Ford

  • COLDFRONT RATING: four-half
  • PUBLISHED BY: Graywolf Press
  • REVIEW BY: Madeline Vardell


“we must not / have heard / their music”



Katie Ford’s third book, Blood Lyrics (2014), continues to plumb the the devastating circumstances of her life through a post-confessional lens, channeling trauma and its aftermath via an intensely intimate and private account of the premature birth of her daughter—and her daughter’s struggle for life.

“Bloodline,” the first of the book’s three parts, grapples with motherhood and her sick child. The raw edge of these poems, their language, is reminiscent of Shaughnessy’s nightmarish account of childbirth and motherhood in Andromeda. Ford’s poems move subtly, stealthily, carrying undertones of anger with resolve. In “A Spell,” the first poem, Ford wills her readers, as if pleading with the Gods:

Take my lights, take my most and only opal,
take the thin call of bells I hear,
just. Take that thin lead,
wring out my water and drink
the wrung remains, take all that is nimble
and sun-up of day,
break my window to steal my eyes,
take their cotton, reap their fields;
as for my industry, it is yours.
I know in wishing not to bluff
so lay me on a threshing floor
and bleed me in the old, slow ways
but do not take my child.

Her spell is a simple request, but there is nothing simple in the lyrical power residing in these lines. Sound builds in this poem; first anaphorically, through the repetition of “take,” seamlessly shifting midway to “break” and then “reap.” The repeated imperatives entrance the reader, pulling them in. Ford also demonstrates great attention to the consonants and assonance of her lush language. Some moments seem tongue-twisters: “wring out my water and drink / the wrung remains.” Others—“reap their fields; / as for my industry”—evince a pleading attention to stress and meter. Almost by lyrical power alone, her simple request transforms into an intoxicating incantation, impossible to ignore. In this way, Ford’s poetry invokes the determined, selfless, and protective mother: the mother-bear who sacrifices self for child.

Yet not all of her poems invoke alike. “Bloodline” canvasses the entire spectrum of motherhood-confidence, often highlighting painful moments of doubt:

where a child’s body breaks the heart
and the mother can’t know
if she counts as a mother. I don’t know
if the child heard
what wept at the bedside.

Her questioning, harrowingly intimate and earnest, forces readers to confront human shortcomings, our impotence in the face of death.

The second section, “Our Long War,” twists the book’s focus on survival and motherhood, transitioning from the survival of the individual (the child) to a broader discussion of the survival of country, the preservation of wholeness, and feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness as a citizen. From “Foreign Song:”

To bomb them,
we mustn’t have heard their music
or known their waterless night watch,
we mustn’t have seen how already
the desert was under constant death bells
ringing over sleeping cribs and dry wells.
We couldn’t have wanted
this eavesdropping
of names we’ve never pronounced
praying themselves toward death.
I try to believe in us—

we must not
have heard
their music.

This poem expresses the desire to believe in her country’s goodwill just as she reveals the impossibility of this belief. The speaker is no longer motherly, more closely resembling a child in the process of discovering that parents make mistakes. The speaker’s final, “I try to believe in us” doesn’t have the resolve of prior poems; when it appears in the second stanza, it is as if whispered and on the verge of the past tense. Much of this poem’s tonal power stems from its line breaks, such that the end of the poem, despite the speaker’s longing for faith, resonates with doubt and shame for her country. The speaker no longer believes, and neither do her readers.

There is also a sense of lost faith in her second section—not absent in the other two, but most pronounced here:

[How can God bear it,
the sound of our florid voices, thankful
for the provisions at our table— ]

Which closely resembles How can God let it happen? or How can we bear it? This poem is one of many that appears in brackets, untitled and scattered throughout the first two sections of the book. At first, it is difficult to decipher what these poems do, or how to read them, but these untitled poems seem to push the sense-of-knowing. They further reader understanding, inform surrounding poems, and create tones with certainty. Their approach to subjects, observational and objective, comes off almost resigned, not nearly as intimate or fiery as “Bloodline”—like Ford’s dry and impromptu response to her own poetry.

The third and final section, “Coda,” comprises only a single poem, Ford’s last, “From the Nursery.” Somehow it manages to bring about a cohesive end under so much weight and pressure, marrying the first section’s raw lyricism with the second’s quiet frustration and antagonism for her country. In this marriage, the nursery becomes the battleground, and for the reader, the infant’s battle for survival mirrors the war’s:

Because my child was threatened, I too quickly conclude
from my single-mindedness that no one should be threatened,
that we shouldn’t kill
those asleep in their bedclothes
somewhere we haven’t heard of, somewhere
foreign, a desert—an infant, a mother, many cousins.

The book returns to an intimate perspective, one in which the speaker invests high stakes in the outcome: the life of her child. And because the infant’s life (as well as the speaker’s) parallels the lives of children and mothers experiencing war, suddenly the perspective towards these distant wars becomes deeply invested. Ford forces these wars past indifference and distance into readers’ consciousnesses, then even further: into the home, into intimate space.