Review by Juliet Way-Henthorne
Sometimes, we are lucky enough to encounter a book of poetry that is, in a word, fearless: a book that mirrors back a frighteningly real, vastly unexplored reality through language so poignant and precise that we are forever changed by it. Jehanne Dubrow’s ninth book of poetry, Wild Kingdom (LSU 2021), is one such collection of courage, grit, reflection, and ultimately, redemption as she leads us through the often-perilous landscape of academia. Dubrow allows us into a deeply personal reckoning of the self and an institution that is both ivory tower and wild kingdom—a space that, hidden behind a veil of rule and order, is indeed primal as the hunted is brought to their knees, claws and teeth sinking into their back faster than the mind can comprehend.
Dubrow’s cleverly organized collection is presented in three sections, “a colony of gulls / a siege of herons,” “a wake of vultures / a deceit of lapwings,” and “a flight of swallows / an exaltation of larks.” Alongside Dubrow, we hopscotch through time, trauma, and moments of joy as if we too are recalling memories, visiting and revisiting events in an attempt to understand human cruelty and institutions that cannot, or will not, shield the mallard that “didn’t ask to gleam / to glide in my gemstone / glittering across the water …” The mallard (from a poem of the same name) worries that “only in the summer / molted of myself, might I be / safe in my unshimmering, / a body standing drag / in the narrow grass.” In this Wild Kingdom, to shine brightly is to stand unsuspecting and alone while the others silently circle in, drawn by the glimmer that refuses to dull.
Following the introduction, a poem and “Syllabus for the Dark Ahead,” Dubrow introduces us to “a gifted bureaucrat” in “Portrait of an Administrator with Strategic Plan and Office Supplies”:
To sit on her couch was to be silenced
by upholstery, plush muffling of cushions
from which it was difficult to rise.
Arendt writes, in politics obedience
and support are the same, and for a time
I was obedient, my reports in ordered bullets
I remember the fold between one week and the next.
She said to me, these people are unreasonable.
She said, these people are quite unreasonable.
Inside her office everything was cream.
She told me what I heard I hadn’t heard.
our last meeting like a memo full of typos
whited out, then shuffled through
the copier machine, language turned to shiny blurs.
Arendt writes, most people will comply.
Dubrow expertly, even painfully, opens with a moment of absolute retraction of an observed truth to disorient, disturb, and merge us with the speaker. From the onset, a foundation of support is crumbling, and with so much farther to fall, Dubrow still reflects, “truth was thin as paper—the little circles / she punched in it remain, and still / I hold this punctured story to the light.” Her poems are that punctured story, and we, the readers, are the light, the redeemers of a hauntingly denied experience.
Beyond truth alone, Dubrow walks us through the anger and weight of the burden of being silenced. In “Self-Portrait with Cable News, Graffiti, Weather,” Dubrow writes, “That year, my husband would overhear me / talking in my sleep, and though he couldn’t open / that shut door of dreaming, he told me that I said, / fuck you, into the dark. Quite clearly, fuck you.” But she does not leave us in anger or in the past, continuing: “Now I can say fuck you quite clearly to that year, / although there was also the kindness / of friends who brought over cherries— / they knew I loved the sweetness of a stone. / I can say fuck you. I will not lose the taste for it. / In that year, I was, truth be told, willing to punch / a fist through glass if it meant escape.” Dubrow’s words are heavy with injustice as she approaches these erased experiences from every angle, meditating on fury, remembrance, the joy of friendship, and perhaps most importantly, the power of escaping people and places that wish us harm, seeping into our dreams where conversations echo into nightmare. And though Dubrow writes that “It’s hard explaining cruelty—only / some have felt the coldness of its cut,” she contemplates cruelty as an attack on the oldest lion in the poem “Wild Kingdom,” breaking down the thin wall between academic mobbing and the nature of animals:
You watch the lion’s eyes, shifting from amber
to something you call fear. One day,
you’ll be the old lion. This is the grand narrative.
And the hyenas are always coming for a kill.
Already you can see the hunched shape of their spines,
up ahead the lurching movements. You hear
voices, almost familiar in their laughter.
In this familiar hyena laughter, perhaps you too hear the hint of voices that once tried to silence yours, in academia or elsewhere. In the imagery of snow and ice—or even glass—that Dubrow sprinkles throughout this collection, perhaps you too see how snow blankets truth and ice freezes action. In the image of the mallard, we observe the desire to camouflage when afraid or expecting an attack, the danger of glimmering, and the perplexity of how that glimmer can somehow be a threat. In the Author’s Notes, Dubrow cites sociologist Kenneth Westhues and defines academic mobbing as “a form of bullying in which members of a department gang up to isolate or humiliate a colleague” (Chronicle of Higher Education, June 2009). Of some sixteen indicators of mobbing, Dubrow highlights “a shared conviction that the target needs some kind of formal punishment,” “emotion-laden, defamatory rhetoric about the target in oral and written communications,” and “the adding up of the target’s real or imagined venial sins to make a mortal sin that cries for action.” Whether or not it is allowed to be seen, academic mobbing is real, and it happens all around us, at all levels of academic institutions. These practices of cruelty and competition in academia are made inhuman in this rewilded kingdom, and yet somehow, this setting allows for a richer understanding of the urgency for conversations about academic mobbing. Without Dubrow’s book, many could feel afraid to ever shine again—the risk of attack is too great, and the piercing of the hyenas’ teeth is too sharp. But because Wild Kingdom exists, we are not locked in a nightmare or the paralysis of snow or the grip of a wild animal. Dubrow’s book is, in all its glorious pain, a love letter to a former self—one that looks back at the wild kingdom and unflinchingly locks eyes with the beasts. This is a book that speaks, a book that says to these wild landscapes of learning, “I see you. I won’t forget you. And I’ll make sure that you don’t forget me.” Wild Kingdom bursts with pain that is outshined only by the powerful reclamation of these experiences. Dubrow owns these moments, or as she writes in the opening poem, she “hold[s] this punctured story to the light.” Dubrow teaches us about courage, character, and the power of taking back a narrative as a way of becoming unhaunted. In the last poem, “Song for a Grackle in the Kroger Parking Lot,” the last lines read:
Love the choice
the grackle makes—
to tear the silver insides of a candy wrapper,
to pick apart the leavings,
to sing and sing despite
the rusted metal of its throat.
Jehanne Dubrow’s Wild Kingdom sings to us, and it also sings for us, because it is a true redemption tale. At times, it can seem impossible to survive the wild places around us and the predators that dwell in them. Through the skillful layering of shock, anger, small joys, enormous sorrows, power, reclamation, and perseverance, Dubrow helps to show anyone who feels outcasted or othered that there is a way through, even if we have only the birdsong of a grackle to guide us.
Juliet Way-Henthorne is a senior technical writer/editor based in Santa Barbara, California. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). Juliet was the recipient of VCFA’s Center for Arts + Social Justice Thesis Fellowship and serves as chair of VCFA's Industry & Me, a BIPOC empowerment series. Juliet is an associate editor for JMWW and a reader and social media coordinator for VCFA’s Hunger Mountain Review. Her creative work has been featured in Anak Sastra Literary Journal and is forthcoming from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins.