Review: “Instructions For Killing The Jackal” by Erica Wright

Erica Wright is the poetry editor for Guernica magazine and in this capacity she comes into contact with a lot of fine contemporary European poetry. She may write using the vocabulary and diction of America but the stark poems in Instructions For Killing The Jackal reflect the Central and Eastern European sensibility of the Polish or Slovenian poets in matter-of-fact phrasing of the surreal and a refusal to give concrete answers.

We find a woman deeply uneasy and struggling with the world and her place in it. The poems here deal with her relationship to that world and to the other beings which inhabit that murky and confusing place.

Wright is not afraid to use the darkest of imagery combined with a violence of language. A great number of the poems here are in tercets and couplets and Wright makes good use of these forms which allows her to move her short, sharp-edged anecdotes with disquieting ease from beginning to end. Wright’s poems often follow the tracks of her thoughts through various twists, turns and enjambments. The darkness that informs these images is always just below the surface, the music in the lines is subtle and tense:

I never told you about the night
your friend sang to me as I clutched
his infant son in my lap and asked

when’s Susan getting back from her sister’s?
As if my refusal had anything
to do with him, he shrank and snapped,

you’re holding him wrong.
I don’t know how to hold anything.
I’m trying to say I’ve only done one thing right,

and that was leave.

The poems give a sense of someone trying to find something while at the same time avoiding it, leaving the scene while similtaneously confronting it.

The way a dress hangs on a woman
who’s been sick for months,

the way her dress hangs resigned
to the emergence of bones–

And the man who hauls her bag out
isn’t a lover, but someone she’s paid

to deliver her, to leave her
by the curb.

Here is an image of a sick woman actually paying someone to abandon her which is followed by the self-reflexive movement towards the poet’s own inner conflict: trying to remember a friend’s face while fearing the memory:

The way I realize all

at once that I’ve forgotten the details
of a friend’s face or that her face

didn’t always scare me–

As she says in her poem “A Scarecrow, a Feline and a Hare”:

It’s easier to try and live
when something’s after you.

There is the distinct feeling that something is after Wright and the poems are suffocating at times in the way dreams can be when a person is swaddled in bed, sweating out an illness. There is also something here of Ted Hughes’s neutral, at times even admiring, view of natural violence, especially the granite-like short poems from his 1979 book, Remains of Elmet.

Wright’s own poems are also populated with animals and humans set in harsh out-of-the-city environments. Claustrophobic surroundings and relationships are inferred by Wright’s language, here, talking with her mother:

She means post-election in Palestine.
Do I remember how the hummingbirds
smashed and cracked into the kitchen window

until she took the feeder down
and the murmurs of their wings
were overwhelmed by other songs, by other birds.

There is a painful self-awareness to the poet’s thoughts that brings beauty to the imagery, endings don’t come with epiphany but are rather left open to epiphany if there is any to be found, as if Wright is saying “Here you are. This is what happened, find some sense in it if you will.”

The book has only one section, not currently a common practice in contemporary American poetry, where the fashion is often to stack carefully controlled conceptual units to make a conceptual whole. Wright has bypassed such practices and passed the controls to the reader which adds to the pleasing lack of resolution in much of her work. She grinds and sifts through her images and emotions but is unable to come up with a happy solution and refuses to manufacture such things, refuses Hollywood endings and stays true to her European sensibility.

The book chronicles the hard-won knowledge Wright has fought for and although she has abstained from actually killing the jackal she has left instructions on how to do so, should you wish to make an attempt.

Instructions For Killing The Jackal is published by Black Lawrence Press and is available on Amazon.

*

Christopher Crawford was born in Glasgow, Scotland. His poetry, essays and translations have most recently appeared in Agenda, The Cortland Review, Gutter, Envoi, Evergreen Review, Orbis, Vlak, Ekleksographia and the anthology From A Terrace In Prague (Litteraria Pragensia, 2011). His poems have been nominated in the US for the forthcoming Pushcart Prizes by both Rattle and Now Culture. He has lived in Prague since 2002.