Rachel McKibbens's lovely and serrated debut collection, Pink Elephant (Cypher Books), reminds us why poetry as testimony is so necessary. Ex-punk rock chola and mother of five, 2009 Women’s Individual World Poetry Slam champion Rachel McKibbens writes about abandonment and abuse in stark, startling language and well-wrought fable, delivered in well-paced lines, laying bare the history of a woman who's "fed [her] body to the hungry for years."

In "The First Time," the speaker and her little brother run away:

...we filled a shopping bag full of toys,
spoons and a jar of peanut butter

climbed the wall behind our apartment complex
and walked along the train tracks,
where we had sacrificed handfuls of pennies
and misbehaved dolls.

I was six years old, wearing a nightgown

In hindsight, her speaker concludes that "the maggots in the kitchen sink, / mother passed out on the porch," that home life which she and her brother flee, is what truly belongs to them. McKibbens's poems give us substance and not therapy. She reveals the learned and practical codes of behavior which enable the children to get by. In "Doggie Bag Etiquette (Stepmother 101)," the children listen to dad and stepmom through the bedroom door, and learn about their father's love. "But if there was screaming, the crash of a body, / then silence -- the phones were ripped out of the walls and we became // his children again. And the three of us would take off...."

McKibbens does not romanticize victimhood; she simply means to show us how unchecked violence reproduces itself. Her tone is matter-of-fact, and the scenes she writes are unflinching. "Tomboy," reads as fable of internalized misogyny, in which her speaker captures a mermaid, who is the mythic idealized woman. She speaks "a wild ocean language I could not comprehend." The mermaid’s inability to be understood causes the speaker to enact the learned behavior of belittling and inflicting pain. "I stood over her, disgusted. Smashed a mirror against her breasts / then sucked the final splinters of moisture from her lips." In "The Day After the First Time We Ran Away From Home," we see the brother enact a learned behavior upon the neighbor's turtle. He has lured it into his yard with piece of lettuce. Once the lettuce has run out, once the brother has nothing left to offer it such that it starts to leave, the brother’s rage is switched on. He kicks and cracks the turtle; "by then / there was no going back, so he sprayed / the turtle's head with Raid / and wrapped it in up a bath towel / and threw it into the garbage bin...."

There is a difference between running away, and bringing the abuse to an end by confronting it. Something else can begin only after a previous thing ends. In "The Last Time," alone, her speaker uses the father’s tool, "the hammer / with his initials burned deep / into the handle" against him.

... he stared
only at the weapon in my hand
and I looked at him and said,
If you ever touch us again,
I will kill you.

And then he saw me.

Okay, he said.

In "Cardinal" and other poems, her speaker appears split in two, as if she is becoming acquainted with the grown-up she is becoming:

When I stole your lover, you cut your arms.
Moved to a different town. Got raped and pregnant.


You're a mother now. You whisper into the phone.
Your boyfriend comes home late and drunk all the time.
You want to get out. You want a better life for your baby.
You named him after your father.

We see this progression from the abused young woman into the fierce mother protecting her newborn:

...The moment he was
born, you learned how to love him. You held him in your arms.
Fed him worms from your mouth. When the nurse came
to take him, you pecked a hole in her hand.

In "Drift," "the ocean keeps damaged women afloat, / breaks us from concrete blocks and alibis." Recall the abused mermaid from her speaker's childhood in "Tomboy." As a mother, the speaker has since opened herself up to something the mermaid was supposed to teach her about women and love. Part Hansel and Gretel, "What Comes Next" tells us that while the past of protecting herself and her brother from a "world that would do nothing to protect them," is always with her, it also propels her forward, asking her "What will you do now? … When?" If there is any resolution to be had in Pink Elephant, it is in her realization of the difference between mothers and women in "The Pacifier," and which one she know she wants to be.

Ultimately, this collection, and McKibbens's apparent concern with chronicling meticulously the beginning, the first time, what happens next, the last time, how it ends, illuminates for us how the process of survival, which she has taken into her own hands, is a lifelong, ugly, and non-miraculous one.


Listen to Rachel McKibbens at The Blood-Jet Writing Hour.
Read an interview at the Letras Latinas blog.

Originally Published: October 20th, 2009

Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, the Philippines, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She earned a BA in ethnic studies from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from San Francisco State University. She is the author of the poetry collections Gravities of...

  1. October 21, 2009
     Teri G.

    How is "poetry as testimony" different from confessional poetry?

  2. October 21, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Thanks for your question, Teri. I hardly use the term, "confessional poetry"; maybe there isn't much difference. Is there a difference between what you say in a confessional box, versus what you say on a witness stand, or a difference between why you are in a confessional box versus on a witness stand?

  3. October 21, 2009

    Beautifully put.

  4. October 22, 2009
     Teri G.

    Thanks, Barbara. I wasn't trying to be flippant, really just asking, so I appreciate the thoughtful response. I immediately thought of Charles Reznikoff when I read your phrasing, but then I thought that doesn't seem quite right. It's also not like the faddish "documentary poetics" going on, something else altogether. I appreciate the clarity. Anybody else writing in this mode I should know about?

  5. October 22, 2009

    teri g, what is 'documentary poetics'?

  6. October 22, 2009
     Teri G.

    Here's some:\r

  7. October 22, 2009
     Don Share

    See also:\r

  8. October 22, 2009

    oops, i meant it would help me understand if you offered your understanding of what is 'documentary poetics'. \r

    help! \r

    sounds like an interesting class tho. \r


  9. October 23, 2009
     Teri G.

    Right. XO? Really? Okay. I can never tell when you're making fun. But I won't worry. Here's the thing: I don't really have a definition. That class was from some lazy googling, looked like some good books, so I thought it might be helpful People talk about it all the time (or okay I hear it every once in a while and wonder "what is that?") and as far as I can tell it's poetry that uses primary documents from tragedies personal and public, shuffles them around to create some parataxis or whatever, and sometimes inserts some either personal or public business into the whole thing. There may be some kind of manifesto somewhere that lays it all out. But I thought about it because of "testimony," which made me think of Reznikoff (like I typed up there) and his book "Testimony." Which I like a lot. And is in the ballpark of what I think of as "documentary poetics."

  10. October 23, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    If I may steer the conversation back to McKibbens, and if I use Teri G's working definition of documentary poetics, I think McKibbens's work is more concerned with creating the primary document rather than creating poetry from existing primary documents. This makes me wonder what are the primary documents in cases of domestic and sexual abuse, and whether or not these benefit the survivors.

  11. October 23, 2009

    thanks for your def teri g. very helpful! i also wondered 'what that' when i hear it. \r

    barbara's steerback brings up an interesting point in relation to 'documentary poetics'/'confessional poetry'/'poetry as testimony'. we can read mckibbens' work as 'documentary poetics' in the sense that it documents a life (as barbara says, the life as 'primary documents'). so then one thinks of differing intentions that motivate what we call documentary, confession, testimony. it seems to me from the passages barbara quoted that mckibbens activates all three to varying degrees. tho i will have to read the whole book soon. \r

    i never joke teri, xo, c

  12. October 23, 2009
     Teri G.

    A poem is a primary document. I like that. I wonder what a historian would think. I'm using the term "primary document" without having anything beyond a high school history sense of what it might actually be. It's actually kind of troubling. Is "documentary poetics" exploitative? Whereas "poetry of testimony" would be assertion on behalf of the speaker that this story matters, this voice should be heard, made by the person who experienced the trauma (mckibbens?). The "on behalf of" in this case not as troubling as it is when the speaker and The Speaker are different people. What if someone reprinted all of McKibbens work word for word and called it "documentary poetics"?

  13. October 23, 2009

    i asked a historian in my grad dept and she said: 'i, too, dislike poetry.' go fig. \r

    hm, i think i misunderstood barbara. not the life as primary document but the poem as a primary document? \r

    poetry has always been considered 'primary sources'...but that is not what we are talking about i suppose.\r

    why troubling teri? IF we are talking about history, then poetry is not all that dif than other historical sources...all depend on some kind of 'narrativity'. \r

    why would what you define as 'doc po' be exploitative? to paratax existing doc & personalize & manifestoize it seems pretty benign. \r

    perhaps your def of 'doc po' is too narrow. i mean, isnt the class you linked to meant to open up the possibilities of 'doc po'? in terms of mckibbens work (to steerback) barbara draws our attention (in the last para) to "chronicling", which to me is the most prevalent 'documentary impulse'. now, of course, there are many techniques thru which to 'chronicle' or 'document'. but like i said before, i think this is just one impulse/poetics operating in mckibbens' work.\r

    haha i do believe kent johnson & blazebox already reprinted the book. tho i believe i heard someone call that 'con po'.

  14. October 23, 2009
     Colin Ward

    Barbara: What would be the difference between documentary/testimonial poetry and the [first person] narrative? Other than the fact that the latter may include fiction, I mean.\r

    CSPEREZ: Might your historian friend appreciate poems on historical themes?\r


  15. October 24, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    I think you answered your own question, Colin.\r

    C, yes on chronicling and documenting, and yes on poem as primary document. I suppose a writer of 'doc po' has the potential to appropriate others' stories, and in this way be exploitative? Which is not the case with McKibbens's work but rather a generalized statement. \r

    Teri, I don't know how to answer your last question. Re: “poetry of testimony” would be assertion on behalf of the speaker that this story matters - I agree with this and also see how it can be applied to 'doc po.'

  16. October 24, 2009
     Amber Tamblyn

    I'm really looking forward to reading this book. \r

    We had Rachel as one of our six featured authors this last year at our annual poetry series in Los Angeles, She was incredible. She made Michael McClure blush. That's hard to do. \r

    I'm a big fan and am looking forward to her book release party at Bowery Poetry Club in NYC on the 29th. \r

    -Amber T.

  17. October 26, 2009
     maureen meade

    Rachel's work has already been plagiarized. That is testimony to how brilliant and effecting it is. 'Pink Elephant' is most certainly a testimony to her life, and is chronicled very specifically. It is so visceral and visual it reads like a film or play. But though her work is academically superior, I believe it goes beyond that in its artistry. As with all great art, regardless of technical proficiency, there is the important element that entertains the human psyche and imagination. Captivates its audience. Even when it is non-fiction, and based on "facts." Rachel McKibbens could make a list of the events of her life, using bullet points, and it would still make for a very compelling story. But it is the way in which she chooses to present the "primary document" of her life, that makes her writing high art. She herself is a testament to how one can learn from their own history. How not to repeat it. How to make use of it. Artistic use. As well as tangible, life altering use. She is both raconteur and writer. She reaches people on many levels. She uses her extremely skillful talent with the written word, to share her experience. With poetry, she makes her testimony our testimony. Her experience, our experience. And we are moved and changed by it. The details are all specific to her own personal history. But the emotions are universal to humanity. And she presents them profoundly, while simultaneously allowing us access to them. That's some trick.

  18. October 30, 2009

    I feel rather guilty for not having ordered this book yet. \r
    But being familiar with her work in the way that only a chronically unmotivated stalker could be, I'd have to say that she deserves to live in Print. Especially Print without staples, exuding the afterbirth of copy machine printing. \r

    I could give a damn less about a category for her. Whether it be testimonial, confessional or sermon in a subcategory of Documentary peppered with chocolate chips and slathered in Plath. She simply writes Poetry. \r

    I've watched thousands of people try over the years, including myself, and only twenty or so have deserved to really hold the title. She has been one. Having seen her written word long before hearing her performance, I can also say it stands alone ably... Mightily.\r

    With some, we understand, the performance is the piece with the words occasionally showing up to work not smelling of intoxication, sometimes masking a meaning. A personality or charisma carrying random words, catch phrases, slogans and dictionary extra points exotica into some realm we call great Poetry. But can it be read?\r

    With her, the answer is yes. \r

    The only test I ever had for a Poet, and she passes it easily.\r

    I can hear it in her voice, in the voice of her characters, the voice I give her, and also my own. \r

    It's so wonderful to see this come to pass. \r

    Now excuse me, while I also praise with my pocketbook, and attempt to lock down a copy of this while I can.