Katie Bickham’s poetry takes an unflinching look at human longings
Katie Bickham of Shreveport, Louisiana, was my choice for the Literary Best of Show Artist in Critical Mass 6, the yearly writing competition organized by the Shreveport Regional Arts Council. In her exhibition celebrating that award, “Don’t Look Away,” currently on view in the mezzanine gallery at Artspace through October 13, five new dark and powerful poems are displayed alongside images commissioned by the poet from Northwest Louisiana Artists Jazmin Jernigan, Kelly McDade, Lilly Thompson, Susan Abney and Paige Powell.
These poems offer an unflinching look at human longings that stem from what Freud called Thanatos, the death drive that he argued is as primordial, as central to human existence, as Eros, the drive for life and love. Bickham’s poems are written with such skill and honesty that the results are, at the same time, disturbing and beautiful. For instance, “A Different Animal” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Anorexic,” as their titles indicate, are about bulimia and anorexia. “I am … / a creature dragging back // to its own ooze, a broken beast, rotten / with a sickness [my dog] can smell,” Bickham writes in “A Different Animal.” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Anorexic” references the famous poem by Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but with very different, and specifically feminine, subject matter. In it, the poet is fascinated with becoming physically and spiritually size “zero,” “Without desire,” as a “way…to disappear.” Bickham understands that this malady especially afflicts young women whose bodies become sources of desire to others and anguish to themselves, who obsess about “the weight of fingernails / and hair. Tonsils. Spleen. Things I could remove,” who seek control even unto death, who “will never be safe in these skins.”
“L’Appel du Vide” widens the scope of this concern with self-obliteration, reminding us that we all share a fascination with the call to emptiness, the call of the void. It is an eloquent poem in which all the lines are backed up against the right margin of the page as if, metaphorically, backed up against the wall. Listing various ways that the poet and her “cheerful husband” have imagined hurtling themselves into death, Bickham concludes that this longing for death “isn’t quite despair.” Instead,
Maybe that is all
we’re after. Some certain respite
in a cosmic pair of arms, some central chest
to crash into that pulls us with its own quiet
gravity. Some voice that promises
if we are brave and reckless with our lives,
we will not even have time
to fret the fall.
Katie Bickham’s new book of poems, Mouths Open to Name Her, is forthcoming this winter from LSU Press. One of her exhibition poems, “Morning,” is also in the book—and gives a good sense of the volume, which is a powerful collection about the lives of women, especially mothers, through history and around the world. The poem “Morning,” about Bickham’s baby son, confronts the vulnerability that parents feel once they have (in Francis Bacon’s words) “given hostages to fortune.” “The day wakes and says, ‘Give him / to me. I don’t think I’ll hurt him.” But thinking of the world, our world, in which children are hit by bombs, lit up by bullets, washed up “like messages” in the ocean, the poet exclaims,
It feels wicked to love him
this much, to love him at all
on such a ruthless rock as this.
But, as she concludes,
keeps offering up its boys, saying, “Love them,
or return them to the earth.” The earth waits,
ready to kiss them with its hungry mouth.
Ann Fisher-Wirth is a widely-published poet and a professor of English and Environmental Studies at the University of Mississippi.