Triage by Abigail Kirby Conklin – reviewed by Karen Dennison


This collection is full of pain and anger as the speaker confronts a past trauma and battles to cope with its pervasive effects. It begins with Brutality, a poem about longing which takes the reader along a certain path and then blindsides with an unexpected and satisfyingly ironic ending. It’s followed by a poem about wanting revenge on an abuser, being permitted to take it and fantasizing about the form it would take –

I want to eat your
freed heart raw—
I hear heart meat is good for you, 
and it’s far cheaper than steak.

This poem in particular reminded me of recent high-profile rape cases, in a culture of sexual violence in American university campuses, where abusers are given lenient sentences.

Throughout, the speaker battles against and confronts abuse and abuser, sometimes with self-destructive coping mechanisms. In My Father and I Talk About Drinking

I nod into the phone 
as if he can hear me because, 
when I drink,
my whole body forgives 
itself. I feel the heart
in each marrow hollow 
in each bone
slow. I can see
for miles. I am impossible.

In Elsewhere the speaker imagines alternative realities for herself where –

I am having regular, consensual sex, 
receiving prompt replies to text 
messages, and talking about systemic 
corruption over bad drinks and suspicious popcorn.

There’s A Way to Love That Does Not Also Ask That You Undo Yourself is also full of re-imaginings of a different life just out of reach.

There are some poems which are the opposite of what their titles suggest and are full of hard-hitting irony. New York, Mon Amour is a sort of anti-ode to the NY subway, Longshoreman is an anti-love poem and in Wonderland there is a Cheshire cat with no grin, no magic, no Alice.

Feminine takes us into the battlefield of women’s bodies in which we’re told to get used to being ashamed and Indehiscent (which means not splitting open to release seeds when ripe) uses images of fruit and seeds to speak of sexual violence –

You tongue the curve 
of my calf, tracing
to where skin meets fruit, 
and tear, as you would
a dried apricot
cured with sulfur, the better 
to keep its color.

In Long Island City Landing is a tender and heart-breaking poem about memories of being with the last man the speaker loved –

We cradled a peace between us 
like a child unwilling to wake.

The collection ends with Seasons, a poem about Persephone in the underworld. Amongst her suffering, there is a message of healing and hope, a returning to life and a coming home.

But I imagine her, each spring, crouched 
below the openings in the Earth
with palms upturned in faith 
that spring will come.

These are raw, visceral poems full of wounds and hurt. They are also gutsy poems of strength, survival and endurance which turn a mirror on the face of abuse. A powerful read.

Karen Dennison won the Indigo Dreams Collection Competition in 2011 resulting in the publication in 2012 of her first poetry collection Counting Rain. Her second collection, The Paper House, was published in March 2019 by Hedgehog Poetry Press.

As an artist, she collaborated with poet Abegail Morley on her pamphlet The Memory of Water – her photoshopped photographs feature on the cover and inside. Karen is editor, designer and publisher of the pamphlets Book of Sand, Blueshift (longlisted for the Saboteur Awards 2016) and Free-fall. She has designed book covers for a number of poetry anthologies.

Karen is Co-editor of Against the Grain Poetry Press.

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