Mare's Nest (The Sarabande Series in Kentucky Literature)

Image of Mare's Nest (The Sarabande Series in Kentucky Literature)
Release Date: 
May 23, 2023
Sarabande Books
Reviewed by: 

“The poet’s knowledge of and confidence in her subject are deep and clear, as are the observations, questions and discoveries. The writing is as taut and rippling as a thoroughbred in the first turn of a race she’s sure to win.”

Holly Mitchell’s debut triumph, Mare’s Nest, brings the culture, wonders and challenges of Kentucky horse breeding into the lush field of her own poetry. Drawing on experiences from her family’s horse farm, “Afterbirth” captures the intensity of foaling, made especially hard by losses.

                        (Red bag) my father calls

                        (placenta pulled over the foal’s mouth)

                                    There are never enough minutes

                                    To dial the vet

The first filly is stillborn and the speaker calmly reports:

                        I rode to the equine morgue

                        with (the corpse) under a tarp

                        in the bed of Dad’s pickup

Mitchell’s storytelling voice incorporates veterinary and insider terminology (the book includes a lexicon) and, in this poem, suspending parentheticals that force us to pause and closely consider a word or phrase.

                        The mare (survived)

                        but jumped into barbed wire

                        (the next day) scarring her chest

                                    She’d never foal (again)

Did the mare truly survive this traumatic loss of her offspring? Does a female’s inability to give birth again negate or reduce the aura of motherhood? The writer might have made more of these effective parentheticals to interrogate the accuracy of language in other poems.

Another mare successfully gives birth, but the colt needs help: “holding the milk / above his head in IV bags / ache settling into our arms like praise.” The poem’s title comes back into focus in dealing respectfully and practically with the afterbirth.

                                    (The blood) heavily

                                    attracting coyotes

            we lock (the weight of this life)

            in Thursday’s garbage

                        my guard dog trying

                        to gobble it down

Life and death run through any writing about farm and ranch work. In addition to the inevitable heartbreaks of horse rearing, there are the small, yet deeply felt losses of a white-tailed fawn and a gosling. “The Gosling” describes the speaker’s attempt to raise an abandoned baby goose found beside the compost pile where the “heat must have hatched him.” But the gosling dies within a week: “. . . we buried him, breaking in the land / yards from where the bird began.” These Mary Oliver-like reflections on nature are common in American poetry, but in a more ambitious work like “Wisp, Peregrine,” Mitchell intensifies the specifics and correlative family dynamics, creating an uncommonly powerful narrative.

With wit and candor, Mitchell tells of a hard-to-name, sex-crazed, unsold young stallion temporarily sentenced to solitary confinement where there was “almost no room for him / to do more than pace, / snap his teeth and get hard.”  The stallion breaks out of his enclosure and runs into the mare’s pasture where he “fucked like a wild animal would not, / taking the mares in the summer, / through their sutures.” What is at first mildly comic, becomes a story of animal rape, made more savage, the poet suggests, by the breeding and repressions of domesticity. Human intervention is necessary,

                        My father caught him with a lead line

                        & every other bad word he knew.

                        He sent him up to the Mennonites

                        in Ohio, to be broken

                        & sold as a different kind of horse—

The father never tells the owner of the mares what happened, suggesting that the silences of victimhood affect humans and animals alike.

In a tonal jump from horse sex to playful human arousal, “Your Bonfire” addresses a friend amid her affectionately rendered redneck family: “There are your denim boys, . . . your burnt meats . . . your father’s forbidden jug of peach wine, your grandmother’s pair of pit bulls, / your oiled ATV.” The speaker seems disappointed with the friend’s other lovers—“Another rising  / freshman melts into your thigh”—but she acquires her own secret treasure.

                        While I fetch tinder,

                        a strand of your long red hair

                        flies inside my mouth.

                                    This means almost nothing

                        but you can’t have it back.

There are quieter, more nostalgic pieces, like “Kentucky River Palisades” “Night Bread,” “Lumpkin County,” and “Gates in the Wind,” with its wonderful memories of farm sounds: howling dogs, trucks, ATVs, scratching turkeys, restless spring horses, a wife who “played scales on her Western concert flute” and bullfrogs who “flung their elastic baritones from the pond to the house.” The poet concludes, “It wasn’t a hive mind. / Each spoke its own note. Except for the guinea birds.” Mitchell loves exceptions and complications, and a poem’s title is never marooned. When the guinea birds “tried to voice their worries, all that came out was the creaking of hinges.”

One would think a young, queer poet would have more issues with the culture of the rural South, and Mitchell does get in her criticisms. “Separations” describes a stud farm, its handlers and rubber floor, the stallion who “may or may not know / what to do” and the resulting pregnant mare showing twins on her ultrasound.

                        one to be pinched

                                    for the other’s health

                        an abortion

                                    that Southern men

                                    think nothing of—

A pregnant mare stars in another poignant poem, “Horse Theater,” quietly dramatizing male toxicity. The speaker’s ex visits: “How exciting, he must think / we’ll birth a foal together, / but she’s just sweating.” And when our horsewoman tells him she’s leaving for the summer, his reply is hardly one of interest or encouragement: “He asks where / is the place to piss.” She suggests they walk to the house,             

                        but he insists on the barn

                        where I work. He marks


                        the straw like a colt would

                        without thinking yes or no.

The woman steps away and tends to the mare, nuzzling her; and the sisterly companion “sniffs so readily / as if she couldn’t wait to talk.”

Mare’s Nest, which means a messy situation, an illusion, or the soft impression left in the grass by a resting horse, captures the book’s sway between animal intensity, mystery, and the sweet moments of country life. The poet’s knowledge of and confidence in her subject are deep and clear, as are the observations, questions and discoveries. The writing is as taut and rippling as a thoroughbred in the first turn of a race she’s sure to win.