A review of earthwork by Jill Khoury

Reviewed by Thriveni C Mysore

by Jill Khoury
Switchback Books
ISBN 979-8-9855356-2-4, Feb 2024, Paperback

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Satire or humor or otherwise, ‘Beginning’ is sometimes an unclear magical word, so is its twin- ‘end’.  One such ‘sometimes’ happens to be in ‘earthwork’, second full-length poetry collection by Jill Khoury. 

To begin with what seems to be the first ‘beginning’, cover and book design by Alyse Knorr of Switchback Books and cover artwork by Jill Khoury:  A horse figurine stuck in moss green, entwined vine, a lone green shoot, gray background, subdued lower case letters of the book title, has immense effect on the reader’s psyche that will be realized before it is too late. 

A horse is a metaphor. It represents inner self, yearning for movement, kindness, courage, grace, leadership. There has to be trust and respect between the master and the friendly beast, a delicate line representing boundaries. It is a mirror that reflects the environment and also treatment of the master towards one’s horse. There is mystery in that amazing hard-earned trust.

In ‘earthwork’ the horse figurine is stuck in the moss and vine. One can hear the moan for movement, a yearning for kindness, a yearning for courage, a yearning for grace, and a yearning for respecting boundaries. That mysterious trust is still unfound. 

In ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ Keats addressing the Urn says:
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, (lines 1–2)

The permanence of artwork or stone is made more effective by the words, ‘quietness’ and ‘foster-child’. A foster-child knows ‘silence’ better than anything else, so does a ‘distressed-child’. There is so much pain when Keats says:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu, (lines 21-22)

Such like pain is in the mute shout of the horse figurine that is stuck, still, stressed and entwined. The cover art and design adds gravity, sets the mood to the ‘show’ that is to begin.

Jill Khoury is a disabled poet; ‘earthwork’ is dedicated to her mother, ‘Kathleen Rose Khoury’ (1946 – 2012).

The collection is divided to three parts: one – mother’s death, two – poet’s childhood, three – coping with the sorrow. 

‘night cultivars’ the first poem does not come under any above mentioned part. ‘night’ represents the vision disability of the poet. The word cultivar by definition, meaning cultivated variety, describes plants bred by humans for desired attributes and traits such as taste, smell, size, flavor, color, or pest resistance. Here the vision impairment and other disabilities of the child is not the making of the mother. Yet the blind child tells the mother about the picture that forms in its mind:

i tell
my mother 
the fractured clay dirt
against a red
bore a
all thorns
and dolor (1)

This incoherent image does not startle the mother as she replies that it is just a ‘weed’ implying the same meaning of the word ‘weed’– “ concerned with small details, often when this prevents you from understanding what is important, finding difficult to deal with something” (Cambridge Dictionary). When a situation is beyond one’s grip, ‘wind’ speaks of the troubles. The mother unable to cope with the pain of caring for her suffering child tries to erase the difficult image her child is seeing and describing, it is disturbing to her as well. The fear in the mother can be felt in this compressed conversation between the child and the mother. Though distraught, the mother resigns by saying:

she says
that’s just
a weed
the wind (1)

Part one starts with the poem, ‘through ether and static’:

an aunt tells me she has decided not to eat / we can’t budge her
later: your mother is really sick
later: she flushed her anti-depressants
later: she doesn’t want you to come
later: my mother’s whisper i would never do anything to hurt you
but this like so many of her communiqués is a secret wrapped in a half-truth.(5)

The poet travels by air where uniformed attendants exchange these words:

[are you blind?

you’re very well-dressed for a blind woman…](5)

When she reaches the yard, she receives her mother’s engagement ring, her badgered mind repeats can’t eat/won’t eat, reminds her father’s teaching of can’t means won’t, then she thinks of her mother, who has committed suicide, wonders what the dead mother would cry about now, then repeats what her mother used to say over ‘i’m living for you’ takes that as a lie, as she has left her for good. The mother all through her life had hoped for a miraculous cure for her child, when it never happened even after various treatments, the poet describes her mother as ‘metanomical vessel’ who had nurtured her. The poet meaning funerary urn says:

the second miracle
you’re hoping for:
an ashman will pour you
into a shape
that holds (6)

Of her mother’s impeding funeral the poet in her poem, ‘we never quite reach the topic’ says:

they did her hair nice for my visit
i ask if she won’t change her mind (7)

The meticulous sense of dress, and the fussing about to change often unsure about the effect is the habit that is being explained here, the poet’s unrest mind once thinks of fetching pills and jello, then suddenly,

i want to smother her in couch cushions
i want to check her arms & face for lanogo
i want to broadcast her private plan (7)

The poet repulses at the box handed, brushes away the arms with ease, and again relapses enough to conjure up rough edge thought:

how much weight to slough before –
how does she picture the end exactly
halted chanted latexed neatened (8)

In the poem ‘failure to thrive’ the poet gives a glimpse of the sufferings of disabilities; faltering weight, severe psychosocial impairment, major depression, psychosis, cognitive loss, delirium-induced effects of chronic illness, loss of willingness, progressive apathy and says:

ratio of loath to life
a fitter virtue a threat outlet (10)

The poet unable to come to terms about the suicide of her mother writes in the poem, ‘the last time i see her she is the most beautiful’:

stripped of rage
she is the most beautiful the last time i see her

but the soil where she lives
when she suicides
is made of sand & clay/ nothing blooms (14)

The poet shows her distress by tracing dead mother’s cheekbones and observes, ‘she smiles a lot now’. It also hints the ‘unsmiling’ mother as more familiar to the poet.

The poet remembers her mother’s friendly nature in ‘my grandmother traps me’. The poet remembers her mother taking her to parties, for pizza parlor, the time she bought too many books, the time she fought for her child, and the times she soothed by doing nothing at all.

The poet’s grandmother had whispered this seemingly to her daughter, (ie., mother of the poet):

who will take care of her when you are gone they all say she is so sick (15)
In the poem, ‘all aspects of the dream are aspects of the dreamer’ the poet reveals the scene:
…/ bent screendoor almost comes off in my hand
when i push / inside is dim and my feet slog over the mauve carpet she hates
i mean hated it’s swampy in here with no ac and blinds drawn / on the tv an adman
shills rare coins / my mother is perched on the couch dying properly wrapped
like a molebeast in a baby blue blanket / one claw protrudes ///
my therapist asks me what does dying properly mean (18)

In ‘litany / fixation’ the poet comes to the conclusion. One is reminded of Lady Macbeth’s say ‘what is done, cannot be undone’ (Macbeth Act 5, Scene 1 – WS). The poet here thinks that a child became a hindrance to the mother. This fact has robbed the child of openly expressing its feelings. The fact has made the poet think that the ruins of such violent intensity cannot work back to normal in a human mind, it mentally drains the power to reinvent one self. The poet says:

whoever thought an egg would become a tether
i put the reasons for imagination aside
i put the reasons to blossom aside
only a fool thinks the bomb-razed earth can rewind back into a city (13)
This is the end of part one

Part two begins with the poem, ‘before she can give me her voice’.  A premature baby is welcomed by the mother, obviously the baby is not healthy, it is born at the risk of mother’s life, the poet says:

the baby
has inhaled the ocean
her lips and nails
gray as a storm
the mother stands guard
over lungs as big as skipping stones

the doctors say
the mother’s miracle
could have
some deficits (27)

Those incurable deficits did show through in the child later in life and the poet says in the poem, ‘between summer & winter’;

i do not ask her
what did it feel like
to have me inside you
months too early
passing all
in the wrong
season (35)

In the poem, ‘curtain colic bassinet calf’ the poet describes the picture of the drained mother where the painful howling of the child rakes up strong emotions in the mother who has just given birth to the baby, ‘earthwork’ just like some displaced soil from the ground. The mother battles disequilibrium, wears a plastic facsimile smile, and when the child moves unhinged the concerned mother goes pale and her skin starts to prickle. There is no marked improvement she knows that there will be complications to be faced in her future and in her child’s future.

In the poem, ‘honey’ the poet describes painful experiences with people other than family. As the child grows along with disabilities, joins school, the principal there coos to her

honey you are such an inspiring little girl (29)

The poet here is already in the stage where she disposes being treated differently and flinches at the touch, feels different even if the act of kindness meant well. She rushes to her mother after school, reassured by the smell of mother’s coppertone and feel her sunglasses when kissed on cheek. The mother calms the disturbed child by saying:

i love youmy princessyou made such a good impression
you’re getting so big so independent(29)

In the poem , ‘my mother / the storm’ the poet describes her mother working in their horse stable, cleaning it, walking the horses. The mother admonishes the child by saying, ‘stop dawdling’ when the child likes to feed new oats to the horse. The child understands:

i am too slow never do it right don’t mention
how  i can’t see a thing in the dark of the stall
she has never asked how much i can see (32)

There is a storm and whatever cleaning work the mother did in the stable was spoiled by the rain, horses restlessly kick the stall doors even though the mother is working, she is in the constant remainder of her child’s blindness and that makes her angry at the slightest things and she shouts ‘stop’ she cries ‘stop it’. It is for the downpour, it is for the raining difficulties of life, it is for the displeasure, it is for the unpleasant fate, the storm inside a mother’s heart stays invisible.

In the poem, ‘cover it up’ the poet explains the parenting by her mother as she says:

my mother says i push you so you won’t be dependent on a man / do you see what
it got me / i couldn’t go to college / you will go to college / … (36)

The poet says how her mother wished to dress her up nice, the choice of colors, the choice of dress that would complement the child, dress that would attract less attention. The mother wishes to bustle around so as to strangle the disabilities and bring in as much normalcy as possible to the child’s life. It is painful both for the child to be pushed around, and for the mother to bear the pains of her suffering child, like the saying wound is on the child, pain is on the mother.

The worried mother who thinks her child may be even suffering from slowness, as ‘retarded’ given the circumstances makes the child quickly learns to be silent, for it has sensed many advantages in keeping its words within itself. The poet, who, as a child suffered from serious health conditions, says:

she worries maybe i am “retarded”
i learned early about the necessity of masks
& not crying because crying makes it worse
i wish i was a different girl one for whom
cached luna moths never thrashed
beneath the skin / one who’s never had to smack
her scalp to halt the obvious fluttering (40)

In the poem, ‘noncompliant’ the poet reveals the health crisis faced as a child, days-long headache, sleeplessness, traumatic surgeries, suicidal tendencies. 

The mother who is going through her own health complications still prefers to care for the child as in the poem, ‘mother you are hard to heal’. The poet says:

your nerves are dying / in your studio the full-spectrum light
shows all the places where age has smeared your lines (43)

This is the end of part two.

Part three starts with the poem, ‘funeral artifacts’ where the poet says

i delivered the eulogy
otherwise she would not have had a eulogy (47)

The poet has to face this suicide, it is painful, it is new, there has to be appropriate emotion, expressed or repressed, living in the shadow of abuse does not make the pain of separation any less tolerable. The suicide of the mother also reminds how helplessly the poet as a child too had tried to end with antipsychotics & alcohol with slices up arms. The poet says in the poem, ‘hi mom’:

i’m going a-hunting
for the part of me
that can live through this (49)

The poet asks if the suicide is genetic in the poem ‘the psychic channels my mother’ is it the rage, or sadness or the disorientation that is gripping the poet? She says in ‘the first Christmas after’ that there is a need to replace the space her mother inhabited with something delectable, in, ‘when i return to school’ the poet is too tired answering the questions to, ‘now that you are better’. The poet says there were so many things unsaid, better be unsaid inside the closed mouth. Now being lonely, it takes tremendous energy to stay afloat on the murky emotional sea for the poet. The pain transcends to anger where at times the poet explodes with anguish. She says in the poem, ‘i think it is a portal but actually’

i use a sharpie to deface her likeness
i take the knife from my belt to extract
the image of the child who sits in my mother’s lap (63)

In the poem ‘one year after’ the poet is still at a loss. The helplessness of grief stings to the core and the poet asks:

a phrase in my head
anti blessing

on repeat:

which world do i belong to (70)

The poet feels the Mother wound. On a spiritual level, the Mother Wound is a wound with life itself, causing us to feel an existential sense of disconnection from a higher power; a sense of feeling alone in the world and in the universe. 

This is the end of part three.

Thus the mention of Lewis Carroll quotes about the ‘Beginning’ and ‘end’. This book of poetry needs a reading for part one, for part two, for part three and again from the ‘Beginning’ to understand its depth. The transformative voice of the poet uses impressive diction with immense power. Words act like the right tools for the poet of ‘earthwork’ by throwing a kind of veil over those strong and deep emotions which cannot endure publicity. Those silent sufferings has transformed to poetic art. The poet has played well in dissecting the lower case i, that becomes an iota, a negative value inside the square root that signifies an imaginary value. The poet with disability is facing the crisis of learning to unlearn the abuses and absurdities of the way of world towards those with delicate health. It is not taboo, it is traumatic. The mother has to deal more than the disabled child, though not her doing – has to take the burden of giving birth to a child, a child that is innocent to the sadness of illness, and has to endure the frustration eternally. As in here, the mother commits suicide at an advanced age. It shows the degree of suffering and pain.

To cure depression one has to address fear, to cure fear one has to address resentment, to cure resentment one has to address inferiority, to cure inferiority one has to address ability so on and so forth goes this vicious cycle of human complexities. Jill Khoury in ‘earthwork’ tries to untangle herself by reliving moments of disturbing sadness. She tries to acknowledge the panoramic view of the vicious cycle of human complexities through her amazing observations. After reading ‘earthwork’ one feels the heaviness, the emotional turbulence so much so that one’s perspective changes.

About the reviewer: Thriveni C Mysore is a science teacher from Karnataka, India. She is locally acknowledged for her critical essays and articles on Philosophy and Education. Her books in Kannada on Philosophy and Science have won State awards. Being actively involved in Environmental Awareness Programs, she holds lectures and presentations for students. Amidst life’s complexities, she finds divine-solace in reading Nature poems.