don't die press

Knowing

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2019-09-06

Just Two Girls
Rachael Ikins
Clare Songbirds Publishing House (2017)

Review by Elaine Woo

New York state poet Rachael Ikins takes the reader on an uneasy but riveting ride through the terrain of nonbinary relationships and loss in her poetry collection, Just Two Girls.

The poem from which the book’s title is derived, “Just Two Girls: For Lizbeth,” unravels the secret tale of a young woman living in “Student housing. Quirky rich kids. / Eccentrics and ghetto’s edge.” She slips by in low key garb, “Sweat pants, sneaks and a canvas bag. / No make up. Nobody suspects.” That is, nobody suspects her chosen profession is call girl: “I dance on a bar in the near west end / over by the zoo. Blue collar working men / red-necks, those college boys. I flaunt a big feather fan.” Ikins is a mistress of artful surprise, which flaunts itself through her poetry collection. 

The title poem ends with grateful acknowledgment of a female friendship that sustains the call girl through vaginal removal of a cancer, a procedure that won’t mar her youthful skin, evidently so valuable an asset in her profession. Sustaining friendships of the sort, all women need, no matter their vocation. Meanwhile, her dear friend “tries to behave as if we are just two girls.” 

However, others judgmentally question what their relationship really consists of. In “At the Farm Stand: Grandma  W. Talks about a Customer with her Daughter-in-Law,” we hear a snippet of cruel conversation between Grandma and daughter-in-law: “Say, what d’you think them gals do up there in Dottie’s old place? I heared they’s lezbeens. It ain’t right, two women together…Is it now?”  This is the paranoia, fearmongering and misunderstanding that nonbinary people commonly face. Ikins captures the spirit of gossipy country folk with choice dialogue: “Ain’t right. ‘Course two men together’s worse…I don’t like even to t’imagine. Bad enough I seen them yearlin’ bulls ever’ spring humpin’ til one gets dumped on its butt.”

While the acts of bulls are overt, the poet notices even the smallest creature’s desire. In “Full moon/Slapping at Mosquitoes September 2,” she views the mosquito’s proboscis as “Tiny female’s lips prick, sort through freckles, stray blonde skin hairs—anesthesia, lust for blood, a way in.” Through the many comparisons that in this volume are made between people and animals or nature, the speaker reveals the bewitching of her infatuation with both her girls and guys.

The anthropomorphizing of even inanimate objects may speak to a notion of humans as the center of the universe that is somewhat limiting. Nevertheless, Ikins’ narrator deftly uses this technique to capture the pain of the loss of her lover in “Butternut Squash.” As the speaker walks down a grocery store aisle, she observes, “Squash undoes me…I want to choose the right tanned form, sweetest of orange flesh.Laden with double meaning, this reminds the reader as much as her of her lost lover. Ultimately, they remain separated by death: “We divide our braided life into shaggy hanks of silvery hair.”

The ending line of “Treasures,” “I am ready to know,” left me with knowledge that the many varied voices of squash, mosquito, bull, and call girl all have a knowing, a female knowing, even if misunderstood by mainstream society. Much for women to celebrate!