by Mikal Wix
July 26, 2022
Mikal Wix lives in the American South, which seeds insight into many outlooks, including revenant visions from the closet. Their work can be found or is forthcoming in Corvus Review, Olit, Berkeley Poetry Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Roi Fainéant Press, decomp journal, and elsewhere, and works as a science editor by day.
O by Niki Tulk; Driftwood Press; 94 pages; $14.99
Niki Tulk’s book of poetry is titled, O, which, as one might expect, is deceptively open to connotations. Upon first read, the book charts an emotional and, at times, visceral journey of self-discovery. The way through is serpentine in a manner perhaps more akin to a symphonic musical passage. And, in truth, Tulk’s poetry weaves a majestic tapestry of sound and vision using humoral tones; her metaphors and the extended conceit within the fable are like the minor keys in a concerto. They paint the moods and telegraph the tragedy in subtle but cataclysmic currents. The resulting synesthesia is a breathtaking mélange around all the major atria and ventricles of the heart.
As readers dive in, they find themselves inside a mythic space. A fable unfolds in a tree wherein a magical amalgamation of human and bird is created by a deal struck to trade feet for wings. The bird, an owl, marries a baker, and a girl is born with “two mouths and ten feathers.” It is the nature of “O” to gather and layer intonations and expectations, as if the shape the mouth makes when screaming, or eggs, or wombs, are all seen through the lenses of secretive, celestial objects and vacant, staring eyes, all singing and crying out the intimate variations of suffering and pain.
On the surface, Tulk’s poetry tells and reflects on the horrific event of rape followed by the denial of its occurrence. Agony is bookended by memory and forgetfulness. It is the primary strength of O that the suffering is encapsulated by language, by fable, and by the reconstruction of a life through the immense and transformative power of poetry in all its forms and performances. The declarative and narrative sense appears in the middle of the book and is surrounded by the fable — a myth created and designed to protect and translate the experience of sexual violence. A central question is posed by O, “Can you tell one story and each time / that story gets whiter until there is no stain?” And this thematic kernel is, in one sense, answered by the book itself: no, because the poem, in and of itself, does not remove the stain; it uses the stain, incorporating it into a new, larger emblem of recovery.
As the central narrative unfolds so imperceptibly slow, the reader is given hints, such as, “stockings at his ankles,” but not until we reach into the heart of the book do we find “he held her wrist hard and pushed her down?” do we come to it, to the indecent, vilest violation. Only then does the preceding fable become charged by emotions: disgust, sorrow, anger — all becoming infused by the regret of not having seen it coming from the beginning of the book, perhaps like the character of the mother in the poem feeling lost amidst the riot of feelings about her daughter and family once the attack is discovered. At a point, a social worker asks the girl to draw her attacker. The speaker in the poem responds: “there are not enough books to hold what is drawn, / when all the words / have gone.” Tulk’s sharpest poetic cutting tool is the ability to reveal the underpinnings of the absurd.
O directly faces the ferocious atrocity at the same time as indirectly deflecting it via the unassailable language of this unique form of psycho-mythic verse. It’s as if a children’s story rose up and swallowed Grendel, and now the child heroine must spend years digesting the monster to contain and transform its power over her. If literature is a self-reflexive art form, then O does present a way for the text to be the body and body as text, which opens the mind to how poetry can act upon and influence the potential of context and meaning. Niki Tulk’s O gives us the power and control to reinvent our past traumas by performing them within a framework of our own control, wherein it’s possible to make beauty in the fires of language. Tulk’s poetry is a fierce example of how poetry can take all the uncertainty of chaos and pain and distill it into an unbroken chain of determined mercy and metamorphic catharsis.
The Humoral Tonality of Niki Tulk’s Book of Poetry, O, a Fable Becoming a Poem
Image by Averie Woodard on Unsplash