Leaving aside for a moment the old saying about judging books, the cover of Erica Wright's Instructions for Killing the Jackal provides a few tantalizing clues about the odd and beguiling poems that lie within. The cover image, set on a tan backdrop, appears at first to be a muted botanical, with vines and petals and berries criss-crossing the page. A closer look reveals something more sinister. From one lush plant extends a blackened talon, and near the bottom of the image, where the plant's root structure might be, the viewer finds instead a flesh-colored skeleton lying supine on jagged rocks. And so it is with Wright's poems, in which the natural world is rendered in precise detail, at once beautiful, violent, and grotesque.
The poems of Wright's book, which consists of a single section, are unified by setting and by theme, as the poems return again and again to superstition, ritual, and violence, with those motifs often embodied by animals and landscape. Most of the poems here are set in a small town, and they are marked by the claustrophobia inherent in a place where everyone knows everyone else's story intimately. (Though there's also pleasure in the speaker's careful detailing of others' lives, like Hannah in the aptly-titled "Social Studies" who "avoids bruises by loving / the biggest boy left in Daytona" or in "Air Rifle," where "Pastor John's little girl knows the word / for sex before I do, strips my dolls / and slams them together.") Present also is the threat of decline, as in "The Instructional," where the speaker's mother is "relieved that our town will stop / disappearing for a while, will hold / at four hundred and ten (give or take)."
Wright's speaker is nervy and self-aware. In "Mistaking Time for Cause and Effect" she suggests
Let's go down to the cemetery and watch alligators.
Let's throw sticks at them to make sure they know
we're there, then run to make sure they know
we're better than them. Later you can propose,
and I'll say yes but really mean no.
Here's a woman unafraid to taunt predators and mindful of her own fickle and changeable nature. I'm most fond of this voice when, as in "Superstition," she's full of declarative urgency, proclaiming
I'm a better bird than you.
I can crow for days
from a branch you can't
even see. I drop my feathers
to the vermin below.
I found myself wishing at times for a bit more of that urgency and bravado. Skilled imagist as Wright is, she slides sometimes into the scenic, and a few of the long poems drag a bit.
These poems retain a tight focus on the natural world, and when they do approach the personal, they veer away quickly. In "Note to Slip in Your Pocket, Never Slipped," the speaker proposes "let's you and me make a go of it. / You can fill your truck bed with hydrangeas. // I'll dig their holes with my hands." However, the poem moves quickly away from the possibility of romance, closing instead with a return to the themes of animal energy and transformation, beautiful and gruesome as always:
Let your wings grow back;
ignore the sores they make
on your shoulder blades; welcome
the dun-colored feathers and infection.
It's a tribute to Wright's imagination that the image of a man growing wings—an image surely as old as Daedalus and Icarus—is here unexpected and powerful. Throughout this collection, Wright turns our gaze again and again to the animal world, revealing it to be unrelenting in its splendor and its violence.
March 2, 2012