Malaika King Albrecht
The Stumble Fields
Main Street Rag Publishing Company
Reviewer: Vivian Wagner
The Stumble Fields, a new collection of poetry by Malaika King Albrecht, is about life and death and everything in between. These poems explore how we inhabit the earth and how we can find our way to grace and beauty, even in a world marked by mortality.
The collection is divided into three sections that represent a progression in consciousness from feeling isolated and alone to feeling connected with each other, the planet, and the universe. The first section of the collection, “Catalog of Ghosts,” includes poems about hauntings, about ghosts and their relationships with the living, and about the way these ghosts come to represent a feeling of being separate and distinct from both the physical world and the more ethereal or spiritual one.
This section opens with a poem called “Grave Rubbing with My Daughter,” which focuses on a few moments in a cemetery when the speaker and her daughter are making markings on paper to record the stories of the dead:
Some things break, my youngest says,
after the charcoal stick snaps in her hand.
I hold her hand beneath my own
and glide our hands over a winged hourglass.
I tell Serena the image means that time flies.
She laughs, Time’s not a bird, mommy.
It’s a moving moment between mother and daughter, pointing toward the truth that this moment, too, is fleeting, and that there are schisms between what has been, what is, and what will be – and also between children, adults, and the dead. The poem sets the tone for this section, which explores what it means to be alive among ghosts, to see them, hear them, talk with them, and fear them. Ghosts can be lovers, friends, or enemies, but there’s always a divide between them and the living.
In “How I Got Red Hair as a Child,” for instance, the speaker narrates a complicated relationship with a threatening ghost:
The first ghost I met
said she could extinguish
me like a candle flame.
The speaker takes this threat as a challenge, learning to “breathe light” into her body,
until I could hear a roar
in my ears like I’m a forest fire
until I felt lit, until I could say,
I dare you.
The poem is a portrait of a child learning to live with ghosts, to talk back to them, and to find a flame inside herself that will help protect her against them. The image of fire, in fact, is an important one throughout this collection, representing as it does both danger and life. These poems illustrate the power of fire, the way it can be both destructive and nurturing.
The second section of this collection, “These Are My Transgressions,” focuses on the struggle to live and live well, with or without ghosts. These are poems about the foibles, mistakes, and transgressions that come with being alive on earth. They are also about adulthood and about coming to terms with identity, and in so doing trying to leave the ghosts and fears of childhood behind.
The speakers in these poems attempt to work through the complexities that accompany adulthood. The first poem in this section, “Riddle Song,” for instance, looks at the riddle of identity:
Marsh water, cat tails, and low tides,
I’m from the first house on the left after the bridge.
From silt on the rocks after high tide,
I’m CIA (Catholic Irish alcoholic) with red hair.
The voice of this speaker is expansive and haunted by the ghosts of her past, even as she knows that those ghosts play a role in who she is today. And that current, grown-up self is, like many of the selves in this collection, defined by fire: “I’m from hell in a hand basket and a side of mac and cheese, / My name is fire, and I’m burning down the name of your street.”
That destructive force also draws power from the process of staking out an identity, from establishing who she has been and who she is now. If she’s haunted, in other words, it’s only by past iterations of herself.
In the poem “These Are My Transgressions,” the speaker lays out some of her sins, which are, in effect, the sins of being alive, of not giving in to death just yet:
I’ve worn a shadow to a wedding
and sunlight to a wake. I’ve forgotten
that every blink’s a funeral
and suffered a momentary loss of light.
The speaker’s trying to make sense of her place in the world, apologizing to the reader for her living sins, while at the same time asserting that she really had no choice. She’s alive, and so she transgresses.
Finally, the last section, “The Way Desire Touches,” is about recognizing a sense of oneness with the world, about maturing into an understanding that the identity sought, fought for, and maybe even found in earlier adulthood has all along been an illusion. It’s about no longer being haunted by or separate from anything or anyone, but rather seeing the connections and interrelations that were there all along.
In “After Many Years,” the speaker starts to see that oneness in the form of motion:
I’ve been quiet enough to see
everything’s in motion. The wind spinning
leaves and tree seeds into flying animals.
In the stillness of later life, the speaker is able to perceive a certain truth: “In stillness, illusion. / We too turning, spinning.”
The poems in this section are meditative and sometimes about actual meditation, as in “The Sound of Wings or the Beating of Our Own Heart”:
On a silent retreat, I notice
sounds more completely.
The shuffle of feet on carpet,
the overhead fan, my own heartbeat.
The sounds, in essence, become a part of the speaker’s identity. She’s no longer separate from the sounds around her, but rather one with them. They are her, and she is them.
The final poem of the collection, “Praise Song for What Is,” looks at the whole of the world, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, and praises it for simply existing:
Praise autumn and spring, the hot then cold
then hot again. Praise the corn mazes,
the haystacks, the reaping what we’ve sown.
Blessed be the fig tree, the honeycomb, the hive.
Praise the kudzu, the poison ivy,
the forsythia shouting yellow at a fence.
The recognition underlying this poem, and every poem in this beautiful and haunting collection, is that the wildly various world is worth praising, including “the broken path that brought me here,” and including, ultimately, the ghosts that have finally, blessedly, faded away.