Blood, Bone and Verse

UWEC alum’s poetry collection is an apocalyptic fever dream

Alex Tronson

Heather Knox
Heather Knox

If you creep and search through shelves and stacks in the University of Iowa library, you might be able to find what would become UW-Eau Claire alum Heather Knox’s Dowry Meat. What was once a creative thesis is now a collection of poems from Words Dance Publishing. The collection, which consists of work created by Knox during her years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – a prestigious master of fine arts program – is a dark and beautiful exploration into the human body, sex, and distressed identity.

The first part of Dowry Meat, entitled “VIMVIMRECOIL” reads kind of like a post-apocalyptic fever dream in which witches, pigs’ blood, fences, and floods dominate the first few pages. It weaves a surreal narrative through short vignettes of haunted landscapes, ambiguous characters, and a whole lot of bad news.

“VIMVIMRECOIL arose specifically in that summer between MFA program years, partially because I was in a rut,” Knox said. “I’d been hanging with some speculative fiction writers and thought if they can do it, why can’t I? Then I began to look for some speculative poetry – and hated everything I found. I decided I didn’t want an origin story; I wanted constructed ambiguity, something catastrophic happened but we don’t know what. I don’t know what, and I wrote it.”

This first half – the fragmented prose poems of “VIMVIMRECOIL” – serves as a backdrop for the rest of Dowry Meat. Not necessarily in a narrative sense, but tonally. It sets a mood that carries through the rest of the poems, while sharing similar themes.

“I think that a poet benefits from absorbing everything around them, love it or hate it, and then giving themselves permission to stray as far from the truth of that as they need to create something their own.” – poet Heather Knox, on her new volume, Dowry Meat

Part two of the collection is called “OPEN: WRITHE.” This half takes on a more personal nature. Looking into the emotional depth of relationships of all kinds. The poems appear more conventional; they actually look like what you’d expect a traditional poem to look like.

“I think there’s certainly the theme of trauma and what happens in the aftermath of trauma, like with the body and with relationships of all kinds – unromantic, unrequited, with others, with oneself,” Knox said. “There’s loss there, too, rather ambiguously. Ultimately, I encourage readers to love or hate whatever jumps out at them to love or hate.”

Knox, who received her bachelor’s degree in English from UWEC, delivers a beautiful debut collection that is sure to pique the interests of any lovers of experimental poetry as well satisfy the gothic, sci-fi/western apocalypse craving they didn’t even know they had.

At times, Dowry Meat feels like a poetry retelling Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, given the confidence of its prose, but its experimental approach to narrative and themes of identity, relationships, and body give it a life all its own. It’s animal bones and broken glass, scrap metal and organ harvesters. The poems remind us that no matter how high the stakes are, hardships can be found in all lives at any given moment.

It’s a relatively quick read, but with language this lush and honest, it begs to be read again and again. There’s darkness in this collection, depicting a terrifying reality that is not easy to describe. Knox’s writing soaks up the natural world and wrings it out onto the sidewalk.

“I think that a poet benefits from absorbing everything around them, love it or hate it, and then giving themselves permission to stray as far from the truth of that as they need to create something their own. Nothing in the book is entirely autobiographical, just as, maybe, nothing in the book is entirely un-autobiographical,” Knox said. “Some pieces are inspired by specific people, but by the last line that person has become a ghost.”

Heather Knox will read from her poetry collection, Dowry Meat, at 7pm Thursday, May 28, at The Volume One Gallery in The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire. The book is available at The Local Store and online at wordsdance.com.