O, a poetry collection by Niki Tulk, reviewed by Tara Walker

When you read Niki Tulk’s O, you are enclosing yourself within a rich tapestry of glistening threads: motherhood, daughterhood, grief, falling, ruthless love and cruelty, the moon, the ocean, transformation and becoming and leaving and being born. A lesser writer might struggle to blend these elements. A book that contains phone calls with prosecutors, the Owl and the Pussycat, and Ophelia’s tragic end might seem disjointed. But Tulk is more than a courageous poet—she is a weaver. And she does not attempt to create a flawless, edgeless fabric with no tears or snags, but an honest one, written directly from the body. O is not so much a book you read as one that you absorb into your skin.

“I set myself the task of writing poetry imbued with, and inspired by … the falling body,” Tulk says, in the included interview at the end of the text. And these are embodied poems in every sense of the word. The truth of the body is laid raw; there is no flinching away from ugliness and vulnerability. Instead of turning away from the body in the wake of sexual trauma, Tulk opens the wound deeper. Her words shed an antiseptic light on raw pain. We cannot turn away: “Here you are not / clothed you are not / clothed you are not / you / clutching your hair / (he clutches you hair) / the blood, nameless / thick salt in your throat / sudden cut of metal / Mother! Mother! Mother!”

The interview deepens our understanding of the mythology and folklore so crucial to the shape of Tulk’s words. Her comments help to situate O within the greater framework of her work as a theater-maker, academic and multi-disciplinary artist. Movement and theater-making shape the words as they move across the page. Sometimes the words cascade and large spaces appear between the lines as they zig-zag down the page: “It was a long walk and tangled / who knows / what you left / on branches / your tongue / pasted: / the leaves / tasted you, yes,  / licked you.” Other times, the words on the page tense together, forming bricks as if to protect themselves: “At 2:15 pm you climbed into the water. You fell into the water.”

Tulk follows the thread of the inevitable fall, conjuring Eve’s biblical fall from grace and Ophelia’s fall into the water. The text also reminds us that being born is also a kind of falling—we fall away from the safety of our mothers into unknown waters. “When all I wanted to do was wrap her up / shrink her down / find a way / any way / to stuff her back into my womb / and to never, ever / give birth to her / It’s a madness of sorts / I go back into labor / and stop it.” The female voices in the book echo Ophelia’s fate in Shakespeare’s Hamlet; they bemoan the loss of control and the seeming inevitability of falling—away from safety, away from the self, into the unknown.

By the time we reach the fourth section of the book, “A Fable: Part II,” it is clear there will be no careful tying up of loose ends. Tulk understands that grief is a hydra—it has ways of regrowing and lasting, despite concentrated effort: “The girl had no voice because her throat was plundered with terrible grief. Her mother wept over the feathers and sang her throat into hollowness. The silence roared from the girl’s guts into the cave, and the owl called her name and the owl called her name.”

In the fable Tulk constructs, it is the silence that roars, not the voice. But the owl ends the book by calling the girl’s name; although the girl is silenced, she is not forgotten or forsaken. Grief leaves us hollow and raw, and silenced. And the grief and injustice of sexual violence leaves a particular kind of scar that howls for recognition. O asks us to look at these scars, to remember them, and to face the enduring vulnerability of female bodies in male-dominated spaces. But O is not about victimhood as much as it is about honesty, and the need for quiet spaces where grief can be honored and respected.

In his 1980 book, The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot described the shortcomings of written language in the aftermath of tragedy:“The disaster,” he said, “is what escapes the very possibility of experience—it is the limit of writing.” Similarly, O acknowledges that language can be a difficult medium, an imperfect vessel for grief: “I cannot write. / Clichés, word drugs, keep you / pretending that you’re / really turning it all into something- / meaningful. making it all / Worth. While.” Tulk finishes the interview at the end of the book by echoing Blanchot’s sentiments on the impossibility of processing tragedy with language, while also celebrating the gift of poetry itself: “Text-making, then, is an act of translation, but from a language that has no words to translate from. Perhaps this is why poetry is so bewildering to work with, so necessary and yet so incomplete. It is agonizing. Words act like threads that can weave us to something, so we are joined in some way even though we are still separate.” O acknowledges our separateness, while also illuminating the shining threads that connect us to our bodies, our words, and each other.

O, by Niki Tulk. Tampa, Florida: Driftwood Press, July 2022. 94 pages. $14.99, paper.

Tara Walker received her MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her PhD in Media Research and Practice from the University of Colorado Boulder. Her poetry book Exquisite Disgust was published by the Little Door press in 2018. New work is forthcoming in the turnsol editions anthology for 2022. She is an assistant professor of communication at St. Bonaventure University.

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