Review: Pecking Order by Nicole Homer
Write Bloody Publishing, 2017
New Jersey poet Nicole Homer’s first book, Pecking Order, produced by Write Bloody Publishing, is a hell of a book of poems. Fair warning: I am Homer’s colleague at Mercer County Community College, where she is a professor. Equally fair warning: I gave up poetry about the same time I earned an MFA in poetry as the 1980’s died—poets work too hard—so it has been awhile, but I’ve kept my hand in and have not let poetry entirely die from my soul. Nicole Homer does the hard work of poetry extremely well in Pecking Order. In it she sweats blood, rakes her flesh open, and makes words do her muscular bidding. To her and all poets: I salute you.
These 35 poems represent traditional forms; words in lines in stanzas—and a few less common forms, prose poems that echo Jersey boy Allen Ginsberg, with their vivid visual interpretation and rippling, often chuckling, rage. Even in our supposed post-racial, diverse, happy-go-lucky America, only today in 2017 do the heroes of the Confederacy fall from their pillars. And when those statues fall, those who operate the cranes that pluck them down receive threats from newly emboldened racists. Or worse yet and more particular, in the spring of 2017, a white man in Portland, Oregon attacks two women because of the color of their skin. In our society, Homer, as a black woman, remains the Other.
No one more keenly knows this than Homer herself, as in part her own body outs her. In the savagely comic “The Woman Who is Not the Nanny Answers at the Grocery Store Concerning the, Evidently, Mismatched Children in and Around Her Cart,” Homer opens with “I stabbed her, / the skinny-half-caff in the high-waisted yoga pants / so I can only assume that she is still in the alley.” Between the expositional title and the first line the story is told; some of her children are brown, one is not, and people indulge in “prying questions.” Homer pries right back.
She recites a list of ways this could have come about, each less likely than the last; she kills parents then abducts their children. She describes “my boy, / it was so hard to get him. / I had to practically bribe the IVF doctor / to put that white woman’s eggs in me.” To the inattentive to good manners, to the unimaginative unable to process difference before their eyes, to the intellectually lazy, Homer shows no mercy.
This son, in “Lottery” seen as “pale as the ghost of a black boy,” is one of several threads in Pecking Order; motherhood weaves here, too, in the powerful “I wish I was More Mothers” in which Homer lists all the wished mothers for us, her readers: “One to take the picture, another to be in it / One more still to apply the filter and type #nofilter / One to pin the things on Pinterest / One to collect the pine cones and organize the glitter….” This three-page poem does what it does as sharply as Plath, evokes moment as Rich, and if these references show tarnish on their silver, it is possible Rachel Zucker represents an adequate, more contemporary touchstone. But probably better can be, should be named, if one must sort and categorize this work. Someone else can do that. Read this work for itself, or better yet witness Homer performing her work.
Pecking Order possesses effective blurbs; I cannot do better than Rachel McKibbens, who notes “The poems in Pecking Order are electric with interrogation and revelation. Here, Nicole Homer navigates the cost & demands of domesticity and Black American motherhood with a fanged precision.” The teeth here do bite, and should: we are all the ventilated woman in the high-waisted yoga pants, we are all the “Casual Racist” who notices only the skin color of the narrator’s children, sees “only what a stranger might notice in the street and nothing more.” These teeth latch on, bite us, draw blood, insist “there is a long American history of people who look like us—all our many faces. / Which is to say my family is not groundbreaking. Not new, not novel, not even surprising.”
But these poems do break new ground, or put another way, turn over familiar ground we forget isn’t new, ground we should know, but all too often do not. The book is good. Pecking Order manages to be that first book of poetry that compels desire for the next one. May it arrive soon.
About the author:
Edward Carmien is a writer, academic, and former editor of Kelsey Review. His story “The Beautiful Accident” won first prize in the professional division of the Heinlein Centennial’s writing contest in 2007, and was published in Kelsey Review 35.1. He’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), and more can be found about him at edwardcarmien.com.