Ahead of the release of Slaughter the One Bird, her debut full-length collection of poems, Kimberly Ann Priest spoke with editorial intern Eliza Browning. Here, they discussed the complicated legacy of trauma, living with memory and grief, religious myths and parables, and cycles of abuse and healing.
Eliza Browning: Tell me about the title Slaughter the One Bird from Leviticus 14:50. How and why did you choose this verse as the title?
Kimberly Ann Priest: That’s an excellent question Eliza. Thank you so much for asking.
To answer this question well, I’m going to give you more context from Leviticus 14, quoting from the English Standard Version of the Bible:
“1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “This shall be the law of the leprous person for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest, 3 and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall look. Then, if the case of leprous disease is healed in the leprous person, 4 the priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds and cedarwood and scarlet yarn and hyssop. 5 And the priest shall command them to kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water. 6 He shall take the live bird with the cedarwood and the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. 7 And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean and shall let the living bird go into the open field. 8 And he who is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes and shave off all his hair and bathe himself in water, and he shall be clean. And after that he may come into the camp but live outside his tent seven days.”
As you can see in the passage, someone is sick with an incurable disease and the proposed healing ritual is a juxtaposition of death and life. One bird is killed; the other bird is dipped in its murder and set free.
On a metaphorical level, this death/life paradigm as cure is incredible when related to abusive situations where some sort of traumatic pain is festering. In my book, according to the mandate of unrequited pain, someone has to die—a bird must be slaughtered so that another can go free. This can take a variety of forms in relationship, but essentially, an individual demonstrating abusive behavior due to their own pain, their own “slaughtering,” will relieve suffering by creating a situation in which another individual is “sacrificed” to pain. It’s an ugly cycle, as is the nature of ritual sacrifice in the Biblical Old Testament.
EB: How does this collection navigate the complicated intersection of tragedy and grief?
KAP: There’s a line in one of the poems titled “Preparing the Body” that reads “She… / wants to be the hero of this story / for at least this would exonerate her doubts.” As I was writing this poem in its first draft, this line came from somewhere in my psyche. Like, it was just there; I had no idea what it meant. But, of course, since these poems were written as I was working through the grieving process, I felt the importance of this line and just left it in the poem.
Later—quite literally in the last several weeks—I took some time to work through the weight of this line with another poet friend. I wanted to know what it meant. He and I went back and forth and finally, I realized that this line was expressing quest to redeem something from my personal tragedies so that I would feel less shame for how I may have been complicit in their lived realities. I think that when we are blindsided by evil, afterward, we abide with questions like “What did I do to cause this?” or maybe “What could I have done to prevent this?” Those questions tend to be answerable as well as unanswerable. In other words, we can often look back and examine the few adjustments we could have made to influence circumstances, but in the end, we can never be certain those adjustments would have changed everything.
In my own story, I carried a question concerning my childhood trauma. I did not remember the trauma until my 30s and, by then, I was living with a violent spouse. Suddenly, I began to wonder if somehow my past trauma has contributed to the reasons my ex-husband abused me. It took me so long to work through that and realize that abuse is not something we earn due to our own dysfunctions. This collection, in particular, does the work of noticing how one cannot grieve well in the midst of tragedy, how tragedy consumes all of this space, and how our psyches grapple to understand our roll in the tragic drama.
EB: How do you think the abuse of religious principles manifests itself as evil? How has this impacted your own religious beliefs?
KAP: Wonderful question. Deep breath. Well…
I grew up in church, in evangelical Christian faith. To be honest, there was so much about it that I loved…but also so much I detested, or that I simply found nonsensical. My core values have been deeply formed by Christian faith and I have taken some concepts like “love your enemies,” “your sins are forgiven” and “judge not” at face value. [And, of course, I could have a whole conversation on the misuse of the word “sin.” But I digress.] Understanding that all of humanity is guiltless, including myself, gives me grounds to never shame, accuse, judge, retaliate or expect retributions…it gives me grounds to let all the birds go free. Though, I will also add that coming around to this guilt-free attitude is always a process of working through my desire to do and be otherwise. Loving my enemies is extraordinarily difficult because “enemy” is often perceptual, and sometimes my enemy is my very self. So, in my opinion, love all around is sanity. Day by day we can become offended, and then not offended, with anyone. We are fickle beings. Best to get lost in acts of love, recognizing that offense is just going to happen in this world, and what I’m offended by today might be cause for celebration tomorrow. Again, let all the birds go free.
All of that said to also say that a great deal of what I have experienced in Christianity has been a far cry from values like these. Christian communities can be some of the most guilt-ridden communities, using guilt, shame, and blame to enslave others mentally, emotionally, and ritualistically. My deepest wounds have been inflicted in Christian circles and it’s taken me years to come back around to embracing any kind of faith again. I’ve wandered a long time through questions [still wandering!!] and am fully aware that embracing faith is not equal to opening myself to people “of faith” that I can’t trust. I will never be able to return to religious sects that devalue certain groups of people or use religious principles as an excuse to wield power over vulnerable souls. Clearly, in my book, this is the way religion is wielded. And, my goodness, I could tell you so many horror stories about such happenings.
Honestly, religion or no religion, any system lends itself to being a tool of illegitimate control. The best thing that I can do, after all of these tragedies, is keep asking my questions into the very heart of my faith and keep myself free from needing control over anything more than my own self-life. I’d rather live in this space of uncertainty about what I believe and, thereby, never assume I know how others should think, feel, or live. Perhaps I should say that I will always be a person “of doubt” rather than a person “of faith.” If you saw my bookshelves, you’d see that I have all sorts of books on various religious perspectives, my favorite being anything written by Abraham Joshua Heschel. I think it’s incredibly important to explore spirituality of all sorts with curiosity, expecting each to offer some clarity and wisdom concerning the practical concerns of everyday life.
Personally, I have no real desire to step back into religious arenas; I experience “god” [and I prefer to use other names for that entity—whatever I need “god” to be at the time] best in nature, among trees; and I embrace a more holistic spirituality than faith circles typically offer. But I also see incredible value in finding people to share life with, life informed by acts of love and kindness and a sense of the divine. But, if love isn’t the program, skip it.
EB: How did you navigate the shift between past and present throughout this collection?
KAP: Painstakingly. Like every other poet building a manuscript (I assume), these poems went through a multitude of orderings. With this final version, there’s a sense of chronology, but also a sense of flashing backward and forward throughout. I wanted the book to feel as though the past was intruding into every present moment. This required sectioning; for instance, “the house” is a set of “my pedophile” poems to help the reader get into the traumatized body of the abused woman after much of her story had been told.
Honestly, I’m not sure how I accomplished this, but I can say it was with a lot of help from Dennis Hinrichsen (a poet friend) and Erin Elizabeth Smith (my illustrious editor).
EB: What was the inspiration behind the use of deer as an ongoing motif?
KAP: Michigan. I live in Michigan. We have too many deer. They are everywhere. Roadkill deer is part of the charm of winter. And I lived in a trailer in the woods for a good portion of the drama in this book where we were frequented by lots and lots of deer.
EB: Tell me more about your choice of language, imagery, and syntax. What words or images did you find yourself returning to?
KAP: Obviously, the deer and birds show up frequently. Again, Michigan is abundant with both. The trailer is re-occurring because I spent years living in a trailer. Even though it was actually quite nice compared to most, it was still a trailer and felt like a long box with cheap walls in the middle of nowhere—a nowhere that entrapped me. Strawberries make appearances—sort of my Garden of Eden forbidden fruit in this drama. I used to do a lot of strawberry picking here in Michigan. I feel like tongue, hand, teeth, kiss, meat, trailer, sex, crave, ammunition, and corn show up a lot. I’m not sure on syntax. I mostly write first person narrative poems, but my formal imagination is all over the place. I let the lines lead me in terms of what they want to be.
EB: What was the intent behind the thematic subset of the “my pedophile” poems? What impact do you believe this has on the collection?
KAP: As I stated earlier, I wanted to get the reader inside the mind/body of the abused woman, to feel the past drama happening in her present like a parallel story line. The subset is titled “the house” and she is “the house” that needs to be cleansed according to the passage from a Matthew Henry commentary on Leviticus 14 quoted at the beginning of the book:
“…but now sin, where that reigns in a house, is a plague there, as it is in a heart.”
And the quote continues. In the book, the woman isthe bird that must be slaughtered and the house that must be cleansed, because she is the one who reveals a past contamination. This is used against her—which is part of my true story. Once I had memories that I had been molested in childhood, my spouse often stated that my trauma was the reason I needed to be “controlled.” Thus, the commentary quote continues:
“Masters of families should be aware, and afraid of the first appearance of sin in their families, and put it away, whatever it is.
…the infected part must be taken out. If it remains in the house, the whole must be pulled down. The owner had better be without a dwelling, than live in one that was infected
…sin ruins families and churches. Thus, sin is so interwoven with the human body that it must be taken down by death.”
There it is…slaughter the one, infected bird. Take down the house. Religion becomes license to isolate and destroy.
EB: Several of these poems mention your children. What do you think is the generational impact of this collection, and what may younger generations take away from it?
KAP: Mostly I think of the impact this situation has had on my kids. All of our lives were thrown into chaos, and it’s taken years to rebuild and reorder. Every day, I have to trust that I’ve modeled an openness, resilience, and courage that inspires them to honor their pain while embracing a new story. I am very close to my kids; we foster good ongoing communication. Healing from this sort of abuse takes time, but we are all getting there.
If anything, I hope a collection like mine encourages others to unmask and write through trauma, to not feel ashamed for becoming prey to evil’s intrusion; to recognize that evil is in the world and all we can do sometimes is try to breathe through its happening; and that it’s enough to be human, to not have what it takes, and live in a troubled body. No shame.
But this book is also about the art of inhumanity. It has so much to say as a warning of what we become when we use guilt, violence, and economic/biological leverage to control another human being. Every generation needs to look back at the inhuman practices of past generations and take time to examine the relational self as well as communal practices to see if there is any temptation to repeat inhumanities.
EB: Tell me more about how Slaughter the One Bird navigates the process of healing. How does language inform this process?
KAP: Ha! I avoided the word “healing” for a very long time. It was too “Christian” and smacked with programming—so many Biblical catch phrases used to dismiss real pain and teach a listener to mask over that pain with religious positivity. This kind of stuff turns my stomach.
Our pain needs to be honored. All the hurting parts of ourselves need to be listened to, attended, fought for, and offered a cup of cold water when thirsty (to use a Matthew 25:35-36 example of love). The darkest regions of our psyches and emotions don’t need flashlights swung in their eyes; they need slow introduction to candlelight, then moonlight, then streetlight, then sunlight. They need nourishment and awakenings. But not too much too fast with too much demand for “healing” to happen. Writing the poems in this book, I wasn’t at all thinking about healing. I was trying to survive my own mind. It was reliving memories it could not remember at an episodic pace. So, I wrote through them and decided that poetry was the best medium for capturing the disordered involuntary mess I was experiencing. Intuitively, I knew that if I didn’t let each part of my broken soul have voice, I would have to reckon with that part of self sometime in the future in a potentially unhealthy way. It turns out that, embracing this process is a true healing. I’ve been writing steadily for eight years now, and the writing is finally slowing down. A clear indication, I think, that there’s been a lot of “healing.”
But the book itself is NOT navigating healing. It’s navigating slaughter. Like a normal bird, the speaker is trying to flap away from the knife of her lived experience. The book ends with some hope, but mostly in the throes of cyclical trauma.
EB: How did you choose to organize the poems in this collection, either chronologically or thematically?
KAP: A little of both. There’s a chronology from childhood trauma to divorce, but it is also interrupted by disorder. Each section is headed by part of the Leviticus passage and that part informs the drama in that section. So, there’s some thematic work as well. It’s incredibly challenges to satisfy the linear needs of a reader while telling a cyclical story of abuse and trauma. I hope this book succeeds.
Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of three chapbooks, Parrot Flower from Glass Poetry Press, still life from PANK Press, and White Goat Black Sheep from Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Salamander, Borderlands, RELIEF, RiverSedge, The Meadow, Ruminate Magazine, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. Priest received an MFA in Creative Writing from New England College and an MA in English Language & Literature from Central Michigan University. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and is a winner of the 2019 Heartland Poetry Prize in New Poetry from the Midwest. She lives in Michigan and teaches at Michigan State University.
Eliza Browning is a student at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she studies English and art history. Her work has previously appeared in Rust + Moth, Vagabond City Lit, Contrary Magazine, and Up the Staircase Quarterly, among others. She is a poetry editor for EX/POST Magazine and reads poetry for COUNTERCLOCK Journal.