“This Bright Darkness”: A book review

Erika Buiter — Staff Writer


Photo from Black Lawrence Press

On Thursday, March 21, Sarah McKinstry-Brown visited campus to read from her recently released poetry collection, This Bright Darkness.

The innocent-sounding title sits above McKinstry-Brown’s name and an artistically rendered silhouette of a girl on the cover of the book. What lies inside deals with darker themes. Split into three sections, “Return,” “Summer” and “Departure,” this collection of poetry uses Greek goddesses Persephone and Demeter to tell the story of a mother grieving over a daughter lost to sexual violence.

The original myth served to explain the changing of seasons for the Greeks. It goes like this: Demeter, goddess of agriculture, has one daughter, Persephone, goddess of spring. Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld, and while there, she eats the seeds of a pomegranate. Now bound to the underworld (thanks to those seeds), Persephone must return to Hades for 4-6 months of the year. Demeter grieves her daughter for those months, creating winter, but when Persephone is home, summer blooms.

Without this context, understanding the stories behind the poems can be difficult. One poem, “Demeter Tells Persephone about the Night That She, in Her Grief, Disguised Herself as a Nursemaid and Tried to Burn away the Baby’s Mortality,” refers back to an obscure part of Demeter’s myth in which she does just as the title says.

With the context to guide the reader’s understanding, McKinstry-Brown’s writing is clear, carefully chosen and undeniably poetic. She works within the summertime of the myth, using her poems to outline Demeter’s grief, Persephone’s guilt and the effect that sexual violence has on mothers and daughters. Poems like “Persephone Advises Girls on the Cusp” invoke images of survival, while “Demeter’s Statement” uses famine and fire to show Demeter’s rage.

These “persona” poems, told in Demeter’s and Persephone’s voices, are broken up by “Chorus” poems, which bring in modern themes to ground the poems in today’s world. The first poem of the book, “Chorus: After 14 Months of Searching, the Girl’s Body is Found Five Miles from Our House,” is a poem based off of McKinstry-Brown’s real-life experience.

Originally published in her first poetry collection, “Cradling Monsoons,” this poem found its place in “This Bright Darkness” after a friend advised McKinstry-Brown to use it as her opener. Its last three lines are striking, describing the decomposition of the girl’s body: “each pearl of larvae working to ease / the burden, to release her / from the body that caught his gaze.”

If read individually, McKinstry-Brown’s poems are filled with vivid imagery, clever line breaks and a poignant voice. Read as a collection, “This Bright Darkness” is a cathartic reading experience that can make women feel heard, and open men up to emotions that female sexual violence victims experience.

Rating: 9/10. Brush up on your Greek mythology and this collection will speak to you in ways you won’t expect.

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