I have never been an eager reader when it comes to all things written, preferring instead to write so, when I was offered a copy of Mary Mackey’s most recent poetry collection, The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, in exchange for a review, I was a little hesitant to accept. But, since I always love trying something new and am never disappointed by how much I learn when I step outside my comfort zone, I decided to snatch up this chancing opportunity.
The first thing I connected with in The Jaguars that Prowl our Dreams is the author’s words from the preface: “I have resisted the urge to revise them (the poems), limiting myself to the correction of minor errors left over from the days when proofreaders used a blue pencil and a spell check involved thumbing through an unabridged dictionary.”
As a writer, nothing is harder for me then to walk away from old writing and let it stand as is, in memory of where I began. Since the poems in this book span forty-four years, I love that Mary Mackey was able to leave her writing to speak for itself and let me, the reader, watch as her writing style and exploration of topic subtly change.
The first forty-seven poems in this book are new poems split into two parts. The first part, The Culling, reminded me of Rick Bragg’s rich works of life in the deep South as the poems tell stories about the author’s Kentucky relatives. The second part, Infinite Worlds, explores the lush worlds and secrets inside us. The final part of The Jaguars that Prowl our Dreams are seventy-eight selected poems compiled from the author’s previous seven poetry books ordered from oldest to newest.
The Jaguars that Prowl our Dreams opens up with an eye-opening story about Aunt Ebbie, who shucked forty acres of corn at the age of seventy-five standing in the pouring rain despite having lost two limbs to a hog. While that sounds gruesome, as each poem flows into the next, revealing more about this woman and her family, the prose celebrates strength instead of offering up cringes.
I enjoyed the rich writing in Mary’s older poems, from explorations on what to tell a man when he tells you that you have the softest skin, to travels in the fertile Amazon, to a beautiful battlefield of regrowth during the Civil War.
Inspired by her travels in Brazil, Mary mixes several poems with phrases and lines in Portuguese (not to worry, the English translations are right there alongside each poem). The foreign language gives a new depth to the pieces as they evoke imagery of dry deserts and fertile minds. I was reminded of Alexander McCall Smith’s books of dry Botswana, Southern Africa, in Mary’s descriptions of golden, crusty land and longings for grey clouds and black nights.
Since I believe in natural beauty and honesty, I felt deeply the poems compiled from Mary’s book, Skin Deep. The first piece, Extractions, follows a girl into womanhood where “they sewed me up with silk slips and French heels” but all the spandex girdles cannot hide all she has lost from herself, though society sees her as a perfect hostess.
Since millions of people are down with fevers due to coronavirus, I was fascinated to be reading this book where many of the poems explore dream worlds and illusions. I wondered how many people awaken from their fevers to see it “broken into a thousand bits/with no way to put it back together/and I could never explain/how kind it had been/and how foolish we were to fear it.”
There is sadness in this book, a woman’s tears. There is happiness in this book, love for oneself. There are lies in this book, lies that could be truths. There is a deep love apparent for the earth and all its animals. Enter a world where “the world/becomes a pane of glass/so brittle I can break it/with my tongue” yet a world of words that is a vibrant whirlwind of emotion where woman thrives, and dancing is “the longest/foreplay/in the western/world.”
Though I enjoyed the two hundred and sixteen pages of this book as a whole, the story told within The Culling remains my favorite. I live on a rural country road, where the gravel roads are all named after settlers of long ago, so reading about life on a Kentucky farm reminded me of standing up in my neighbor’s family graveyard, listening to him tell stories about his ancestors.
The poetry in this book is not uplifting, but it is inspiring and evocative, and weaves a compelling wreath of emotions if only you will follow it to thought-provoking places. The Jaguars that Prowl our Dreams is now a book I am proud to have on my bookcase for a long time to come.
Header image used with permission of the author.