Book Review

Perhaps Quoheleth was correct that there is nothing new under the sun, but after reading Anne Kaier's In Fire many readers will certainly feel that they have experienced something new. Not only does In Fire prove that a book need not be long to have an impact, but it comes as close as any recent book of poetry in putting the reader into another human being's skin.

The skin that Kaier would like to have us try on is affected by icthyosis which Kaier describes in detail elsewhere.

It's named for the dark scales that lie with varying degrees of thickness across my whole protesting body; ichthys is Greek for fish. Although as many as one in five thousand people have a mild form of ichthyosis, called ichthyosis vulgaris, my form—lameller ichthyosis—is very rare; only about twenty Americans a year are born with it. It's lifelong. There's still no cure for ichthyosis and there probably won't be until an effective gene replacement is developed. A genetic mutation, not well understood, is responsible. Like the gene for blue eyes, the ichthyosis gene must be passed on from both sides of the family. It's recessive, so my parents, a handsome couple, had no idea they carried this gene until I was born.

Kaier lures the reader into this skin very skillfully. In the second poem "The Dressing Table" the poet as teenager watches her mother's beautification ritual at the dressing room vanity, "willing her to bring me into the game/ where women hunt men". The poet contrasts the satin of her mother's dress with her own "rough, red hands" zipping them up, but at this point, despite the initial poem (which takes place in a doctor's office), the reader still does not realize the extent of the narrator's physical situation. What Kaier has managed to do is set up the dialectic between mother and daughter that constitutes the underlying structure of the book.

The final poem of the first section, "Forecast" is a sort of kaddish for her mother; yet even as she sits by her mother's body the poet says,

I'm told
not to harry your spirit,
to let you go,
but I still feel the brush
of your skull
on my breast.

Of course, she cannot let her mother go, or perhaps more accurately, even in death her mother will not let her go.

The second section of the book is dominated by one six-part poem " Sunday Night Lover". Even as this poem opens itself on a bedroom love scene, the narrator's mother's presence insinuates itself in:

When your hand stroked my thigh,
warmth deep as pain
stung between my legs, and
my flesh remember
the old green bathroom

my body lay in mother's hands
on summer nights
when she slapped cold cream
on the fissures in my baby skin

This scene is ironically anticipated in the section called "Forecast" in "Skull" the final poem of the first section. With a shift of speaker and a recognition of the Shakespearean pun on dying,

What will your dying be like
there in your lover's bed?
Will you let me touch you...

the reader might look back and seen her mother as a Marley's ghost hanging over the poet's present life.

Not surprisingly, the third section of In Fire open's with the lines "My mother's voice won't leave me when it dies." This final section of the book is an exorcism of that voice and an attempt by the poet to accept her own body, a body that, despite ostensible care, her mother could never accept.

Perhaps more than any other poet of the 1990's Kenny Fries broke the taboo against bringing disability into his poems, writing about his own unconventional body in work like Anesthesia and his autobiography Body Remember . Kaier is the true heir to Fries insisting on embodied poems, inviting the reader in:

Like a shrimp, I am veined
You must peel me
To taste my fruit.

And again:

In middle age, I fold into my grandmother's body,
nipple by nipple,
hip by hip
arm by warm, fleshy arm.

The reality of the exceptional body is not one to be circumvented by appeals to the spirit or universal principals. It must be faced in laying out the particulars. Kaier's is poetry of the flesh. At various points throughout the book her skin is a carapace, a snakeskin, and scales. In "Body Parts" she says,

For days, my skin stretched so taut
across my ears, it pulled my flesh apart,
my glasses sat
on a ridge of rusted blood.

Within just a few pages, she makes the reader acutely aware of the fact that - like it or not - body is an integral part of identity. The acceptance of this identity is one that is made extremely difficult (complicated) by the constant presence of the mother's voice, which is not only the voice of a particular individual but of the inherited views of society. In one of the most chilling metaphors of the book, Kaier's mother recounts how when a young Catholic girl, her neighborhood was attacked by the Klux Klux Klan. The author is incredulous that her mother would not have been afraid:

I gave it up, turned to my brother:
Why wouldn't she have been afraid?
he smiled. She was a pretty girl, he said.
she knew they wouldn't hurt a pretty girl.

In addition to insistence on embodiment, one of the amazing things about In Fire is that it is a world without men. This is a realization the reader makes only after having finished the book and thinking about it. The doctor figure, the only male physically present in the book, vanishes after the first few poems. It is as though we have just been walking through Charlotte Perkin's Gilman's Herland and not even realized it until the journey was over. The quietness of the realization is what is amazing.

There is a scene in Joanna Russ' The Female Man in which a woman from the future society of Whileaway where no men exist visits the past and is subjected to a television interview. In the course of the interview, she is asked about men:

JE: What men?
MC: What men? Surely you expect men from our society to visit Whileaway?
JE: Why?

One could ask the same question of Kaier about In Fire but in this case there is an answer to the why. The answer is not to men but to other women, especially other women writers - to show that it can be done. Over twenty years ago writer Caroyn Heilbrun suggested that one of the major problems facing women writers was that they had no models who were not men. What Kaier has given us is just such a model and it is a model that has no need of men - and this is especially important - even as foils.

In Fire accomplishes all the things that one could ask of a chapbook-sized volume: it is skillfully written, it continually surprises the reader, and it forces us to confront important issues. It is a book that deserves to be read. Not only does it reward the reader on each subsequent reading, but it makes one wonder, what Kaier will have in store for us next.

Copies of In Fire is available either either by contacting the author at or by writing to Skintype Press, 2406 Pine St., Philadlephia, PA 19103. More information about the book is also available on Kaier's webiste at