Book Reviews

Part Animal Born of Lake: On Anne Haven McDonnell’s Breath on a Coal

by Sarah Giragosian | Contributing Writer

Breath on a Coal
By Anne Haven McDonnell
Middle Creek Publishing, 2022  

The title of Anne Haven McDonnell’s debut collection, Breath on a Coal, is drawn from Jean Valentine’s “Home,” a poem she has “loved for years and carried like a talisman on the back of [her] tongue.” For Haven McDonnell, the “intimacy” of breath “keeps an ember of hope smoldering and warm. Poetry can also carry such breath.” 

Reckoning with the crises of our time— environmental, social and political—Haven McDonnell considers poetry to be a language of inquiry that accommodates mystery, while also helping her to map her “own queerness and place on earth.”  She writes, “In a time of climate crisis and accelerating loss of species and unraveling ecosystems, I lean into poetry as a way to witness and speak towards this moment, towards grief and wonder in relationship with the living more-than-human world.” An “other”-oriented text, Breath on a Coal, with its promiscuous curiosities, its investments in recovering our own animality, articulates the disorders of our human subjectivities. In this way, she imagines a state of being that positions us in a non-dominant relation to each other and the ecosystem. 

The sensations of witnessing and being witnessed that Haven McDonnell describes grounded my own experience of reading Breath on a Coal, which is to say that I found myself slipping readily into the multi-valent, often inchoate identities of her speakers again and again, connecting with them across difference, even across the boundaries of species. That slippage of identity when we read from the perspective of another “I” is always a charged space, the risky and potentially fraught terrain of persona, particularly when the persona is an animal. How to do justice to animals since each has a different sensorium, style of communication, timescale, and spatial framework than humans? How to do justice to non-human lives in a Western context when its colonial, racist, and sexist projects have been tied up with the discursive construction and elevation of the “human” at the cost of those deemed inhuman or unnatural? 

These questions have ethical and political stakes that Haven McDonnell reckons with in her collection. For her, persona is a space of mutual creatureliness, a site of visceral, imaginative possibility. Winner of the Halycon Poetry Prize from Middle Creek Press and author also of the chapbook Living with Wolves (Split Rock Press), the poet often adopts an elliptical and exploratory “I,” engaging with queer and posthumanist subjectivities that embrace the queer discontinuities of the body. In her prose poem “Raised by a Lake,” for instance, Haven McDonnell constructs a “she,” who “was part boy, part girl, part animal born of lake, drifting in a canoe, paddle across her lap, dripping into the black mouth of stars.” Dazzling is the fluency among and between genders and species, lacustrine and cosmic realms. The poem describes both a metaphysical and an ecological state of interconnection, raising the question of whether it is in childhood that we are most at home with the self’s queer animality, its lines of contingency and continuity with other creatures and environments. While the child, or “animal born of lake,” is not entirely separate from the domesticating influence of the human (she has a “family sleeping in the wooden house”) and has “learned what was forbidden could sear like lightning,” the lake “saves” her, teaching her about alterity (“In that darkest dark, remember?”), and the state of being porous, permeable (“I can enter, she thought”). The child also intuits the First Law of Ecology: that all beings are interconnected in complex ways, although the ecological reality is not represented in such terms. 

Haven McDonnell is elegant in her perceptual acuities, as another one of her speakers, observing a flock of pigeons, akin to a “murmuration,” gleans insights about the entanglements of species and individuals: “There is no single loss . . . One loss is every loss.”  Echoing Barry Commoner’s First Law of Ecology, Haven McDonnell emphasizes the networks of connection upon which all species rely. Change one being or material and you may change an entire ecological system: it’s a law that our species flouts at its own peril, and it is a law that Western culture both ignores and violates. 

And yet Haven McDonnell’s collection, while ecopoetic, is not just another elegy for our burning earth. Yes, there is grief in Breath on a Coal: grief for a dying parent; grief for species threatened by the sixth mass extinction; and grief for the history of suffering that European philosophy and its racist, homophobic, and imperial practices have inflicted on animals and certain categories of human animals (ie: gendered, racial, ethnic, or sexual “others”).  But Breath on a Coal is not paralyzed by grief, even while it is at times subsumed by it. As the collection shows, being subsumed by grief and being paralyzed by grief are not synonymous. In this historical moment, grief seems to be the base note of our political lives, and yet Haven McDonnell does not surrender to it. More to the point: the collection is a primer on living: on the vital and vitalizing dimensions of being in relation with others. It’s also concerned with the sensorial disconnect that humans experience at their own peril and teaches us about a style of embodied consciousness and attention that is keyed into the wonders and diversity of the ecosystem and its creatures. Even while “everyone is writing poems about the apocalypse” (the title of one of Haven McDonnell’s poems), her speaker is observing and responding to a snow-filled joy-romp while her dog “like a seal . . . dives / and rises through banks” and the speaker’s “animal in [her] body loves to move in [her] deep heat.” This is a rich and fertile site, this mutual animality, this interspecies connection.

A text that dramatizes the potentially liberatory discontinuities of selfhood (as opposed to the fiction of a unified self that the Overculture promulgates to advance productivity under capitalism and nationalistic interests), Breath on a Coal does not erase difference or submit to an anthropocentric lens. In the poem “Slow,” the speaker experiences the vertiginous awe of beholding deep time in the Grand Canyon and the stars that “remind / [her] of what [she] can’t get near. Clocks of fire.” Across the temporal and ontological distance, she turns to her “despair for the burning world” but can “admit a kind of comfort” in the prospect of a “time / without us, vast and quiet.” Such a prospective (and former) nonhuman world still contains cells and vital matter and reminds her that “there are kinds of knowing too slow / for breath.”  Recognizing the epistemological and corporeal limits of the human, her speaker relaxes into a state of wonder as she watches a “black slug slowly / sheathe along its trail of slime . . . mucus, starlit on the black road.” How can we not rejoice in this exquisite salvo to primordial slime, a scalar inversion of the poem’s opening image of a speaker telescoping out to the stars studding the night sky?

In the textured regions of these perceptual experiences, we find Haven McDonnell salubriously problematizing our species’ costly obsession with mastery.  Being open to dismastery, conscious of the cognitive and perceptual limits of the human species, we can exult in the “places / on earth that only rivers know” but also be wary of our tendencies to overlook patterns and changes in the ecosystem, like bugs— “the engines of the world”— that we are “slow to miss.” At what cost? At whose? Critical questions while insect populations have fallen sharply in recent decades due to habitat loss and the use of pesticides. 

Again and again, these poems pay witness to their readers: across the distance of identity and experience, I’m able to locate myself—my preoccupations and anxieties, my joys and amazements—in Breath on a Coal. Sensuous and strange, the collection reminds me of the pains and joys of my own gender-queerness in childhood and feel—like a welcome jolt— still: “I never grew out of it, the blurred / edge of gender, the freedom / of in-between, both, neither.” Haven McDonnell’s mapping of undoing is tied up—theoretically and materially—with the care of our planet and species. As we know, constructions of the “human” have long depended on the speciesist demarcation of the non-human, which legitimized the plunder of the earth and violence against those deemed “unnatural,” including indigenous and queer communities, among others. Paying witness to the wreckage and marvels of our planet, Breath on a Coal stakes out sensuous (post-) lyric territories, recovering the reparative and queer aspects of being that are tied up with our own—and each other’s—survival. 

Anne Haven McDonnell lives in Santa Fe, NM where the high desert meets the southern-most Rocky Mountains, the Sangre de Cristo range. She teaches as associate professor in English and Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her poetry has been published in Orion Magazine, The Georgia Review, Narrative Magazine, Nimrod Journal,, and elsewhere. Her poems won the fifth annual poetry prize, second place in Narrative Magazine’s 12th Annual Poetry Contest, and second place for the Gingko international ecopoetry prize. Anne received a special mention for a 2022 Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook Living with Wolves was published with Split Rock Press in fall 2020. Anne Haven holds an MFA from the University of Alaska, Anchorage and has been a writer-in-residence at the Andrews Forest Writers’ Residency and the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. She helps edit poetry for the journal Breath On A Coal was the recipient of the 2021 Halcyon Award from Middle Creek Publishing.

Sarah Giragosian is the author of the poetry collections Queer Fish, a winner of the American Poetry Journal Book Prize (Dream Horse Press, 2017), and The Death Spiral (Black Lawrence Press, 2020). The craft anthology, Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems, which is co-edited by Sarah and Virginia Konchan, was recently released by The University of Akron Press. Sarah’s poems and creative non-fiction have appeared in such journals as Orion, Ecotone, The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, Tin House, and, among others. She teaches in the department of Writing and Critical Inquiry and English at the University at Albany-SUNY.