In August 2015, Martin suffered an almost fatal run-in with a bear while doing anthropological field work in the Kamchatka mountains, then underwent nearly as brutal an assault during reconstructive surgery in Russian, then French, hospitals—"stripped, strapped down” and stuffed with nutrients via a tube—her “jaw the scene of a Franco-Russian medical cold war.” But the suffering at the hands of surgeons is responsible only for part of her acute alienation. Recognizing her “profound mismatch with society,” she just wants to return to the bear’s territory, and the narrative takes off when she’s smuggled back into Siberia in the back of a car. This leads to similarly riveting moments as she faces down headwinds in -50-degree temperatures, drinks blood tea from freshly slaughtered reindeer, and recalls epiphanic moments from her life “under the volcano with the Evens of Icha”—the most transformative being the one that made her a medka: half human, half bear. As meditative as it is visceral, this is an unforgettable story eloquently, and often magically, told.
The prose of great poets resonates from a special, liminal place all its own, and Clifton’s lyrical memoir—first published in 1976 and reissued with an appreciation by former poet laureate Tracy K. Smith—sings with not just her own voice, but those of her family members as channeled through her “great storyteller” father. Richly cadenced with the rhythms of ordinary speech, these moving stories—punctuated by excerpts from Whitman—profile the generations descended from Mammy Ca’line—abducted from Africa, trafficked to the U.S., and forced to walk North from New Orleans to Virginia at “eight years old”; through her daughter, Lucille Sale, “the first Black woman legally hanged in the state of Virginia”; and on to Clifton’s father, Sam, that “rock” of a man who could barely write but was “an avid reader” and instilled in his daughter the pride of Dahomey women.
Using non-linear storytelling and widely divergent styles and genres, Machado weaves a powerful memoir about her experience of abuse in a queer--specifically queer women's--relationship, a topic rarely discussed. Machado begins by framing the history of documented relational violence between women and then delves into her own story, giving each chapter a different form--from horror to folklore to academic writing--including footnotes, vignettes, and even objects, to step, pivot, and jump back and forth through her relationship and it's unraveling--as well as her own. The result is a complicated, mesmerizing, unsettling, and heartbreaking portrayal of a relationship, one that takes us inside Machado's memory...and this honest and thought-provoking book is sure to stick in yours.