by Heather Rounds
Ink Press Productions, 2017
69 Pages, $13.00
She Named Him Michael by Heather Rounds, starts out with a small family who spend their days tending to crops and livestock. A mother, her son, Shotgun Foot, and his wife, Claire, in whose days “everything existed, endless without beginning or end” (12). Until it all ends with the war and and in that the death of the youngest son, Shotgun Foot’s brother. Both events take place away from the farm, but not outside of the understanding of those on the farm. The slight creak from floor boards indicate the change, as if it were a change to their own bodies.
Soon even their own bodies challenge their expectations. “(Claire) would have liked children, too, but inside her she could grow no more bones and a wind scoured her depths. When she tried to make bones, only blood came.” (16) Here Rounds begins to share the different ways each member of a family copes with grief. Shotgun Foot, a man in need of control of his surroundings, decided that in order to have children, all that needs to happen is that Claire must simply eat better. This leads him to slaughter a chicken, but the blow doesn’t take. The chicken survives, breathing through its wound and ambulatory. Claire chooses to cares for the chicken. Here, she gives him his name.
The book is written in small portions of prose, chapters divided into sections, divided into smaller attentions: lists, scene, dialogue, memory. The story leads the reader from moment to quiet moment without flourish in order to emphasize that life is filled with wonders which sometimes go unnoticed.
Claire prefers it that way. Shotgun Foot takes Michael to a freak show in the fair, Tent of Nature’s Mistakes, and Claire has to turn away the bird is made into a spectacle. She still feels her own wounds, the loss of her brother-in-law, her inability to bear children—and the gasps at Michael’s survival, “He’s alive!” reminds her of that which exists that shouldn’t, that which does not exist which should, and what makes one a miracle and one a mistake.
Michael’s is not a story of magic or fantasy. Rounds accurately lets the reader know that Michael, despite his historical terminology, is no miracle, just badly wounded. This is a story about a chicken, more faceless then headless, and the journey its survival takes a married couple, from local to national fair circuit. This is a story about a family suffering and looking for an assist, and believed they find it in a mutilated chicken.
The magic comes from the details, the gross details:
In one scene, Claire is looking down at the open wound of Michael and imagines the fatal wounds of her brother-in-law. In another, as they ride in a car, the mucus spurts up from the chicken’s open neck and lands on to the dash board like a slug. Claire feeds the chicken by squeezing feed and water from an eye dropper into its neck hole or not only will it starve, but it will also choke on the phlegm rising up in its esophagus. Unsparing on these details, it reminds the reader that to love and care for someone/ something means to love the wounds and all their weepings. Claire even realizes this, “The sigh said if not bones then this absence of bones will do.” (31)
Any hint of fantasy comes from the long view that Rounds provides as context to the human suffering: the farm is in the midst of a valley that took ages to develop, below the house rests the long buried bones of a dinosaur. The weeds that tirelessly strangle their crops will sprout long after their deaths. These interminable processes of nature show the family as vulnerable, and the any attempt to understand, nurture, and control anything nature throws their way are inevitably tragic.
Claire, Shotgun Foot, and their mother all deal with the mystery of the world, which Rounds shows the reader so clearly. But though we know the setting much better than the characters, Rounds’ use of repetitive and sensual descriptions, as well as bizarre images aid the reader to empathize with the characters and their confusion.
Near the end, Shotgun Foot’s attempts to control nature has shown him as helpless and boneless, a reflection of Claire’s original position earlier in the story. Claire stands above her husband, strong with the responsibility from caring for the vulnerable bird. Claire dumps an armload of readings on Shotgun Foot, collected from a defected arcade gypsy. And each of the readings say the same things: At first, one may be reluctant or unable to witness one’s own shape—the length, width, thickness of it—as an artifact among all others, endless. It all has a beginning and end. Your beginning will end, too. You will end, too.
This is the story of a real headless chicken, and his real owners. These events, though, are colored in by Rounds’ imagination. Folk stories are meant to be repeated, but it is up to the teller to make them interesting. With this blend of fact, imagination, and legend, Rounds gives the post poetry, post prose reader a true folk story that can be passed down from reader to reader, gibing each the chance to wonder—did this really happen?