From a young age I recognized something irreplaceable about the kind of writing that wasn’t neatly packaged into a ‘eat me now’ bite. Twelve isn’t a genre, it’s a diary that has come alive. I feel as if I shouldn’t be reading it because it’s like standing in a bathroom with someone throwing up, it’s feels wrong and addictive and horrifying and devastating and all the images Austin conveys burn into my retina and remain there, shocking, uncompromising and vivid. But Austin couldn’t ever look away, so neither can we. Austin can’t wake up tomorrow and call her mom, neither should we deny the hideous simplicity and infinite complexity of finding out the woman who gave you life no longer exists.
If I didn’t know Kindra Austin, I’d want to know her, it’s that simple. Her truth, the unashamed bright well written light on her pain, it makes you want to get to know her, because she’s an articulate, fierce real being and most things are not and she knows it; “our lives a fucking flip-book filled with phony animation, as / though we’ve never been anything more than a / pair of paper dolls pretending to breathe.” (Meditation). Austin isn’t going to play the game, she can’t be anything but herself, take it or leave it. I suspect most people would want a lot more not less; “I’m sorry I think / when I drink / too much.” (Sorry I’m A Bitch)
At the same time, society is afraid to ‘go there’ when it comes to exhibiting sadness and admitting how you really feel rather than the social media version. A very cruel person may say, those who are depressed are going to be attracted to sad works because it validates their feelings and they’re not as alone. There is truth to that, but it’s discounting the value of sadness as a provoker of art forms. ““I love you. I miss you so much, Mom.” I knew it was you. And I knew you were dead. / I know you are dead. / There was a long, crackling silence that made my brain itch. / Then you said, “I think of you all the time.” (A Peculiar Dream I Had). I didn’t even know I was crying reading Twelve until the wetness of my tears began to soak through my clothes.
By artform, I refer to the oft painful pleasure the reader gets in reading something poignant and real, rather than manufactured and glossy. Perhaps it’s the difference between those who revere artificiality and pretention and those who fall in love with someone whose eyes are burning as they stand in front of you showing you the guts that enable them able to go on, even as you can’t imagine how they can. “Mother, what am I supposed to do? I’m so fucking tired of writing about you. / But who am I, if not a writer?” (Your Absence Is a Burglar). This poem alone should win poetry awards, not only for the title, which says everything, but the renting devastation of its truths. Throughout, you get the sense you are witnessing something as evocative and brutal as Joan Didion’s classic; The Year of Magical Thinking.
Nothing I write will really do justice to this collection because it’s not about doing justice, it’s about witnessing the grief and survival and healing of a woman who is stronger than she’d even realized she was, and at the same time, a person who isn’t afraid to be weak or expose the fuck-you’s and holes in her soul. “We had you pushed into the furnace;/ spoiling organs and / leaking skin were / burned away. / Your pulverized bones / resemble beach sand in / Tawas, / fittingly.” (The Color of Beach Sand)
My favorite novels tend to be those with a good deal of tragedy, there is something life affirming in getting to know characters who struggle and don’t have it easy. As a writer, Austin has had her fair share of intense darkness and instead of obscuring her voice it’s just added to it. “I’ve decided that / forgiving trespasses does not heal me. / Leave the forgiving to God. / Some things are simply / unforgivable.” (Last Judgement). How can I as a reviewer really ‘review’ Austin’s experience of losing her mother and all the horror that goes with that? It seems insulting to even review this book for that reason. But because it is so important to read, I must find a way to convey why most people should read it.
That is the gift of someone meant to write rather than someone who simply writes for therapy or catharsis. “Mother’s a full-time drunk, and you / only got a part-time daddy. / Good luck, baby;” (Viscera in Danger (revamp). This isn’t a grown child crying over alcoholic parent, losing a mother, bringing up a sister, reconciling her own family, this is a life reaching for love despite having been hurt so badly it feels impossible to want anything. Austin is above all else, a natural writer, someone who probably came out of the womb with ideas for a book. Her infectious energy is unabated by the grief of losing her mother, because she is able to voice those experiences and write them out, rather than letting them destroy her and they are both humorous, hideous and a reality we rarely permit others to view; “mourning after reflection—in the fingerprinted glass. / My cheeks are hollow / but my gut is bloated / from too much diet soda (I’m watching my figure) and vodka.” (At the Diary Case)
If you think this is no great thing, I can attest that it is. Usually grief leaves you wordless, numb, unable to pick up where you left off. To be able to turn grief into art, that’s the sweet spot that few artists ever attain. It separates the wheat from the chaff and in this case, produces unforgettable, rich and crushingly painful poems and prose, both haunting and beautiful in their agonies. “I see your name card. Your plate has been placed upside down, and your napkin, folded, at the left. There are no utensils, or a chalice set for you.” (Dead Mothers Don’t Dine)
Personally, I want what I read to haunt me, to stay with me, to alter me. I want the author to have the guts to climb out of their anonymity and offer themselves to the reader. Too often these days we read safe, careful, highly edited prosaic poetry and prose that has been sanitized by MFA programs and has completely lost the original thunder of its origins. If you read a poem by Austin you know it’s by her. In a world deluged by would-be writers and frantic Instagram poets, it’s easy to get really tired of reading others feelings and they all merge together. To pick someone out of the crowd just by the timber, intelligence and reflection of their voice, that means they are crafting words into roads and pushing us down them.
Some happiness addicts may not appreciate this book because I guarantee there will be times you will be grieving right alongside Austin. I say to this, we should not look away, we should own the reality of grief and see within it, the truth and experience of its piece of us. Austin isn’t a depressing writer, she’s a truth teller and as such, she sits among the greats who also wrote their truths unapologetically.
It should be mentioned Austin is also wicked clever and at times you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I particularly related to An Emotionless Affair because it’s damn smart, rude and absolutely accurate. For anyone who has gone through the psych-route or been a therapist, you can hear those truisms screaming; “It’s an emotionless affair, the goings-on between patient and psychiatrist.” Austin cuts to the center of truth like a bad-mouthed surgeon who reads 17th century gothic classics on weekends.
Whether you have lost a loved one, been abandoned by your mother, had an alcoholic in the family or not, you cannot be senseless to the yearning humanity of these poems; “I’ll fall asleep tonight by the light of the lava lamp / you gave me last year. / When I was thirty-eight, and/ you were alive.” (Thirty-Nine) and if you do, well then, your diagnosis as sociopath is confirmed, for there is everything we are in these words and it’s impossible to be unchanged witnessing these 12 months; “Old age is a fable; / I was forced to stop counting at 58. / Today, you’re supposed to be 59, / but instead you’re fucking zero.” (Zero).
How do we find something different within poetry today that isn’t affected and trite? People are becoming more pretentious whilst proclaiming greater honesty, the more we share the less we are ourselves. Austin has her finger on the trigger when it comes to shaving the irrelevant and getting to the point. “You know what I think? I think forgiveness is infinitely intermittent, and real acceptance is bullshit.” (Intermittent Bullshit). If you’re tired of reading Self-Help books that promote forgiveness and clean, easy recovery, then take a leaf out of someone who has actually been there and not with bleach and plastic gloves on. I’d quote nearly every poem in this book to illustrate reasons why it has to exist, but that would spoil so much and I’d rather you discovered Kindra Austin’s work for yourself.
And then there’s this; “There are 300 seconds in 5 / fucking minutes, and / 3,600 seconds in 1 hour, / which means there are 86,400 seconds in 24 hours, / or 1,440 minutes in a goddamned day. / All of that translates to a lot of fucking time spent forgetting to remember you’re dead.” (Never Any Good at Math). I’ve reviewed a lot of people’s work but I don’t want to say anything more here. I just want you to read Kindra Austin’s book, Twelve.