A Review of Gabrielle Bates's "Judas Goat"
by Evan Wang and Ziyi Yan
I feel ashamed for all the moments I’ve been kind knowing kindness is all it would take.
Thank you so much to the people at Tin House for sending me a copy of Gabrielle Bates’s debut collection, Judas Goat! This collection is an anchor dragging itself through the rich, teeming mud of family, girlhood, intimacy, mythology, and religion. Throughout her poems, Bates invites us to explore the depths of human relationships, as well as the interconnectedness between animal and human suffering. Ultimately, Judas Goat reckons with splintering perspectives on love and loving shattered images of people.
Within Judas Goat, we come across frequent attempts to find contentment within failing relationships, often to the point of self-silencing hunger and desire. Suppression is everywhere. In “The Dog,” it takes the form of distance and drifting:
gently scratching up his arm, up and down, up and down,
the blade without which the guillotine is nothing.
The blade could be a dam; the dam could be a buffer; the words could be a wall, or a guillotine without the ability to cut. The blades in this poem sever, not by breaking, but by snaring onto parts of us that we cannot bear to lose. Why do we hold onto things that hurt us? Why do we long for angels when their embrace feels like cold blood on the cock of God? Is tragedy required for more intimacy? In “Dear Birmingham,” the speaker dives deeper into their suppression of love while simultaneously acknowledging the existence of want:
I was once so afraid of my own contentment
I bit my shoulder
and drew blood there
The speaker’s fear of self-servitude and gratification is guided by the past. Our roots impel us to suppress want in our attempt to staunch violence. The ending of Dear Birmingham reads:
I was born in autumn
as it fled underground
to be fed to a body
of water that only swallows.
Bates reckons with the tragic fate of being born only to give oneself to an ever-hungry future. This idea haunts the reader through future poems. In Effigy, the speaker describes how they are trapped under the specter of their heritage, blood, and the crushing loneliness of their Southern home:
What the self forms around
cannot be undone.
Later, in "/Tithes,” the speaker shines the floodlights on their father. In the poem, men are depicted as does and the speaker as a tree. Porchlights shine as men come hungry, wanting to devour the speaker, and still, he sleeps.
Despite the lasting effect of absent parents, the speaker actively resists the transfer of intergenerational trauma by believing in love. In Salmon, one of the final poems in the collection, the speaker finally opens up about an intimate moment with their father in a sushi bar. That meal, however small and insignificant compared to the ever-present violence in Judas Goat, engraves itself within the speaker’s memory. It only grows larger after the death of the father, exploring yet another branch of love and intimacy: that which can be mistaken for grief. In the meat of the collection, the speaker revisits childhood memories of lying in fields with boys and wondering, how are these like blades?
This line exhibits great innocence, which is prevalent in the speaker’s journey. For example, at first, the speaker was naive. In “In the Dream in Which I Am a Widow,” Bates wrote,
I was curious about this forbidden felt language,
Now I’ve made of you a figure
always falling. What sort of monster
does this make me?
In this poem, humans fall in and out of love abruptly. Somewhere along the way, curiosity is satisfied and the speaker seeks deeper intimacy. In the act of loving, monsters are both seen and made: it doesn’t take long for self-deprecation and hatred to fester when love moves past the dorm-room couch of our first kiss. The setting transitions to a parking lot where the speaker is conversing with a boy who is not my boyfriend, running his fingers along the band of my underwear. As the speaker grows older, girlhood becomes the cemetery I liked to visit when the weather was good. Joy fades with curiosity and failed relationships, acting as a buffer between contentment and dread. In Time Lapse, the younger version of the speaker is pulled like a bull toward the loudest reds. That is, until the bull says to the speaker, your neck looks so breakable.
From this arises another manifestation of love’s inherent turbulence: the fear of marriage and motherhood. In The Lucky Ones, Bates writes,
Your ring on my finger,
a single green stone, is alive
in the night, in the blue
glow of numbers above the stove.
Bates vividly describes the make-believe life of marriage for the speaker– that which is only illuminated by the blue glow of numbers above the stove. The setting, coupled with the ring, which is described as only a single green stone, creates a suffocating atmosphere. Still, in other poems, marriage is a savior as well as a tool to grant long lacking economic mobility and stability.
Judas Goat utilizes animals to explore human grace and innocence, as well as our most violent and beastly tendencies. In The Animals We Are, a rabbit is lowered into a scalding pot, a dog devours a pig, and the speaker seeks to pet a pig. All around, the cycle of violence persists. Yet we are most like animals when we love; we are most violent when we care. Grace, one of the things all of us come out of the womb with, spins hand in hand with brutality, but unlike brutality (and much like love), it fades with age. As more and more of the world crack down on us, grace is left abandoned. In its place? Survival.
Even still, within layers of debilitating ferocity, the speaker retains their ability to believe in love. In fact, the speaker constantly rushes toward joy, despite doing everything to hide it. In Saint of Ongoingness, the speaker asks, don’t I deserve joy? The speaker later admits,
I’ve circled this locked church before.
Joy romped inside, the bastard.
Physical barriers are also present in Dance Party at the Public Glasshouse,
In Here is a pleasure
I’m allowing to continue.
Only now, the barrier is a form of containment– the speaker is trying to keep joy within them.
We watch as the speaker finally allows themselves pleasure, referring to "Here" as a proper noun. This prompts the reader to wonder: what is "Here" and what is "There"? What is the speaker’s definition of place?
“Rosification” is one of the most piercing poems in Judas Goat. In this poem, the speaker describes their younger self as someone who cut whatever they [the speaker’s teachers] told me to, but as the speaker grows up, they learn to recognize their own desire instead of cutting it away. In “Rosification,” barriers are present as a piece of fabric, enhancing the intimacy of the moment:
Two young women in love
sat close together at a table nearby,
hands on the fabric
covering each other’s thighs.
Parts of this collection are a rose; a false face: violent when approached too closely, and more lovely to read when under the influence of a lie. Is it the honesty of these verses that make them visceral, or is it Bates’s ability to capture seemingly uncontrollable things, such as life, and ask the reader, what do you want to do with it? See, the red lights of the trucks are on, but with no sound, and this collection is a cacophony of longing and wounds formed by being touched too often and too little all at the same time. Judas Goat mimics the way in which love and intimacy move backward and forward in pursuit of purpose, place, and acceptance. Ravenous and roaring, yet steady like an anchor–brutal like animals–delicate and prickly as a rose–Judas Goat is clenched like a fist around an egg. Like the title’s literal definition, Judas Goat and its speaker are perfectly out of place and grappling with norms that are so socially accepted that any change would mean demise. In Judas Goat, the title poem, the speaker says as much,
I am too dying of what I don’t know.
and here, wrapped within the need to destroy, is a life, effervescent and in constant motion; not burning, but aflame.