Kindra M. Austin
Reviewed by Candice Louisa Daquin
So, here’s how you know something blows your mind. You’re not feeling it. You’re not feeling poetry, writing, literature, people publishing books, publishing, none of it. You are drained. You’ve read and edited and reviewed so much that you’re spent. A good person asks you if you will review their manuscript and you inwardly groan. You think; I really like this person, I want to support them, but I’m so over poetry, I’m all spent, can’t they tell that I wouldn’t know what to say? That I wouldn’t appreciate what they wrote? You say yes because you say yes to people you care about, that’s what you do and you inwardly groan again when you receive the manuscript because you’re still spent, you’re tired, you don’t want to read, everyone’s got a book and you can’t read another book if your life depended upon it. So, you procrastinate until it’s not cool and finally you sit down and force yourself to open it, to find a way to get through it and write SOMETHING because you owe it to them, because they are worth it.
Hours later you’re sitting at your desk. You’re not sick of writing anymore. You’re not over poetry, you don’t hate art, you haven’t read enough. You are sitting in darkness because the day has come and gone and the room is unlit because you haven’t moved from your seat and your bottom hurts from sitting so long in one position but you aren’t going to move, even if you piss on yourself you aren’t going to move until you’ve finished.
Heavy Mental by Kindra M. Austin is such a book. On its cover I would write; This book can cure hatred of reading, loathing of poetry, dislike of art and anyone who ever judged will become quiet and hushed in its presence. Heavy Mental is not really a book, it’s not really a collection of poetry or a publication. It’s something holy and terrifying. I think Heavy Mental is the real thing.
In the silence of the night I read it and tears pour down my cheeks. Ordinarily I would write out quotes from a book I was reviewing and I would intelligently insert them where appropriate and I would write around those quotes until I had the requisite 2/3 pages of a review. I haven’t written down anything. It isn’t because there aren’t things worth writing down. It’s because I’d have to transcribe every page. Every single page. How can you do that?
I’m looking at my screen through fatigued eyes that don’t even register their fatigue, I hate reading online and I haven’t cared a damn. I don’t even know I’m crying but the tears have stained my shirt and left a wet puddle in my lap. My chest feels tight in that way you feel when you hear a piece of music and it reaches its crescendo and you almost feel like you are dying away with it. You can’t put that into words. But you can, and Kindra Austin has, it’s called Heavy Mental.
For the disbelievers among us, let me assure you, for all my bias of knowing Austin personally and appreciating her work previously, I am no push over when it comes to poetry. I generally feel luke warm about 80 percent of poetry out there, and the rest doesn’t blow my mind but it can impress me. I don’t recall the last time my mind was blown from reading something. It may have been as long ago as when I was a kid and I read the classics. But Heavy Mental isn’t like those books. It is visceral, unapologetic, ugly at times, in your face, unrepentant, angry, surviving against the odds, a furious act. Heavy Mental is everything and nothing I can describe, because my mouth is still open and no words come out. I am thunderstruck.
Given how many poetry books specifically I have reviewed over time, I find this beyond comprehension. You can be deeply moved by work, but usually there’s a way to describe that which can give justice to the quality of that work. However, like falling in love, you cannot really do it justice, it is a feeling that is so much more than any of us are capable of rendering and yet, more powerful. I want so much to say things that will do this book justice, but there simply aren’t words yet invented to spell out what Austin has done in the creating of this book.
Quite simply, I have never read anything like this before.
And yeah, that’s kind of huge.
Is it really possible to be original anymore? To surprise? To blow people out of the water? I would have said hardly likely before Heavy Mental, because I read constantly and am rarely stunned by what I read.
I believe this is the reason. Kindra M. Austin is an allusive person. I have known her for some years and I can honestly say I still don’t know her. As much as I feel close to her, and care for her, I feel I am a stranger to her, and she a stranger to me. It is actually only through her writing I feel I get to know even a fraction of her. She is unreachable. Maybe this is what pain does to someone, maybe it’s how she’s always been, but as warm as she comes across, she holds back and I find myself in a boat, bailing water, but not keeping up and the boat eventually sinks before it reaches her island.
Wanting to be close to someone, wanting to know everything about them is usually the landscape of the lover or best friend but with a writer of talent, it’s also something their readers will seek out. Austin is provocative in her real life, she is there, but tantalizingly absent. In her written life she is more present than your wife, your husband, your child. She climbs through her words, over the ink and page, and into your lap, maybe she climbs into your mouth and into your brain and out again through your eye balls. She has that way of marking every inch of air with her presence as a writer that causes you to stay perfectly still as if in rapture, until all has been said and done.
I have felt this way at times with Austin’s previous work. I have long admired how she tackles and talks of grief, loss, pain, hurt, horror, love, redemption, fear, absolution. But whilst I have deeply enjoyed and remembered her previous work, I have not sobbed like a crazy woman at my desk with the lights out. I have not stood up after it was over and felt light headed and like I experienced a seizure. Yes, Austin has seized me, as only a writer of uncanny sentience and prescience can. How many of those exist? We can be accomplished and have a broad scope, a good imagination and a lively engagement with readers but how often does a writer haunt you with her evocation?
It reminds me of a Kate Bush poster for her LP The Sensual World. She is reaching out to her audience, all beautiful and alluring, the palm of her hand laid toward us, the slim arm receding back into her mystery. For some reason if I were to put an image outside of Heavy Mental to describe its effect upon me, that would be it. Austin has engaged my highest senses, she has wormed her way past my safety zone, she has crawled through the comfort and become a totem of her own inventing in my mind palace and I know I can never expunge the effect she has had.
There are only a handful of books I have ever read that have achieved this. They stay with me like dirt under my finger nails, blood in my veins, emotion beyond my heart. I can’t even describe to you why they have that lingering influence other than to say, it’s like asking someone why they fell in love with one person over another? You just do. You sense it. You feel it. You are it. For me, Austin has achieved the impossible with Heavy Mental, she has infiltrated the psyche of her reader and forced them to wake up to her reality, witness the kaleidoscope of her life, and then tuck it all back into its velvet box and bequeath it forever. My hands shake as I consider what I can possibly say in response to reading such a collection. Surely everything would be pointless. But it is not enough to ask people to simply read without some idea of why I demand it. So, I shall do my best, a few days later, when I have been able to turn the light on again and stop my hands from shaking.
Heavy Mental is a eulogy of a life not yet fully lived, it stands a testament to life thus far through the pen of Austin, a writer of acute truth. You will not be able to handle some of it. It will sting. It will burn. It may even cause you to exclaim out loud. But stay with it. Follow her trail. Be loyal to her because she has literally pulled out her guts and heart and laid them carefully on white linen to bleed across these pages. If you cannot respect that, then do not read poetry like this, for this kind of poetry? This is what poetry was invented for. It is the poetry of the soul, lain bare and pulsing beneath our useless resuscitation. For nothing can keep it alive, except its own damn torment and will to endure.
On a very superficial level I can point to lines, poem titles that just blow me the fuck away. They in of themselves are masterpieces and I loathe that word, but what else suffices? Or describes something so damn perfect it’s sickening. Have you ever read a book where you are nodding and laughing and hating and screaming throughout? You can’t believe the author can be so clever. So absurdly intuitive and insightful, that they can engage on levels you didn’t even know you could engage at, that they can talk about your own subconscious with greater alacrity than you could yourself.
We Mislead, You And Me, is one such poem title, and there are lines after lines after lines that leave me reeling. It’s not just that Austin as gifted a poet or writer as you can get (she is) but she has an intuition that leads her beyond this life, into human mythology and race memories we don’t even know we possess. “Void vessels tell different truths—/ look at me. / See,/ I’m right and tight / with an empty rib cage,/ plastic teeth, and eyes that never blink.” (We Mislead, You And Me). I don’t want to analyze every line, because whilst I could so easily, I think picking apart the whole does it an injustice, it is like making love, you don’t just take the kiss or the touch on a nipple, you take the WHOLE and you make it your own. So it is with Heavy Mental, but that said, consider this piece and see how many things are illustrated and waiting in just a few lines.
The title speaks of misleading, the you, the I, the universe, fate, the sear, the error, the survival. The lines talk of emptiness (void) being only within a husk (vessel) without control, differing outcomes (truths) how we must see (can we ever see?) we are right even as we drown, even as we don’t own our bones (empty rib cage) even as we are false and fake and manufactured we know more than what is real. There is such a depth to her layers of meaning here you could literally peal them back one by one until you exhausted yourself. She may seem to say what she says, but Austin’s meanings are multi tactile, they stick to you, you question them, you question yourself, you masticate her truths and you come away knowing you could never, ever, ever replicate her depths.
In many ways, for all her joie de vie, Austin is an introvert who comes alive on the page. I sense that even if you were in a bar with her, she would be laughing and toasting but she would also be absent. It is only in her writing you get to know a little of her, and even then, watch out, she’s always faster. And if you believe reading poetry or fiction that is sad, sometimes depressing, and sometimes unredeemable, is a negative experience, think again. Truth can never be wrong. It can be off putting but only because of how we respond to it, not because of its worth. It’s worth is undeniable. And so it is with Austin’s writing. Even if I did not like emotional, sometimes sad poetry, I would find in Austin’s courage, an undeniable truth that I could not look away from or dismiss. For this reason, Austin’s work justifies the very genre of Poetry and that alone is incredible.
You know what I really hate? I hate that we live in a world where if someone dies people expect us to get over it, or at least get on with it, and not really talk about it so much and not really bring it up so much. I think that kind of attitude is an anathema to living, because we’re denying existence even as it has passed on, it did exist, and it impacts us fiercely. To try to put it into a coffin and bury it, isn’t going to keep it from us, and our entire society seems to shrink and attempt to force us forward without a glance backward, as if by doing so, we turn to salt, or curse ourselves or stay in the past.
Whilst of course, we must move forward, I believe it is possible emotionally to move forward and backward through time, if we imagine time is merely a concept rather than a finite. As such, losing one’s mother at a young age, in abject horror, is not going to be neatly packed away and taken out every anniversary to tidily lament over. I admire the people who are messy about it, who howl and scream and bay and throw themselves to the floor. At least they feel. At least they are willing to. Austin doesn’t do that, she is a neat, orderly person on the outside and yet, you crack open her mind and read her poetry and you find the girl she really is, a girl who has lost her mother, who is talking to her mother, who is screaming for her mother. “In the kitchen, / my mother was dead with no religion. / She’d bumped her head, / and painted the floor.” (Red Paint And Beach Sand).
If we cannot appreciate or relate to that, we may have lost along the way, our empathy, and our humanity. I have been told confessional poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were self-indulgent and not everyone wants to know the inner mechanisms of a person’s heart and mind. It is better, I have been told, to be able to write a wider, more universal scope. To write poems of happiness when you are crying, and songs of joy when you are hurting. To write about trees and bees and mountains and streams. Of cities and humanity and workforce and evolution. But so many poems I read that contain such vast subjects, appear to be no more than writing prompts. Written by bored people who have too much time on their hands and wish to softly compete with each other to see who has the best dish du jour. I find that kind of poetry really dull and empty ultimately, like a filled in crossword. Oh well done, well done! Now move on.
Confessional poetry however, is no more self-indulgent than if we deny our shared experience on this earth. We have all witnessed or will witness death and loss. We have all ‘been there’ literally or figuratively. As such, how can we say this is an individual’s confession? But rather, a shared theme among us all? And as such, if an individual were to write about herself, say, she would not be self-indulgent but metaphorical in her opening of the universal pollen in which we all fertilize. When a woman writes of her pain, she speaks for all women, when a human writes of their life, they use a trilingual tongue we have all held in our mouths. Austin isn’t just writing about her mother, and loss and pain, she is writing the story of us all. She is writing about life and about death. It doesn’t get more important than that.
So, if you have read Austin’s work before and you inwardly think; Oh, not another book about death! Consider what you are saying. And by looking at death, by examining its outcomes, and what it leaves behind, we learn about life. As we die, we live, as we live, we die, and Austin has intuited this for a very long time. As in her poem, Dead Mother And Sisters Breath, Austin wraps the life of her sister, with the death of their mother, the generation, the progression, the experience is dissected and finally understood, as much as any of us can, and Austin in some ways is that faceless, quiet woman who speaks through her allegories and metaphors, but she doesn’t just speak, if you listen for her signs and symbols, she’s an entire kingdom, and she fucking roars.
There is an eroticism to Austin’s work that I have always picked up on and at times her succinctness’ and ability to convey hard truths is breathtaking. I don’t honestly know how she does it, I feel she must channel this type of writing through multiple layers, because it’s never just what it seems and it’s never missing a beat. I also appreciate the way she knows language so intuitively that her endings are often not endings at all but questions we should consider, openings to more avenues. She is the opposite of shut down and sewn up. Her work is a living, beating, breathing testimony to her mother, to herself and to all who have lived and witnessed.
Finally, there is a maturity to Heavy Mental that exceeds Austin’s previous work. That doesn’t negate the value of prior works, but points to her ever-advancing evolution as a writer. I doubt I will ever truly know Austin, I think she has her world and few are admitted in, but when I read her writings I want so desperately to inhabit the same air she breathes and learn how she came to exist; “Layer under layer I see, / and outside the window, / others be.” (I Peel Paper). If there is an ultimate compliment it is this; Curiosity and desire redouble their efforts, to know more of the woman behind the words, long after you have glutted yourself on her reading and yet it will never be enough. That’s how you know, she will reign a long, long time and you will continue to sit up and pay attention.
“Mom told me I was smart and brave. / She was proud that I was hers— / the day I was born, / her soul was saved.” (The Truth).