By Remi Recchia
Hematology by Kristin LaFollette.
Harbor Editions, 2021. 106 pages.
Located in a place in which the natural and medical realms collide, Kristin LaFollette’s first full-length collection, Hematology, emerges. Hematology is a mesmerizing map of grief and heritage. It drips with the color of leaves, tendons, fruit, bones. While chronicling the loss of sister figure and body, LaFollette balances perfectly narrative and lyric.
This balance is evident in the poem “Adult Teeth,” which opens with the following:
Over many days and months,
I felt your bones slowly break &
split, the pieces pulled back
together and fused as you grew (38)
“Adult Teeth” details the growth of a body outside the speaker’s—a friend’s, perhaps, or a younger sibling’s—but that the speaker also feels as inside herself. The shared “plasma & iron” is a link that pervades throughout the collection as the speaker fixates on the blood of friends, family, and animals. In this way, Hematology speaks to the interconnectedness of the characters populating the narrative thread(s). While “hematology” literally means the study of the physiology of blood, it is also, in the case of LaFollette’s poetics, the marriage vow “in sickness and in health.” In sickness we are one, in health we are one; in both, we are savior and casualty.
The key to interpreting the collection is the line, “blood in roots and / roots in blood,” offered to the reader as a sly finale to the poem “Symbiosis” (33). Roots are, in the world of Hematology, a metaphor for both family heritage (the past) and growth (the future). Wrapped up in the speaker’s exploration of family heritage is motherhood, racial demarcation, and gender. As the speaker cares for her mother’s present reality in “Genetic, Part II,” she is simultaneously caring for her own future reality: “What I know now: My skeleton is burdensome like my mother’s / / quick to take on water and slow to heal” (25). “Genetic, Part II” also bestows upon the reader a rare instance of humor—an ironic, bittersweet humor?—when LaFollette compares the “angry / and aggravated” parts of her mother’s spine to words that “people have probably / used to describe” both of them before (25). And, later, in “The Sea-Thing Child”: “I’m sorry I can’t / explain the color / of my skin” (49). What does it mean to belong to a family? In what ways, seen and unseen, do we lay claim to our own?
The speaker directly addresses her ancestors, who act as spiritual guides, in “Women,” the poem that opens the portal to LaFollette’s internal galaxy. “When I think of you,” the speaker confesses, “first you’re honeycomb / & milkweed, then a stack of white plates / with blue borders—” (15). The speaker’s reverence for the women that have come before her embeds itself in all the poems that follow this opening. And speaking of confession: LaFollette risks an interesting formal maneuver in “A Confession, Part II” (32). Following seven stanzas comprising lines of severe brevity, LaFollette inserts a section break and gives the succeeding line fourteen words, double the amount of the longest line in the first section. This manipulation of form emphasizes the freedom of confession; it mimics the relief one feels when something has been lifted from the chest previously constricted with secret-keeping.
In terms of form, too, LaFollette is generous with the em-dash. Multiple poems in Hematology end with an em-dash, and while, in some books, that move is overzealous, LaFollette pulls it off because it speaks to the interconnected web of the body and human relationships. The poems, as with the memories of friends and family, do not end, though the course of their lives may be interrupted. Hematology, in its truest sense, is not a collection of poems. It is one poem posturing as many, trusting the reader to bathe in the golden light of lineage where “we are all / in danger of rupturing” (50).
Remi Recchia is a trans poet and essayist from Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a Ph.D. student in English-Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. He currently serves as an associate editor for the Cimarron Review. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Remi’s work has appeared in Columbia Online Journal, Harpur Palate, and Juked, among others. He holds an MFA in poetry from Bowling Green State University.