Poetry Review: Nightmares & Miracles by Michelle Bitting
Michelle Bitting’s Nightmares & Miracles goes straight into the center of things that matter, but that is not surprising. Bitting is a poet who never wastes our time. She helps us to understand what is magic and horrible in our world as the title of this collection suggests. There is a lot going on here, but what affected me most dramatically was the way that she helped me see and re-understand suicide, and with that understanding helped me to understand the fragility of life and thus its importance. This reimagination is key during this time of COVID when we are suffering a collective trauma. She is perhaps helping to show us how this time is affecting all of us by showing us how individual tragedies affect so many of the people involved.
One of the most striking aspects of Bitting’s insights is that a suicide does not simply affect the attitude and emotion of loved one; it changes the way that they conceptualize the world and their place in it. There is a sense of self-doubt that runs through so much of this work. In “Haibun for Letting Go,” she writes of the suicide of her brother, “I’m so sorry your brother and I were off already. Prom plans and art academies. Stumbling those days to find our way” (46). The fact of the suicide has colored everything in the narrator’s memory. Those events that she might have thought of as beautiful are remembered through the lens of trauma. Later in “Stilled Life,” she writes, “I labyrinth my days around memories of you two in my best funeral suit” (47). Here and elsewhere she writes about how the suicide of loved ones can change our perception of everything, including ourselves. It fills much of what the narrator and others do with an air of pointlessness:
that isn’t going to happen,
anymore than my brother
will unpack his locker
of pain in time
or the father who found him
will think twice about
pouring himself a stiff one
and then another after
anymore than a mother
will succeed in bleaching
the white sheets clean
of her son’s rust and final note (38-39)
It is a perspective not often enough discussed but developed powerfully here. She is demonstrating not just the tragedy of his death but the loss of purpose in the family’s lives.
One of the other aspects of this collection that moved me was the way that Bitting deals with this time of COVID. I have been asked how I feel several times in the last couple of years, and I simply don’t have an answer. I am in the middle of it and am not sure. Bitting is able to capture that understanding of our time as well or better than anyone I have read. It is said that one of the reasons that we read is so that we do not feel alone because someone else is able to put into words what we are feeling. Bitting has done that for me in poems like “Ghost Campus.”
Mostly it’s been just me
and my winter shadow
walking the fog,
unlatched from a safe
and solitary burrow to work
my lungs and unshorn legs,
make sure I’m alive, check
my breath against a mirror
scrap of the afternoon’s last light (80).
So many of us have felt that we are wandering alone and isolated. Of course, the pandemic has made that true. We have been cut off from each other in a way that we never have before, and Bitting gives voice to that emotion.
Nightmares & Miracles is an exceptional collection and one that has helped me through this time of pain. Bitting writes about things that matter, and she does so in such a way that helps us to reconceptualize the world and our place in it. This is a collection that I am going to return to often.
Photo credit: Alexis Rhone Fancher