Strange Nests: Jessica McHugh
Reviewed By Steve Stred
At the start of every review I do for a poetry release, I like to reiterate that I am far from fluent in poetry, in its ebbs and flows, rhythms and history. I can’t tell you if a poem follows anything in terms of traditional stanza’s etc etc.
What I can tell you, though, is if a poem moved me. Somehow, someway. Did a specific line get to me? Make me feel an emotion that arrived from an unexpected place?
And more specifically – was it accessible. If poetry isn’t accessible for this reader, I can’t make heads or tails.
I’ve not had the privilege of reading any of McHugh’s work, but with ‘Strange Nests’ not only has she made me a fan, but I’ll absolutely be seeking out more of her work.
What I liked: ‘Strange Nests’ is a collection of 50 poems all based around The Secret Garden. More accurately, McHugh does ‘blackout poetry’ where she creates the poem by highlighting/circling/emphasizing keywords on a particular page of the book itself. It is fascinating and offers a startling experience when paired with the imagery/illustrations accompanying it.
This book was also born from grief, after she lost her brother at the start of 2021 and you can see that sentiment shared time and time again.
Broken into three sections, ‘Body,’ ‘Root’ and ‘Knife,’ the poems themselves weave between seemingly light-hearted and breathtakingly dark.
In ‘Body’ the standouts for me were, ‘Mystified’ which was a sorrowful look at growing up and facing the reality of adulthood and harsh truths and ‘The Creeping Veil.’ I found this one to be open to many interpretations, but no matter what the reader determines, it was dark and brutal.
In ‘Root’ the standouts were, ‘Comforted,’ a poem that appeared to be about a friend going through a metamorphosis (or even a hint at a creature-based theme), ‘Health’ which hit really deeply. A poem that could be summed up as someone seeing the slow decay of a close friend. And ‘She Seemed So Alive,’ a poem about transformation that bordered on a folklore story.
In ‘Knife’ my favorites were, ‘Dishes & Plates,’ a poem that describes someone who feels unseen and held back and ‘Buried,’ an interesting piece about growing roots that haven’t been acknowledged.
Throughout, McHugh weaved a dark and troubled narrative. Of loss, heartache and sorrow.
What I didn’t like: It’s tough to offer much when something is so personal, as this felt, but at times I found some poems seemed to be stunted due to minimal word options. Forced to be resigned to what words are on the chosen page, at times it reads oddly, without the options to choose a more impactful word.
Why you should buy this: If you like poetry, this one will hit home for sure. McHugh has created so many moving pieces that each was impactful and forces the reader to contemplate what each means to themselves. Outstanding work.
the secret of dying arrived scrawny. it’s growing stronger & fatter though & whispers,
Beyond ancient gates, among thorny overgrowth and carnivorous blooms, a raven called Death waits tirelessly for its chance to roost within us. Using scraps of love, remorse, anger, and pain, it weaves. With erasure, memory, and discovery, it binds. And from the garden of wounds that grows within our broken hearts, it builds Strange Nests.
In the follow-up to her Bram Stoker and Elgin Award nominated collection, A Complex Accident of Life, Jessica McHugh uses poetry, design, and illustration to unearth the horrific, consumptive, and transformative nature of grief from the pages of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic, The Secret Garden.
Steve Stred is the author of a number of novels, novellas and collections. He has appeared in anthologies with some of Horror’s heaviest hitters.
He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with his wife, son and their dog OJ.
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