Review of Kristin Garth’s The Stakes by Jesse Hilson

[Disclosure: Kristin Garth, the author of The Stakes, is the owner and manager of this website. But she did nothing to direct this book review besides sending the book to me. It was my decision to review it here.]

The Stakes. Kristin Garth. Really Serious Lit, 2022. 65 pages.

Kristin Garth’s poetry, for those who don’t know, usually comes in the straightforward form of a Shakespearean sonnet: that is, three quatrains and a finishing couplet. This unswerving shape, you might think, becomes colorless over time and repetition, but instead, the poet uses them like tiles in a vast continuous mosaic, which covers the walls, floors and ceilings of a poetic structure (a dollhouse?) constantly adding new annexes and wings.

If you’re confused about what room of the complex you’re in while reading The Stakes, it quickly becomes clear that the book takes place in a kind of hall of justice, where the evil that men do is being harshly put on trial, with witness after witness taking the stand. Specifically, the puritanical, hypocritical, misogynistic act of burning women at the stake. Sometimes this immolation is abstract but more often than not the fire as described is hideously concrete and real. Joan of Arc, witches burnt at the stake, and less well-known contemporary accounts of women set in fire as cruel punishment in the past five years—Nusrat Rafi in Bangladesh and Jessica Chambers in Mississippi—serve as horrifying, sad, and true emblems of the theme. The poem “Addiction” about Chambers is one of the most macabre yet moving peaks of the entire collection, and Garth’s trademark internal rhymes set off dazzling concatenations for the reader: art ennobles the memory of the dead woman’s short life. I want to quote from “Addiction” but I can’t truncate its holistic beauty and balance by just replicating a part of it.

Historical accounts of burning women are brought into artful alignment with Garth’s own story and you see the pain that fire has inflicted on her life, the fearful role that fire has played in her past. Her recounting of abuse at the hands of her firefighter father and the arson of her home at one point while she was away provide a preternatural motif which is expanded even within the tight strictures of the chosen sonnet form. “American Fire Doll” is a chilling poem about the father bringing home a singed doll from a fire and putting it the speaker’s childhood bed with her at midnight. When Garth hits the final terrifying line it’s deadly.

Even within the biographical territory she returns to as a poet and short story writer (her life as a stripper, life in Florida), there is always great variety and range. You would think the patterns could get old but they don’t; there’s always some new recombination, the flint of original vocabulary striking sparks from neighboring words into a fourteen-line box of tinder.

Two other poems stood out to me and deserve mention. “Hate Has No Restricted Zone” somehow put me in mind of John Donne in its mechanics and reversals, as it’s made clear that while, according to law, strip clubs cannot be built near churches, Christians can still rent buildings near strip clubs from which to scream “Burn in hell” to the dancers: hypocrisies of urban planning only provide safety in one direction. “How Afraid To Be A Woman Were You?” tells the story of mass witch trials in Trier, Germany in 1588 in which two women (perhaps they were girls) were the only ones from the villages left alive, with their dreadful loneliness and panic brought to life 434 years later.

I was affected by reading this book. It upset my night; the sympathetic crystals in me vibrated for hours later. It was powerful, harrowing reading, and a fearless treatment of a thematic arrangement—Garth is a master of rhyme (you think she might just as easily rhyme as breathe) but also here a master at organizing a theme.

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