Article Content Warning: minor spoilers
Book Content Warning: gore
You accidentally cut off your right hand with an axe. How do you react? Scream? Gape in disbelief? Do you reach for your dismembered hand? Does your mind fog up, or do you allow it to sharpen, focus?
Loss can seem deceivingly simple. The loss of a limb, or a loved one, it usually happens in one stroke. Everything is on its natural course, and then—loss strikes. The absence is immediate, but the grief takes time to sink in.
GennaRose Nethercott’s The Lumberjack’s Dove examines the aftermath of loss, offering readers a rich, six-part poem they can consume in a single sitting. By way of magical realism, the stages of grief are rendered bodily as the reader follows a lumberjack coping with the sudden, accidental loss of his right hand—which at once transforms into a dove—and his consequent journey to find someone who can reattach his severed appendage. But beyond the Lumberjack’s loss, as the narrator chimes in, “There are infinite stories about separation. By infinite stories, that is to say that there is this story, & only this story, told many different ways.”
On the first read, this 76-page poem is relatively straightforward—but the story’s complexity deepens with every read. The style reflects the incoherence and vagueness present during the onslaught of loss, and how one’s understanding of grief becomes more visceral as the psychological and physical pain sets in over time.
Thus, the Lumberjack’s story becomes a vehicle for Nethercott to explore the universal story of loss. With clear, concise language she leads readers down two narratives: one in which the Lumberjack visits the emergency room, and an alternative (but simultaneous) narrative where the Lumberjack drives for “three full days & nights” to visit a witch doctor. Both stories involve the Lumberjack attempting to reclaim his hand through different methods: the surgeon tries to reattach the hand-turned-dove using stitches and the witch doctor carefully assembles a powerful concoction to remedy his lost appendage.
These two stories do an excellent job of depicting the way grief can manifest as the desire to repossess someone or something. The story in which the Lumberjack goes to the hospital represents his denial to accept the permanent loss of his hand. The denial manifests as a desire to regain physical possession of his hand through medical intervention, in spite of the limits of science in reattaching a limb that has transformed into a dove. In the alternate tale, the Lumberjack’s desire to maintain possession of his right hand results in him bargaining with the witch doctor. He offers her every ingredient she requires to perform her “Reclamation Spell,” but, unfortunately, the replacement of his right hand results in the sacrifice of his left hand.
The Lumberjack’s resistance to loss is most clearly encapsulated when he declares, “I will never let you go,” as the dove pleads for release. This can be interpreted as devotion, but love, unlike possession, is having the power to let the object of your affection become their own, even if that object was once your very own hand. As the Lumberjack’s attempts to exert control over his hand, now its own living, breathing entity, the distinction between possession and love is gradually blurred, making for a gripping read—pun intended.
Interwoven within these stories is Nethercott’s conscious effort to employ traditional folktale techniques in a new fashion. Imagery of threes is abundant: three days and nights, three crows, three main characters (“The abandoned. The abandoner. [The] means of abandonment.”) and, of course, the three rules of storytelling as described below:
“There are three rules of storytelling:
1. Only tell a story if you have to.
2. A story is a two-way mirror.
3. The purest way to speak truth is by lying.”
The poem also sings with scraps of melody, ranging from the striking imagery of cutting wood—“in clean harmony, the log would split open like a mouth”—to the last bodily calls of the dove:
“Medical practitioners are not trained in haruspicy. Had they been, the [dove’s] liver would stretch & squeeze like a concertina. It would sing aloud their descendants’ names & count their freckles & scars & mimic their voices.”
Alongside these folkloric elements are the instances where the narration slips into second person, lending a hand out to the reader, beckoning them to draw upon the storehouse of stories of loss within themselves and find their own associations with the Lumberjack’s story. To reinforce this, the narrator frequently reminds the reader they are reading a universally known story. The narrator states different versions of the three rules of storytelling about every twenty pages, and while these reminders are central to the poem thematically, the constant interjections end up interfering with the flow of the poem.
Though the repetition is heavy handed, it is this very oscillation—the alternation between the Lumberjack’s singular experience and the universality of his story—that makes The Lumberjack’s Dove a multilayered inquiry on loss. And through the numerical symbols and musicality characteristic of so many folktales, Nethercott crafts a stunning postmodern take on folklore.
Spanning from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Taylor Swift’s most recent studio album, and from the folk soundtrack of the 1976 Academy Award winning film Harlan County, USA to the adventures of Paul Bunyan, the power of folklore originates from nature and centers the stories of everyday people. The Lumberjack’s story is attractive because it offers readers some folkloric mysticism in the time of quarantine.
As much as it is a medium by which people can record and pass down the stories of their lives, folklore also brings the comforting escape of myth and legend, and The Lumberjack’s Dove is no exception. The melodious sentences of longing and grief that lace the pages of The Lumberjack’s Dove promise a swift but worthwhile autumn read.
GennaRose Nethercott is the author of The Lumberjack’s Dove (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2018), selected by Louise Glück as a winner of the National Poetry Series. Her other recent projects include the narrative song collection Modern Ballads, and Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog: A Story in Cootie Catchers (Ninepin Press 2019). A Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellow, her work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, The Offing, PANK, and elsewhere, and she has been a writer-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center, Art Farm Nebraska, and the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris. Her fiction debut is forthcoming from Knopf Vintage.
The Lumberjack’s Dove can be purchased here.