We, of our ends, are perhaps all this oblivious: one goat
trained to live with the sheep, neck-bell jingling
in and out of the slaughterhouse.
From “Judas Goat”
Gabrielle Bates bursts onto the landscape of American poetry with her highly anticipated debut collection, Judas Goat. Bates, whose poems have appeared in some of the most preeminent literary journals in the country, writes about desire with steely-eyed resolve and wrenching vulnerability. The South is ever present throughout the collection, infusing even the most tender verse with signature grit and a resolve to survive at all costs. Readers familiar with Brenda Moosey will be especially enthralled with Judas Goat as Bates stares down trauma and desire, refusing to flinch or relinquish the softness that grounds her to this life.
Judas Goat takes its title from Judas, a goat that acts as a sort of unifying character in each movement of the collection. Bates establishes the mythos that pervades Judas’ story in “How Judas Died,” a poem which offers various accounts of how the goat perished. “The official account is this: Judas’ organs burst from his body/in an open field, or he hanged himself from a tree,” the speaker shares. “It was after dark, it was day; and on the other side of the world,/a soldier’s ear in the street…” This parallel signals Bates’ use of the goat as metaphor for the various slaughters that the subjects of her poems endure. Most important to this mythos is his nightly resurrection: “As milk slithers back from break to udder,/he unbreaks his neck with a rope.” Judas, like the speaker(s) in Bates’ poems, refuses death and rejects the birds that would drain him each night.
Bates possesses a remarkable ability to write quiet poems that scream from the page. In “The Dog,” the speaker shares a conversation with her lover about what he saw on the train earlier that day. The lines themselves are subtle and soft, lulling the reader into the story almost effortlessly. Though the story itself is remarkably tragic and infuriating, what most resonates is the speaker’s revelation, “How easily/I could imagine a version of our lives/in which he kept all his suffering secret from me.” Bates leans into familiar, prosaic language yet manages to create a possibility that thunders with grief and the potential for destruction. As the first poem in the collection, “The Dog” also offers context for the remainder of the collection in that the speaker explicitly alludes to the importance of sharing one’s suffering so that it does not consume.
My favorite thing about the collection is how successfully Bates addresses the many shared experiences of living in the South, the lingering haunt of generational traumas and the ways in which generational poverty shapes our view of the world. “Economic Mobility” explicitly addresses marriage as a strategic decision to rise out of poverty, both for the speaker and for her father. “Intro to Theater” draws parallels between two practiced kisses, each marked by the use of a hand as barrier, as the speaker grapples with the implications of kissing a girl in the dark of an attic and public applause when she kisses a boy on stage. The poem concludes with the speaker admitting that she felt like the audience was applauding the deaths of her and the other actor on stage. This carries into “Who Hasn’t Lain in a Yard with Boys,” in which the speaker wonders, “Who hasn’t lain in the yard with boys/she trusts, wondering/How are these like blades?”
Judas Goat is structured somewhat like a memoir, moving the reader from memories of childhood through adulthood and eventually to a period of self-reflection. Readers encounter the events that shape the speaker’s identity, as well as how the poet begins to deliberately confront the parts of herself she has suppressed. “Ownership” begins with the speaker admitting, “Yes, I have trouble dwelling in what’s mine./No, I did not suspect his pain.” Even as the speaker sits with her inability to see what “J” is going through, the speaker confesses, “That I have always loved a storm//that can’t touch me is no secret.” Similarly, “Salmon” considers a funeral speech, with the speaker coming to the conclusion that, “I am my father’s only child, and he is my mother…at his funeral/I will talk if I can about nights like this,/how good it felt just to be next to him,/to be the closest thing he had.” Here, too, the power of “if” reminds the reader that the speaker must continuously confront her desire for trauma and the importance of holding onto positive memories.
Gabrielle Bates is one part rock star, one part bard, offering a debut that perfectly balances an unflinching, badass attitude with the practiced precision of an experienced student of poetics. Judas Goat delivers, and it’s sure to leave readers hungry for the next installment from one of America’s most unique voices.