It’s bad husbandry.

She could kill me like this,


but she sniffs so readily

as if she couldn’t wait to talk.


From “Horse Theater”


Mare’s Nest is a quiet and understated debut collection that quickly establishes author Holly Mitchell as a skilled poet with a knack for restraint. The book centers on variations of its titular phrase, from the broodmare to the depression left by a mare lying in the grass, all of which serve as a backdrop for Mitchell’s deeper explorations of sexuality, womanhood and life in the American South. Part of Sarabande Books’ series on Kentucky Literature, the setting for Mare’s Nest is a Kentucky horse farm and those who occupy it.

The collection opens with “Muybridge’s Horse in Motion,” which centers Muybridge’s photographic experiment and the legacy of its creator. Mitchell structures the poem into a litany of twelve, mirroring the cabinet cards included in the “Horse in Motion” series capturing Sallie Gardner. The opening sections emphasize the phenomenon of suspension, where a horse has all four hooves off the ground simultaneously, before the speaker declares that “the camera can make a fool of a realist.” After the midway point, the sections shift to Muybridge himself, noting that Muybridge kills the former lover of his young wife, for which he is ultimately acquitted. This poem sets the tone for the collection, which frequently features poems grounded in horses but which extend into the lives of the humans around them.

One of the most haunting poems is “Separations,” a poem that begins with men leading a mare to a stud for breeding. After the doctor notes “a shadow/on his monitor,” the speaker matter-of-factly explains what the hint of a twin entails:


one to be pinched

for the other’s health

an abortion

that Southern men

think nothing of—


This brief but sharp turn into social commentary is common throughout the collection, as Mitchell routinely contextualizes events on the farm in the larger social sphere. “Hen House” is rooted in a woman, Ruth, who is collecting eggs. The “eggs sticky with flitter” invoke a memory of “what a friend’s breast felt like/through a linen dress” before descending into images of hen-sisters that “hang from the rafters,” emphasizing the inevitable violence predicated on women like Ruth.

Mare’s Nest resists a one-dimensional depiction of the South, or the men that occupy Kentucky farms. In “Horse Theater,” the speaker describes an ex who “marks/the straw like a colt would/without thinking yes or no,” yet the speaker’s father in “White-tailed Fawn” works hopelessly to revive “a fawn/whose neck is broken.” The speaker describes the tender efforts of her father “trying to nurse/the animal” with “a bottle of the milk//he can make without leaving.” This contrast foreshadows the final poem of the collection, “I Hope I Didn’t Write a South Where No One,” in which the speaker unleashes a litany of nostalgic tropes familiar to Southern living, such as cooking in Coke or Sprite, alongside hard truths like those who talk “about pie/instead of queerness.”

Holly Mitchell offers one of the most unassuming debuts in recent memory, quietly yet faithfully interrogating life on a Kentucky horse farm and coming of age in the American South. Mare’s Nest is quiet, but never meek, a tone that mirrors the implied strength of every mare that graces its pages. This is a collection that flies under the radar, but one you won’t want to miss.


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