Heather Rounds' book "She Named Him Michael," out on May 18 via Ink Press Productions, takes inspiration from the real-life chicken named Miracle Mike who survived for 18 months with his head chopped off in Fruita, Colorado, in 1945. The roughly-70-page prose-poem (or poetic novella) adapts and adjusts elements of the story, expanding the legend with her own meditative exploration that touches on tenuous connections, care and solitude, and makes visible patriarchal power, the spectacle of capitalism, and the absurdities of routine and prescribed gender roles.
Before we ever meet Michael the chicken, we find ourselves on the farm where an older woman, her oldest son, and his wife live. The story is not so much about this chicken as a serendipitous oddity. Instead, Rounds spends about the first third of the book building up, with steady repetition, details about each of these three characters—what they know and think about, what they desire, and what they don't know about, which all becomes more meaningful and complicated once Michael comes into the picture.
She (or the book's invisible narrator) also repeatedly describes what the valley around them is like, with its "lip of light," its junipers and spiders, and the 1,500 pounds of Supersaurus dinosaur bones that lay buried underground, which none of these three people know exist. But the narrator brings them up again and again, noting how this mass of bones has literally shaped the land—perhaps as a reminder of the deeply rooted structures that shape our lives (whether or not we are cognizant of them; hi, again, capitalism and patriarchy), our collective limited knowledge as humans, or even that we weren't the first beings to rule the land.
So here's what we do know: On the farm they raise chickens and grow sugar beets; they pull velvetleaf weeds. World War II has ended. Not everybody made it back home, including the youngest son of the older woman (referred to as "the woman whose head sat small under tight curls" throughout the book). Though he died at war in Normandy, the youngest son's death seems passive, as death sometimes happens: "A burst had fallen, pushing him into a trap of brush and down there he lost all breath and shape," Rounds offers.
This death impacts both the woman whose head sat small under tight curls—whose bones are so frail that she hardly moves inside the house—and her daughter-in-law, Claire. In her quiet moments, Claire thinks about the youngest son often, his smile and his preternatural wisdom. Sometimes the grief sends her into a quiet rage while she works in the field.
Claire's husband, Shotgun Foot (so called because he shot himself in the foot as a child while digging himself into a hole deep in the earth—a clever double metaphor, we later understand), spends less time thinking about his dead brother. He doesn't agonize over loss, the meaning of death—he is markedly more surface level than the women. You could call him stoic, cold, unsentimental. He thinks more about his sugar beets and how to make them stronger; he dreams of owning expensive equipment that could keep the velvetleaf weeds at bay. Rounds writes that he literally thinks about "control."
And he thinks about Claire and how, due to some unspecific condition in her body, we are told, she is unable to have a child ("When she tried to make bones, only blood came"). Shotgun Foot thinks it's her diet, perhaps.
A minute is short, a life is short, but here in Fruita, on this farm, the minutes feel long, and they hold the history and mysteries of the land. The woman whose head sat small under tight curls and her daughter-in-law spend "minutes" separately thinking about the youngest son, whose life exists to us in scarce snippets. The mother, immobilized by grief, it seems, and age (it "chips at her bones" to move too much) rarely leaves her bed of linen and iron.
The lives of these three are routine, and for a large portion of the book Rounds draws hard boundaries around the characters. Sparse and undramatic in description, Rounds makes you hyper-aware of how structured and repetitive their lives and roles are, and how this makes them feel awkwardly at odds with one another. Shotgun Foot, tethered to this land, seems for the most part like an unfeeling, brutish man, whose main desire is dominion. Claire is more tender, pulled down by the affection she still has for the dead younger brother, by guilt for the fact that her body can "grow no more bones" for her husband (where to place her lingering "womanly" affection?)—but she always looks up at the birds, and, later on, seizes the opportunity to see new lands. The woman whose head sat small under tight curls has knowledge and curiosity of the land, time, and loss; but for the most part, she's bound to her room—and has no power or sway in this family unit, though she's ostensibly the matriarch.
But perhaps these characters are not so immovable. One evening, their lives shift, when Shotgun Foot fails to properly decapitate a chicken. Before he brings the ax down: "He saw a sag in the lace of her wedding slip now used for curtains. He saw her move like a lullaby . . . " And he brings the ax down. "A sting came, a ringing came, and darkness. So much darkness and Claire came through the ringing."
The chicken was still alive. They later find out that the chicken's jugular and windpipe were still in tact, and a fortuitous clot kept him from bleeding out. Claire intuits that the chicken needs to eat; her mother-in-law hands her an eyedropper filled with water, grain, and corn to squeeze down into the hole where the chicken's head should be, which "kept away the choking." And then she names him Michael.
Shotgun Foot quickly realizes what a moneymaker Michael could be, says they will take him to the circus, and try to put him in the sideshow. Claire, who's never left the valley, is down for the ride. Michael is an instant success—the Talker (show-runner) and the crowd love him, and he becomes the final act. Shotgun Foot drives them home late at night, with the money in his pocket, feeling power: "He felt the heaviness of all the quarters at his side. He felt tacked to the earth. He controlled this tack. He controlled this long black drive."
And so they go back. Each night, the Talker repeats the same banal comment: "He's alive!" as Michael stumbles off the pedestal, sputtering and gurgling, and Claire comes to his aid with her mason jar of water, grain and corn, and the crowd cheers. This becomes their new, slowly devastating routine. With money to spend, Shotgun Foot relishes his newly inflated power and control. He buys a flamethrower ("the Machine") with which he tries to eradicate the velvetleaf weeds, and in a brief but striking passage Rounds describes how his body becomes one with the Machine as he uses it, stupidly scorching not only the weeds but the sugar beets, too. The man and the Machine blend into one being of destruction. In this short moment, too, we are reminded how bodies (Michael's, as well as the youngest son's which did not return from the war) are exploited in pursuit of money, control, and power—desires that fuel and reinforce war, capitalism, and patriarchy at the expense of everyone else.
But Rounds does not belabor that point, she sets it up more subtly. They get the show on the road. Shotgun Foot likes the idea of making more money at more fairs; Claire would like to go to Arizona, to see new places.
The smallness of their staid world on the farm has shifted to the road, a new state, and "days without shape." Claire never stops thinking about the youngest brother, nor the fact that she can't get pregnant. Michael becomes something she can nurture, maintain, and care for—she sighs, at one point, "if not bones, then this absence of bones will do"—and her existence is consumed by this role of caretaking. Shotgun Foot, meanwhile, grows ever restless, longing for quiet and solitude instead of the bustle of the fair and his new obligations. Something's missing, but he can't figure out what it is on his own. So he leans on Cora, another sideshow performer whose limbs are knobby stumps, who instructs him to build a trampoline for her, which she jumps on while he lays down to watch. "He was tacked to the earth, convinced it was, in fact, the it"—the "it" that he was missing.
Going out into the world complicates their lives, and gives them more to question—more literal curiosities to contend with among the circus acts, more characters to probe, more moods to face. It's tiring.
Throughout the book, it is hard to confirm that there exists any sturdy, loving thread between Shotgun Foot and Claire, and the rift between the two of them grows further while on the road. Claire takes a quarter at a time from the money Michael earns them (which Shotgun Foot keeps close to him), feeds it into the fair's fortune telling machine called Gypsy Grandma, who without fail dispenses the same fortune each time—one we must repeat three times at the very beginning of this book. The wonder of the fair, the freaks, the road, what we don't know or understand—none of these things last forever. Michael's beginning ends, too.
There will be a release party for "She Named Him Michael" at the Windup Space on May 18. For more info, visit inkpressproductions.tumblr.com