In Katie Manning’s 28,065 Nights (River Glass Books, 2020) the speaker tells stories about her grandmother to dive into the joys and sorrows of being human: small details like poor girls using vanilla for perfume or what pieces of us hide in a grandmother’s dresser drawers. Manning’s prose poems spill out confessions, family secrets, and we feel the warm and mighty spirit of her grandmother on the page—a life that touched the ones she loved. These poems are about love, and what is more powerful and daring now when the news circles around death tolls during a pandemic? These poems hone into heart and force the reader to reflect on their own connections. How much time do we have left to laugh together, hold hands, or tell a short or not-so-short story? It is not the time that is important perhaps, but the telling.
When we might happen upon a stranger in a gathering or someone we must get to know in a forced social setting, (less face to face currently) we ask them to tell us their story. Manning depicts her Granny through story-telling, with strength, humor, and tenderness, all along giving us a place to pinpoint ourselves on our own timelines, and that of civilization. We are small but also loom large. Granny, while she is center stage in the poems, is a supporting character. It is Manning who opens the window and lets us see inside her emotional journeys. Manning tells us stories of her Granny as a girl but then flips back to the poet interacting with her own son, who also grows in this book from infant to small human. Time is the third character. Time hovers in the background, always: we think there is so much of it, we identify with Manning’s speaker saying good bye– I’ll see you next time, always wanting to believe there is a next time.
The first poem in the collection “Your Death Explained in Birds,” depicts the chaos and lack of control we have in other’s deaths but also the connection to all things: the strange and beautiful connections in Nature. Like when someone we love dies and a stag looks at us for a longer second in the woods and we think it is the spirit of our loved one. Manning repeats “Death is the egret” in this first, powerful poem where the egret snatches up newly hatched herons and the smaller mother heron shrieks in rage and shock at her babies being stolen from her.
“I am the mother heron shrieking and snapping on the branch below. I am the smallest green heron in the nest. I stick my head out in the stillness after everyone e0lse is gone.”
Human or animal, we feel the helplessness of connecting to life and then always having to leave it. It is always holding on and letting go constantly.
The small life objects, and shared moments are what sing out from the page so strongly. In “I Took Your House Slippers Too,” Manning describes first taking bottles of lotion from her Granny’s home, eventually using them up. This grand-daughter trades a salve for a salve. The speaker thinks of this lotion, now long gone, when her skin dries. The lotion links her back to putting her house slippers in Granny’s coffin, during the viewing. This gesture, written on the page, is so mind boggling poignant. What a relatable feeling, to want our loved ones to stay warm and comfortable when we don’t know where they are going. Our minds leap to the coffin going into the ground with the slippers tucked in there, and it’s as if time stops.
Our own mortality thrown into the balance— and everyone we have ever known. We will all end up in the same place. This poem, as with all of these detailed prose style vignettes, makes us remember time is such a gift. Again, there seems to be too much of it sometimes and then really not enough.
“…every time my dry skin bleeds, I think of you. When I can’t file away the deep cracks on my heels, I see your feet. I wonder what they look like two years underground.”
That third character, time, flows through these poems: through mothers and children, through nature, through bodies of water and farm fields. Manning writes about physical features that show up in the next generation. No one can plan or account for that. In “The Baby You Didn’t See,” the poet’s newborn son’s nose is a shape Manning does not recognize. Suddenly she realizes it is Granny’s nose and she cries three times at this epiphany.
“In the first week of Julian’s life, I cried three times because your nose was on his face. I didn’t expect to find you there. I kept saying His nose is different…Then I knew.”
These heartfelt surprises in these poems make us relish life and the unseen gifts bestowed upon us by our loved ones. The world opens up, gets bigger, empathy flourishes because someone was nourished and loved and that person will nourish and love as well.
The powerful poem “How I Measure Your Body,” with its four panels of wordplay regarding the word “body,” (a new body in the world, a body of work, a body of water, and “the” body: Granny’s body after she passes) is one of my favorite poems.
“Your body was small but strong. Your
body breeched this world and lived to tell
about it…Your body birthed and fed four
humans who lived…Even now, your body
replicates itself in brand new bodies…Your
body is at work still.”
Manning captures the flow of time from our ancestors to new babies, these every day occurrences of births and marriages, or baking a pie, of laughter at a bedside. Maybe these tiny moments are the most important factor of all in being human. Manning’s poems echo the quote by Eden Ahbez “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” These poems are a love letter, but not just to Granny, the emotion spears right into the reader’s heart; we reflect on our loved ones but also have we loved enough and in the right way? The love is cyclical from birth, to life, to making other lives, to other deaths. How will we use our time?
*Title is taken from the poem The First Day of our Second Year Without You
Bio: Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in Iowa where she likes to rock climb. She is the author of four full length poetry collections and fifteen chapbooks. Recent work can be seen at or is forthcoming from The Pinch, Cleaver, Yalobusha Review, Dream Pop, Zone 3, and Grist. She also hosts an indie reading series sponsored by the non-profit organization Iowa City Poetry called Today You Are Perfect. Find her at http://jennifermacbainstephens.com/.