Macabre Tenderness: A Review of Niina Pollari’s ‘Dead Horse’

Dead Horse
Birds, LLC, 2015; 88pp.
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts


At first thumb-through, I thought the title of Niina Pollari’s first full-length collection, Dead Horse, didn’t quite do justice to its content. This is a book full of body and lifemeat—really pulsing with gristle. So, I immediately went to the long title poem, “Dead Horse,” in the first “Bones” section and read everything against that piece. Perhaps “dead” because she writes on the harrowing human loneliness that can feel endless, bottomless, and absolute:

If you say you love me
I will open my mouth and you can live in it
If you need it abandoned leave it with me
I am so happy
To take it

Pollari’s poems, while they may deal with emotional deadness/static/resignation, are extremely corporeal, vibrant, and belong right alongside those of the more well-known “gurlesque” writers. These poems in the “Blood” section of the collection touch on the “flash of sear” of IUD insertion, breast exams, webby menstrual blood, and the belly as both gut and space for possible baby housing. In “The Blood,” the menstruating speaker dreams mucous-thick, webbed blood trailing from her. She thinks herself “a nastyish goblin” with “gunk” tied to her “like an immaculate dove.”

In “I Love My Gut,” the speaker’s “substantial and forgiving” gut eases her loneliness, and sings to her before she falls asleep. She loves it so she would give it a crown. They are in it to win it. Together forever. In “My Pregancy,” the speaker juts her gut out to appear pregnant while holding her glass of wine “up high like a ceremony” because she wants to “pretend and people care much more.” Enacting this feigned pregnancy makes the speaker realize how this makes her protective over her meat and her organs. Even her bladder craves mothering. We all want to be nurtured by others and have someone or something to nurture, right? Even a fake baby gut. As I type this it makes me think of how, as little girls, my friends and I would try to Buddha-shape our bellies or stuff pillows under our clothes to play pregnant before our baby dolls “arrived.” I recently had a baby (who is squeaking at me in octaves Mariah Carey might strive to reach right now next to my desk), and have experienced all sorts of unwarranted staring, touching, and advice from strangers, so I also thought it was hilarious for this speaker to mess with those who have no right interjecting themselves into others’ lifestyles anyway. But the female body is always open for discussion. It’s literally always open . . .

The female body—what is it supposed to do, how is it supposed to feel, what are its shortcomings, and how do they affect a woman’s sense of self?  In “Do You Feel Tenderness,” the speaker has trouble unclasping a bra that “so many wolves fell out” of.  Not breasts that should feel tender during a period the speaker admits to the nurse she doesn’t have, but wolves now freed and roaring. The body! The wild body! There is so much body stuffed into Pollari’s verse! The feral female form is perhaps best articulated in “Swan’s Blood.” The poet writes:

I put my thigh meat next to yours
I have a swan’s blood inside my mouth, so I just smile
The warmth from your thigh will seep into mine
The sturdiness I have
My predator’s leg

After reading this collection, I learned that Pollari also translated Tytti Heikkinen’s The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal (which I immediately read following Dead Horse), and I see that link and influence most closely in the swan poem in which the speaker, a blood-mouthed animal sunning herself, promises, “I’m not going/To be a beast.”

The “money” section of the book contains very immediate and relatable commentary on therapy, the creation of art, smartphone data plans, would-be suitors arriving in their SmartCars, and seemingly insurmountable personal debt. The speaker of these poems prefers the electronic trail of text messaging to the “IRL” of human interaction because it makes her feel “more beautiful/And worth more as another person” and “The only real doing is swiping” away on a smartphone, zombie wander-walking while doing so.

The speaker in long poem, “I Owe Money,” traces the etymology of ownership, gives a brief primer on fractional reserve banking, likens co-owning her loans with a corporation to a domestic relationship, and asks whether the debt that “sparkles” around her “like a beautiful shirt” owns her or she owns it.  Actually, forget the beautiful shirt simile. Debt is a Dior gown and we are all Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars stumbling and falling under its responsibility—smiling as we do so:

So when you are ascending the steps
With your armfuls of debt dress
And you gather it

(This metaphor is only truly meaningful to women
And those who own feminine clothes)

The debt is not only gorgeous
It is giving meaning to you
Which in turn gives other people what they need

Near the beginning of the collection, Pollari’s writes, “very squalidy built/Is the slum of my words,” but I disagree. The best way for me to assess this work is to say it oozes a sort of macabre, and yet is incredibly, tender and moving. Each poem is like a tiny altar constructed to honor the best kind of sad, the feeliest kind of feels. Pieces such as “Self-Love Is Important” demonstrate this macabre tenderness strung throughout Dead Horse:

Today my exposure
To wilderness is a zooming house fly
And the smell of my own sweat

Hey, creature
I am too poor to kill
The death of a body means nothing
Unless it’s your own

And basically the deal is until I get to the end of this poem, or any poem
And/or until I have no more body parts to give
We can both live

Self-love is looking
At yourself like a foreign bug and still loving […]

I am going to love something to the ground for once

Go! Go love this book to the ground!


Carleen Tibbetts is the author of the chapbook "a starving music will come to eat the body" (FiveQuarterly, 2014). Her poems have been in Coconut, H_NGM_N, Sink, Dusie, Jellyfish, inter|rupture, Ilk, Thrush, Big Lucks, The Laurel Review, Nightblock, Cloud Rodeo, Fact-Simile, and elsewhere. She also reviews poetry for American Microreviews.

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