Single word titles always have a shot at perfection, but they are trickier than they seem. They can easily be obvious, boring, or simply irrelevant. Brood, in title alone, assumes its place among the seraphim, taking on a trio of meanings: active wallowing in unhappy thoughts, a mother doing a mother’s job, and a literal flock of birds.
Jackie Polzin’s spare debut novel covers the experience of an unnamed protagonist who raises four chickens in her backyard in St. Paul. The brief chapters cover the foibles of a first-time poultry caretaker—like learning that she has been feeding her hens the equivalent of 50 percent Twinkies—and the threats of wilderness that reach even into her small slice of urban land. Underneath that overstory lies another tale: a woman who is recovering from at least one traumatic miscarriage and realizing that she will not have children. The book is littered with examples of mothers and all of the ways to be one (and, implicitly, the one way to not be one). The main character’s best friend is a haphazard mother who asks for last minute babysitting favors and keeps her baby’s crib in the kitchen. Even so, she is blessed with a mother’s instinct. “Only a mother knows,” our protagonist muses. “This is the cardinal rule of motherhood and the great source of a mother’s power. It stands to reason that if you are not a mother, you know nothing about it.”
The hens themselves are not mothers and, with no rooster around, they will never be. Gam Gam, Miss Hennepin County, Darkness, and Gloria are of a subspecies that has been bred for centuries to abandon maternal instincts—when an egg is laid, the chickens crow in surprise to discover it, then go on their way. By virtue of their “nut-sized brains” and short memories, the chickens live in the present. “By the time a snowflake has landed, snowflakes are all a chicken has ever known. Theirs is a world of only snowflakes or not.” This makes them excellent therapeutic tools for a woman who is mourning both the past and the present. The fantasy of the simple, carefree life of a chicken is challenged by the bouts of distress they experience. In fact, the chickens’ lives are marked by trauma, from frigidly cold Minnesotan winters to overly hot summers, plus raccoons, hawks, a freeloading goose, and other unknown assailants.
The narrator’s husband, Percy, is a respected economic theorist who interviews for a job as a professor at a prestigious university in California in the early pages of the book. His confidence that he will get the job imbues each anecdote of the chickens with a sense of an ending, since if he gets the job—or, according to him, when he gets the job—they will have to get rid of the chickens. Polzin wryly uses the certain language of academic theories and proofs that we are to understand makes up Percy’s books and articles in the narrator’s own observations. “Farmers are wise from experience,” she writes, “so it follows that we knew nothing.” It follows makes the statement appear logical and neat, but it is not quite factual. Non-farmers must know some things (as a non-farmer, I say this hopefully.) The peace of perfect rationality, while appealing, does not apply to the many emotional and irrational elements of human life. This idea comes to a comical head when the narrator, struggling with insomnia, tries to determine how her husband sleeps at night. “Percy has no trouble sleeping. His secret, because I’ve asked, is that he doesn’t see the point of lying in bed awake. Good for him and his all-encompassing reason.”
Polzin carefully avoids the pitfalls of cliché, elucidating the terror and surprise of raising chickens while leaving the emotions of miscarriage and infertility veritably untouched. In this way, the entire novel is as layered as its title. In fact, there isn’t much brooding (in the sense of dark contemplation) that occurs, overtly at least. Yet each nugget of insight gleaned about the chickens has other meanings, to the point that the chickens become living, squawking Rorschach tests. When the narrator’s time with the chickens comes to an end, there is only the most passing hint at the loss she feels. Without the chickens there to interpret, the reader is in the dark.
By Jackie Polzin
Published March 9, 2021