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An Illusory Discovery: Review of MARE'S NEST

Holly Mitchell

Mare’s Nest

Sarabande / May 2023 / 84 pp / $16.95

Reviewed by Rachel Thomas / February 2024



Holly Mitchell is a New York-based Kentucky poet and a winner of the Amy Award from Poets & Writers. Her debut, Mare’s Nest—selected for the Sarabande Series in Kentucky Literature—ends with a lexicon defining terms that would be unfamiliar to those not part of the horse-breeding world, and this lexicon notes that a mare’s nest is either “a complex and difficult situation; a muddle” or “an illusory discovery.” The contrast between the colloquial meaning of the term and its maternal, nurturing connotations is key to Mitchell’s thematic exploration of generational memory, queer adolescence, female identity and embodiment, and particularly the economy of female bodies and the actions taken toward, or against, them. Complexities and difficulties are inherent to Mitchell’s depictions of horse breeding and farming, the author’s own close extended family (she opens the book with a list of names and relationships), and notions of the South—both the good and the problematic. In Mitchell's book, the interplay of complexities within the Southern context, family dynamics, and the symbolism of horse breeding results in the illusory discovery that is at the heart of Mare's Nest.


The lexicon provides essential context for the equine language and family history explored in the book, which is divided into two sections. In the first section, the reader finds themself entrenched in the world of horse breeding and, in some cases, the minds of the horses themselves, while the second section of the book focuses on the human family and cultural context. The opening section is highly atmospheric and visceral, filled with captivating, powerful, and sometimes brutal imagery, such as in “Afterbirth”:


(Red bag) my father calls

(placenta pulled over the foal’s mouth)


  There are never enough minutes 

to dial the vet 


This time my father is alone 

rends (it) open with his hands


(Gore veil)


(Inside out first)


(Devil’s tear duct)


The poet uses these parentheses to draw attention to the embodiment of the horses, specifically the female elements of these bodies, and the actions taken toward them. The lexicon and in-context explanations clarify this, although the connotations of the words provide atmosphere without understanding the technical terms: words like “gore veil” and “devil’s tear duct” need no explanation to convey the brutality and stark reality of the situation. In the poem “Separations,” the world of horse breeding and the actions of men toward the female body (both horse and human) meet. Mitchell continues the use of parentheses to force the reader into an intense pause to consider the experience of the horse:


maybe her foal

calls for her


 (                      )

this is how

it’s done


  my father yells.


Throughout the poem, there are references to men’s cavalier or egocentric approach to breeding, as the speaker’s ex-boyfriend comments,


ever since I left

the womb he jokes

I’ve been trying

                              to go back


and the commentary on the choices men enact on female bodies does not stop with horses:


a shadow

            on his monitor

her pregnancy

could be twins

                           one to be pinched

                                          for the other’s health


an abortion

                                        that Southern

                                        men think nothing of—


This nod to the battle for abortion rights is also a nod to the interconnectedness and complexity of the animal and the human, the farm and Mitchell’s family. Mitchell examines the economization of the female body throughout the first section of the book, particularly in prose poems like “Great-Grandma Weaver,” in which Mitchell reflects on her great-grandmother and the role of matriarch: “I’m still turning over words for matriarch. Dame, dowager, matron, queen. Is money the only way we can name a



Many of Mitchell’s poems point to the value of female communion—as in “Turning Out (The First Year)”: “The dams have waited out / labor & stall rest . . . / They crave more / tender grass & sisterhood”— while calling attention to the way that women’s bodies have historically been viewed for their capacity to make money. Mitchell does this perhaps most eloquently in “Horse Theater,” in which she details an ex-boyfriend’s visit to the farm while she cares for a pregnant mare:


I am leaving for the summer.

He asks where


is the place to piss.

We can walk to the house,


but he insists on the barn

where I work.


The man insists on “marking” the speaker’s place of work. The point of value for the speaker, though, is in her communion with the horse:


I put my nose before hers

& breathe in like a horse.


It’s bad husbandry. 

She could kill me like this,


but she sniffs so readily

as if she couldn’t wait to talk.


There is real trust between the two female characters in the poem undeterred by the implied double meaning of “bad husbandry.”


Matriarchy connects the theme of female identity and the exploration of generational memory in the book. In “Gates in the Wind,” the atmospheres of both Mitchell’s human family and the horses are blended through beautiful imagery describing the evening sounds made by all of the human and animal members of the household and farm: “At night, the husband typed stories. / And the wife played scales on her Western concert flute [. . .] It wasn’t a hive mind. / Each spoke its own note.” Each member of the household is portrayed as equally significant within the complete picture. “Vulgar Phase” discusses the speaker’s departure from the family’s traditions of matrilineal ritual and authority, suggesting that she is in a “vulgar phase” of her own life:


Three generations of women

shelled the green beans we’d eat . . .


but I slipped away for a taste

of creek water . . .


& Mom hissed my name,

Holly, like its sly ending

could’ve lit a stove,

stewing Vidalia onions

with gravel instead of beans.


Departing from the expectations of the matrilineal line is a modern rite of passage for many girls in Appalachia and the southern United States, and the culture described in this book walks a line between the expectations of these two regions. Shelling beans is a ritual the speaker forgoes to have her own adventure, which is deemed vulgar and is connected to the food, or the ability to nourish.


In the melancholy ghazal “Invocation,” the speaker calls on her great-grandfather with some hesitation, as described in the second line of each couplet: she has forgotten where he is buried. Though this detail has been forgotten, this ancestor, as a founder of the family, is undeniably a muse for the speaker, and the theme of memory is just as undeniable, as the speaker pledges


I will wait for whatever voice you send, a rasp

because I have forgotten where you are buried


or a congregation of Paul Weavers singing—

because I have forgotten where you are buried—


suggesting that memory is cyclical; that what we remember may only be strengthened by having been forgotten. Mare’s Nest by Holly Mitchell is a poignant exploration of the complexities inherent to Southern life, family dynamics, and the symbolism of horse breeding.


Rachel Thomas is an MFA candidate in poetry at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University. She is a high school teacher and adjunct professor who lives in southeastern Kentucky.




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