Brood, by Jackie Polzin

Hanging out with chickens brings the fundamentals into focus. Death, birth, grief, loss, and our communal nature comprise theme as well as substance of Jackie Polzin’s meandering narrative.

It was the pairing of miscarriage and poultry that prompted me to peruse Brood. At the outset of this short novel, the unnamed protagonist has been caring for her flock of backyard chickens for four years. Accounts of subzero Minnesota winters, poultry trivia, run-ins with neighbors, friends ignorant of eggs and their ways, and the narrator’s professional house cleaning eventually reveal the miscarriage six years in her past.

I came to chicken keeping in 2009 with purely utilitarian interests. A neighbor proposed a partnership, whereby our family would house the chickens in our existing but uninhabited dog run. Both households would share the labor, expense, and eggs. I readily agreed, but, ambivalent toward animals and allergic to most, I was up front: I was in it only for the eggs. 

At the time we had a two-year-old. I soon found myself expectant with what was to be our last—a pregnancy that would end in miscarriage. Maybe the absence of siblings contributed to our daughter’s love affair with chickens. Whatever the case, her enthusiasm more than made up for my lack of it.

On that mild, February Super Bowl Sunday when we brought the chickens home, I let the last of the lumbering black Australorps out of its burlap bag. Straightening, I turned to find my daughter, grinning and triumphant, cradling a hen half her size. In the ensuing weeks she adopted them as sisters, hung out in their house, and carted the obliging hens about in her plastic wagon. Years later I read that one shouldn’t allow children to play with chickens unsupervised—should never, under any circumstances, allow children to kiss or hug them. Too late. She survived.

As our daughter grew, her appreciation for poultry proved contagious. In the wake of the six Australorps, indistinguishable in their glossy anonymity, followed chickens of varying breeds, names, and personalities. At a point when we were down to two hens, my sister dropped off three she’d found on Craigslist. Another we nabbed from the porch of a vacant house after watching her roam the neighborhood for a few days. At age nine or ten, my daughter took over the chickens; I, having caught the bird fever, moved on to pigeons. (But that’s another story.)

All this accounts for the resonance I felt with Polzin’s narrator, both in her longing for motherhood and in her frantic efforts to safeguard her chickens. For surely the two intersect—the twin instincts to nurture creatures whose existence depends on us. (Admittedly, the roving chickens of Hawaii, whose existence I recently discovered, survive on their own much longer than a human infant would in the wild. But domestic poultry in North America—not so much.)

The voice of Brood’s narrator rings with bantering irony. But beneath it lurks the reality of death and deterioration. By the end of the book, all four members of her flock have gone the way of these lower-end-of-the-food-chain creatures, dispatched by cold or predation or the mysterious maladies that arrest seemingly healthy hens in the prime of life.

Cleaning houses for her realtor friend Helen provides Pozlin’s protagonist ample opportunity for reflection. Neither order nor cleanliness, she propounds, is a natural condition. All things tend toward chaos. What is dust, if not evidence of the unavoidable degeneracy of matter? Indeed, the temporal limitation on a woman’s ability to conceive is itself testimony to her body’s inevitable march toward the grave.

The home of the narrator and her husband, Percy, provides further evidence of this predilection toward decay. Cracks proliferate in foundation and ceiling, and most of its neighbors boast boarded-up doors and windows. Generally speaking, the neighborhood has “not lived up to its potential.” Even the trains, which used to come with well-regulated predictability, now rumble by at all hours, disturbing the peace and weakening the walls.

Percy is an unemployed economist whose self-absorption yields boundless optimism, despite the obscurity of his publications and the apparent paucity of his income. Where the chickens reduce life to its essentials, Percy takes the stuff of everyday and makes it arcane. Why did manufacturers eliminate dried eggs from brownie mixes? Percy’s enlightening conclusion: So home bakers could add their own and increase their sense of accomplishment.

Early in Brood Percy flies to California to interview with a university. If, against the odds, he gets the job, the chickens will have to stay behind; the university township does not allow poultry. Percy the theorist will miss the ideaof himself as someone who keeps chickens. His wife will miss their flesh-and-feathered selves.

Certainly not all women yearn for motherhood. I didn’t until nearing thirty. But Percy’s indifference and the narrator’s longing, which receives and requires no justification, follow well-worn tropes. Whatever the explanation for these stereotypes, one doesn’t have to search far for real-world examples.

The narrator also boldly asserts that every pregnant woman wants a daughter; if she says she wants a son, she is self-deceived. I’m not entirely convinced on this point, but on her statement that “the child will be a boy or a girl” I am agreed.  A chicken will be a hen or a rooster. Some things are determined in the egg.

It is difficult to say which undergoes greater alteration in the course of the book—Percy or his wife’s perception of him. By the conclusion he has gone from hypothetical partner in chicken keeping to the sort of husband who stays up alone into the wee hours, abetting the search for the lost last chicken. When he finds her, mangled, he yields up the evidence of her decease to his wife with the utmost delicacy.

Some passages suggest Percy may have been equally attentive all along. On the day the baby was to be born, his wife describes the he his customary attentions, pouring her coffee, clearing her plate, looking up from his work to smile at her. She is hurt that he has torn the day from his dated notebook, but, as a reader, I can think of multiple explanations for such a gesture. Grief and insecurity can profoundly affect a marriage. The narrator admits, “Sometimes I do question my role in his life and the likelihood of exhausting it” (128).

The demise of the final chicken enables the couple to move to California unencumbered by an illegal chicken. But within the world of the book, it also suggests the chickens have served their purpose. They have provided bereaved maternity with creatures in need of care. They have occasioned reflection. They have moved on, and they allow their keeper to do the same.

The narrator of Brood often observes that chickens do not remember or anticipate. All times are now. To reflect and analyze is a privilege—and a curse—reserved for their owners. Perhaps the rambling nature of Polzin’s narrative mirrors a chicken’s experience of the world. All scenes, whether six years ago or six days, are now. Context and brief verbal time stamps clarify when needed, but chronology doesn’t matter substantially.

The telescoped process we witness is all the more painful for its essentially private nature. A friend once commented to me that a miscarriage is a solitary grief; no one but the mother knew and experienced the reality of her deceased child. Perhaps this is why, as Polzin observed in an interview with the Center for Fiction, fertility and miscarriage are uncommon topics in our society both for conversation and literature.

I appreciate that Brood doesn’t end with a birth announcement; not all griefs are salved. Months after my miscarriage, I was forced, at age thirty-seven, to come to grips with my post-menopausal condition. When a friend gave me a book of stories about infertility and adoption, I thanked her but said, “I’m not ready to read other people’s happy endings.”

Nor does Polzin fall in with those who told me (in all justice), “At least you’ve got one child.” Brood’s narrator muses, “If our baby had gone on living, I, too, would want another. I suppose it would feel no different from the way things are” (p. 84).

For all that, this is not a book about infertility. It’s a book about a woman, who happens to be childless against her preferences, caring for a flock of chickens. She is defined neither by her childlessness nor by her profession. She cleans houses, but not as a steady occupation. She attended university, but we are not told what she studied or what career options might lie open to her.

For better or worse, all of us are defined to some degree by our relationships—son, daughter, spouse, friend. Polzin’s protagonist manifests few close relationships in this passage of her life. Moments of vulnerability with Percy and Helen are scarce. Her cross-country move, away from a nurturing, if spartan, mother, neighbors, however distant, and Helen, however wanting in understanding, poses genuine risk. Apart from Percy, at last sufficiently steady to constitute a reliable life partner, the protagonist seems a bit adrift, without family, profession, chickens, or even a name to anchor her.

An expert story teller, Polzin keeps to observable facts, whether that be poultry science or a tornado tearing through the chicken yard. Even her protagonist’s philosophizing concerns the concrete—the qualities of clean surfaces, the tendencies of dirt. Good stories, like chickens, present the facts and invite the reader to brood upon them. Polzin’s compact work is one of these.

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