The Strange Egg – Kirstie Millar
Illustrations by Hannah Mumby
(The Emma Press 2023)
Paperback ISBN: 9781915628022 £10
“’Doctor, I had a terrible dream. In my dream I saw my own body, and I saw what you will do to it.‘
A woman is faced, month after month, with the birth of a strange egg. Her doctor asks that she take notes on her symptoms, documenting black blood clots as big as pennies, winking stars in her eyes, and relentless pain. As the woman waits for aid from her doctor, she begins to have strange premonitions of what will be done to her body. The egg, meanwhile, is watchful and demanding. Impatient.
The Strange Egg is as gorgeous as it is horrifying. Highly original, it challenges long-held beliefs that people of marginalised genders are unreliable and irrational witnesses to our own bodies.”
Kirstie Millar’s surreal pamphlet-length prose poem is so much more than the sum of its parts; it is indefinable, genre defying. Hannah Mumby’s illustrations act as a powerful vehicle to both enhance and underpin Millar’s visceral prose.
In 2017 Millar founded Ache, an intersectional feminist press publishing writing and art on illness, health, bodies and pain. Millar has endometriosis and The Strange Egg is an innovative way of expressing this illness/diagnosis creatively. This surreal exploration of illness contrasts strongly with the everyday rationalism health professionals require from their patients. It took Millar nine years to get a diagnosis and this pamphlet, written after her third surgery, uses the idea of the strange egg as an allegorical presence. It is the elephant in the room, the accumulation of years of shame, pain, anger and trauma and a representation of how endometriosis can cause a disturbing, pregnancy-like stomach swelling. The structure of the piece cleverly reflects the content: it’s written in 28 sections, to imitate the menstrual cycle.
“Doctor: There’s a good girl. Now, would you like to see your egg?
Everything appears black and watery and eternal. But then your gloved finger traces something. I lean closer and I see it:
A strange new egg. Engorged and vicious. Humming with delight.”
(from Section 16)
Millar’s protagonist negotiates a landscape imbued with the colour red. There are references to the hunter and the hunted. Red is always present.
“…a bright red rug stretches like a tongue.”
“Then suddenly a ripping, a hot damp heat splashing through my core…There is blood. Pulsing and chaotic and everywhere. I look down at the snow. See it is crimson, shimmering and horrible.”
“A nurse greets me at the desk. Her cheeks are dusted pink and her mouth brimming with large, luminous teeth.”
“He looks at me with pity. But upon seeing my terrible blood, seeping and crimson and everywhere, he lurches away, mortified.”
“I rise. My abdomen half-slaughtered, my legs shaking and ungainly.”
Millar’s is a mythical tale, populated with hunters, fawns, Doctors, a landlady’s sons, a wild dog. At times it is a gruesome manifestation of Little Red Riding Hood, the fairy tale that aims to teach girls on the cusp of puberty how to negotiate the dangerous path to adult sexuality. Millar’s illness has taught her there is no such thing as resolution, but there is hope:
“Outside it is clean and glorious. I limp behind the fawn as if newly born. We go further until my body rages in pain and my wounds pulse. We go further and further until we reach our joyous destination.”
(from Section 28)
It is unusual and refreshing to find an illustrated pamphlet aimed at adults and Emma Press are keen to include artwork with their publications wherever they can. Mumby felt it important to embrace the power and presence of red in Millar’s prose and her palette ranges from bright, glowing reds to pinky, more burgundy-like reds. Mumby makes marbled paper which she then scans and uses fragments from to inform her illustrations. It gives them an uncontrollably fluid texture which goes perfectly with the themes and ideas contained in Millar’s words. Mumby was also behind the lettering choice for the book’s cover, sourcing a 1638 woodcut alphabet. Not only does this serve to highlight the folkloric feel of the book but the alphabet has organic, tubular, branch-like shapes which echo both the forest and the medical procedures in the text, as well as evoking fallopian tubes. Mumby’s illustrations include as many egg shapes as possible to show the persistence of the egg in the text.
The Strange Egg is an arresting and disturbing piece of work which brings the horror of this illness to vivid life. I can guarantee you will not have read anything like it!
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The Strange Egg
Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK. She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University. Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet. She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris. This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News. She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic. Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon. More information at www.sueburge.uk
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