Baptism by Fire is a tour de force, a triumph, one of the most powerful and provocative chapbooks I’ve ever read. This collection of brutal and brilliantly crafted poems, purged from the fiery depths of the soul of an exceptionally talented writer, left me rattled, enraged and thrilled.
The absolute fury in Muller’s voice is palpable, as if she is imbued with the collective rage of millennia of mistreated women. Muller’s work is a damning indictment of modern society’s failure to reject the archaic patriarchal norms that (still) exist solely to punish women, and her writing is so provocative, her imagery so devastating, that one cannot help but feel furious too.
The genius of this collection lies in the way we are allowed to witness the poet’s psychological and sexual transformation, her journey through womanhood from a god-fearing innocent child vulnerable to the male gaze (and worse) to a woman rejecting religion, reclaiming her body and conjuring the bravery to bite back. The poet’s rebirth as a sexually awakened, assertive soul, a tempest, a hurricane, a force to be reckoned with is a joy to experience; we root for the woman writing these poems, we want her to dismantle the pedestals that men comfortably sit atop, we want the men in these poems to hurt themselves as they fall from grace, to experience a fraction of the pain they’ve inflicted on undeserving women; we want Muller to reign triumphant, to win all of her battles, so to see the poet emerge as a fighting force refusing to accept misogynistic behaviour is a delight.
The religious imagery that features throughout Baptism by Fire I found to be particularly effective because certain scenes in Muller’s writing felt godless, like God wasn’t there. I also adored Muller’s descriptions of ‘sweetness’ throughout her poems; this ‘sweetness’ coupled with powerful descriptions of the natural world (trees in particular) cleverly juxtaposed against depictions of physical and sexual violence serves to emphasise the innocence and beauty of the women and world these men carelessly destroyed.
The violence and graphic language however is not gratuitous – Muller’s words are carefully chosen and provide a gut-punch at the right moments. Her storytelling is simultaneously traditional (some poetry following formal rhyme schemes, and expertly placed nursery rhyme, folklore, mythical allusions) and highly innovative – Muller’s symbolic interpretations of blood and trees are modern and provocative, and I admire the way in which the poet has studied myths that are thousands of years old and related them to her own lived experiences in her gritty, raw, devastating and utterly unique style.
As Stoya says in the introduction to Baptism by Fire, “an angry woman remains a political act… Rage, here, is transcended into art.” And that is exactly what the pages of this chapbook contain: rage for days, fire, guts, grit, devastation and, most importantly, the writer’s renaissance. Muller has regained the power stolen from her by the patriarchy, and I hope she holds onto it with all her might and never lets it go.
This is a bold, brave and often unsettling and utterly devastating collection that deserves to be read by everyone and anyone who has a fire burning in their bellies.
Poem that stayed with me, that I couldn’t stop thinking about for days:
Honestly, the entire book stayed with me, but ‘Choked at birth’ in particular has haunted me
Other personal favourite poems:
What Are You Made Of? / Roses / Flame / The Alchemy / Nests / Seedpod / My Forest / Apple of Their Eye