The Bugs Know How to Find the Light: A Review of Michael Sikkema’s “You’ve Got a Pretty Hellmouth”

In Michael Sikkema’s full-length poetry collection You’ve Got a Pretty Hellmouth (Trembling Pillow Press, 2019), there are four sections: Time Missing, The Incidents at Flat Mountain, You’ve Got a Pretty Hellmouth, and Up Thrust a Ruckus. These mini collections examine isolation, evolution, violence, and human connection through human-like characters, robots, and items found in nature. They are “items” because in the world Sikkema created, a crow or an ant are never just that – sometimes nature is programmed and manmade.

Time Missing plays with heat and light: who has it, who wants it, who changes despite it. The speaker started disappearing when he was five and has visitors who do things to him. Doctors visit. But who is in control and is there a victim? When the speaker cuts his arm:

some pieces of them walked

out of a cut on my wrist looked

like ants but were

metal mechanical I won’t say

the word robots I’m no sci fi


Strangers glow and so does the TV. Bugs crawl around and in the speaker’s body – they seem to have the most movement while the speaker is stuck inside rooms, watching light change from windows. The more bugs the speaker interacts with, the more his pain fades, the less conflicts he feels. The bugs crawl around but the term “data exchange” is also used frequently – reminding one of a computer “bug.” Maybe the speaker evolves into a memory of zeros and ones, leaving his body as it is invaded. The speaker confesses:

I was identity data

uploaded into a house pet

could walk windows with

suction cup feet worked

the later afternoons

Mostly my job was to reflect

light and heat to feign love

The Incidents at Flat Mountain follows the characters Jessie and Big Blue, who fight ants. They ride the wave of looking for light and warmth in a sterile room and fall down holes. The ants seem human-like and of course they are because they have goals and direction and purpose, maybe more so than their human counterparts:

Mankind’s dependence on holes, directly and indirectly, goes back to those distant times when the human species was first making its mark, first cutting and gouging, killing and skinning. Perhaps only some species of crabs and insects depend upon holes more than humans…Holes have never been more dangerous. This is the reason for the book.

Ants are revered in this collection, their importance elevated to that of humans. And they are terrifying. People are bitten in half and try to escape in trucks. But the ants have always been here and we must face our fears.

We leave the ant-pocalypse and Sikkema captures a poetic horror movie in “You’ve Got a Pretty Hellmouth,” complete with brawny guys and topless girls:

There are only

two reasons to be in

these woods and I want

to fuck them…

The poem is its own short film with a laser focus on pop culture and Americana. We get ideas like: steel roof, your own teeth, knives, cocks, sticks, sex at death lake, Welcome to the fam, “pre-sexual” in comic sans, Mom group, and gun.

The last section Up Thrust a Ruckus is war-torn and without borders. The characters are more disjointed and everyone owns a gun or a cage. Nel is a fighter and maybe our hero. Dunn seems like he is fighting for good until he maybe gets replicated and turned into a zombie. Miner seems without country and Birdbrain is not to be trusted. There seem to be robot parts mixed with birds and nature. One of the most disconcerting themes is putting something down to watch it rise up again. In flesh or in idea. Sikkema creates a poetic language for battle that is as beautiful as it is unsettling:

Nel knew Posse

couldn’t read lips. She knew

they can see eye to eye

and not understand

A wire alive

with thunderstorm and iron

stutter, Nel could follow

a flock of birds by hum

in their heads…she heard

the ambush broadcasted

like bushwack…

Following these characters and witnessing what they do to one another and where their allegiances lie is like reading a thick book of fiction. Sikkema conveys more meaning about humanity’s violent tendencies toward one another and toward the environment with less words than a two-thousand page Ludlum novel.

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in Midwest and is the author of four full-length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016), The Messenger is Already Dead (Stalking Horse Press, 2017), We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, which tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition, and The Vitamix and the Murder of Crows is forthcoming in 2018. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of 10 chapbooks. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Prelude, Cleaver, Yalobusha Review, decomp, and Inter/ruptureVisit her website.

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