The Domestic Fabulism of Adoption in Stacey Balkun’s Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.


Stacey Balkun's – Jackalope-Girl Learns to SpeakAccording to The Adoption History Project, “[a]pproximately 5 million Americans alive today are adoptees, 2-4 percent of all families have adopted, and 2.5 percent of all children under 18 are adopted.” Despite the statistics from the Department of History at the University of Oregon, it seems as though less than 2-4 percent, less than 2.5 percent, and most likely far less than one percent of contemporary American poetry is about, concerned with, or brushes up against adoption issues and themes. Even in tv shows and movies, aside from characters such as Clark Kent, Natalie from The Facts of Life, Punky Brewster from Punky Brewster, and the movies Juno and Elf, there are few adopted characters or themes of adoption. As an adoptee, this is of some concern to me, especially since I never wrote poems about adoption until recently in the 48th year of my life. I think part of the cause for the lack of adoption poems for others and myself is that many adopted children, according to my research and own experience, tend to either just accept the issue, ignore the issue, or just forget they were adopted. The adoptee accepts their adopted parents and moves on with life. Fortunately, Stacey Balkun’s chapbook Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak (Dancing Girl Press & Studio, 2016) is wholly concerned with the adopted life.

Perhaps another possibility for the lack of adoption poems is the poet not knowing how to successfully write an adoption-centric poem in a way that isn’t predictable, sentimental, insincere, or lacking nuance. Balkun, however, found a way. In Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak, she uses the characters Jackalope-Girl (representing an adopted female) and Antler-Girl (representing Jackalope-Girl’s birthmother) to tell the allegorical story of Balkun (or a female adoptee) growing up as an adopted person. While I think it’s an allegorical story, others might call it “domestic fabulism,” which is akin to Magical Realism of the home life, or home life told in the manner of a fable, or as Catherine Moore says in an interview about an anthology of domestic fabulist poetry she co-edited with Stacey Balkun, domestic fabulism is where “myth and magic easily co-exists with domestic concerns; indeed, if often amplifies the drama of the ordinary.” As a result, we enter an everyday world in Big Sky country of Longview, Texas, as well as a northeast suburb, where there are proms, cigarette smoking, sex, and dentists. Within this ordinary world, the fabulist elements of a jackalope child born from an antelope mother and rabbit father can exaggerate, or amplify, the life of adoption so as to subvert the reader’s expectations and generalizations of the life of an adoptee and the adoptee’s birth parents and adopted parents.

In many stories of birth parents, the birth father is often considered an absent father or a derelict, is told to leave the relationship, or is just plain ignored. In Jackalope-Girl, the only three things the reader learns about the father are that he is a rabbit who once had sex with Jackalope’s birthmother (Antler-Girl), and both were “uncertain” of what they were doing sexually (“Jackalope-Girl’s First Time”). After the sexual encounter, the mother then drove home alone. The mother had an innocent night of sex and the father didn’t even know of the pregnancy. He is ignorant of his jackalope child. The collection of poems, however, isn’t about the absent father, but the domestic fabulism makes us reimagine a new way of looking at the birth father – he’s not necessarily a dead beat or scum bag, he just may not know he even has a child since the mother drove away without telling him.

Even though Jackalope-Girl briefly mentions the father or suggests the father by way of his absence, the poems are more focused on the Jackalope-Girl, Antler-Girl, and Jackalope-Girl’s adopted parents. We learn that Antler-Girl (the birth mother) early on had plans for adoption and even had an adoption lawyer. Despite all this “When the jackalope-girl lost her fur / in the third trimester, her mother’s / body trembled, sensing loss,” which implies the mother was caring and loving of her child, and was not the uncaring or irresponsible mother that so many stereotypes about birthmothers perpetuate. Because the poem alters a human mother into animal form, the poem is better able to engage the reader in a story that subverts typical expectations by presenting a responsible and caring birthmother. In other words, if the poem used humans, the story might seem bland and unreal. For instance, later in the same poem:

     jackalope-girl [still in the mother’s womb] felt
     the distant voice [of the adoption lawyer on the phone]. Her thighs
     stretched into muscle meant for leaping

     and her nose twitched, eager
     to memorize the smell of south.
     She felt soft as steamed cornbread.   (10-15)

By using these elements of domestic fabulism, it becomes believable that there is a loving and responsible birth mother, and the unbelievability that a baby could hear the voice of the adoption lawyer on the telephone, and that she was “eager” to inhabit the south becomes believable. As a result, the reader gains new perspectives on birthmothers, adopted children, and birthmother-child relationships.

Balkun’s use of domestic fabulism also allows the reader to enter the mind of an adopted child who is often (always?) trying to fit into her adopted world or her adopted world is forcing her to fit into it. For instance, in “Inoculation,” the reader encounters Jackalope-Girl as a baby with “Rabbit teeth [that] grow forever: two up, / two down” (3-4) that would grow into antlers unless she “chewed on wood / or stones” (4-5). Even as a baby, she instinctively knows how to take care of her teeth, but her adopted parents (who seem to be humans and not animals) did not and they did not want her to have antler teeth. They “wanted it / stopped” (9-9), so the parents “had the dentist inject muscle relaxers / into her gums [. . .] / She bared her teeth / and screeched, but his pliers had already grabbed hold” (9-10, 11-12). Later on, in “Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak,” Jackalope-Girl’s “first word was mistaken / for a whimper” (2-3) by her adopted parents; further, when she “asked only for milk” (3) and “clover” (4), her “surrogate mother laughed and handed me [Jackalope-Girl] a binky” (5-6). In other words, just as a colonizer imposes their ways on the colonized, there is an unnatural transition from birth world to adopted world, much misunderstanding between the two worlds, and the adopted parents (colonizers) enforce their ways on the adopted child (colonized). Perhaps this is one reason (consciously or not) why Balkun chose to represent the adopted child as an animal since colonizers often view the colonized as animals.

Also, inherent to this living in an adopted world is whether the child should fight it or accept it. Or maybe it’s a fight for the adoptee’s birth world or flight from the birth world to the adopted world. Perhaps this is the main theme of the collection of poems. I imagine most adoptees have this concern at least once in their life, and may ask him/herself conflicting questions, such as: “Should I try to discover who I am?” or “Why do I feel so different from my adopted family members?” versus “Should I just accept this adopted world that makes me into something that is different than my instinctual self?” Early on, Jackalope-Girl is resistant to her adopted world, “I was born to an electric storm / in winter. I can’t be caught” (“Inoculation” 30-31), because she can feel “big sky country” of where she was born and instinctually she can feel her antler self, even though her antlers have been “filed down” (20). In fact, she wants so much to return to her birth world, she invents the allegorical “Animal City,” a sanctuary city for adopted children who feel at ease with themselves and speak a language they can all understand. It is the promised land before the colonizers (parents) arrived.

Jackalope-Girl is conflicted and perhaps always will be, which is something readers might not expect of adoptees had Balkun not used the allegorical animal figure of a jackalope as a representation of an adoptee, and as brief as the collection of poems is (16 poems across 24 pages), we get an intimate insight into the life of an adopted person. I do hope for more of these poems or an expansion of this collection as I think there is still more to explore. Nonetheless, any reader of poetry will enjoy Stacey Balkun’s Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak and her domestic fabulism of the adopted.


Works Cited

Adoption Statistics.” The Adoption History Project. Department of History, University of Oregon, 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 28 June 2016.

Balkun, Stacey, and Catherine Moore. “NO FEE Submission Call and Interview – Fiolet & Wing: Anthology of Domestic Fabulist Poetry, DEADLINE: June 15, 2016.” Interview by Trish Hopkinson. Trish Hopkinson: A Selfish Poet. N.p., 7 June 2016. Web. 28 June 2016.


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