On Violence and Vulnerability in Carolyn Hembree’s “Pig” with K.B. McElhatten

Hembree pic

When writing about “Pig,” it’s hard to use the words enjoy, like, or favoritelines. The poem makes me uncomfortable and uneasy, and the violence of it makes these words feel wrong. Instead, I will use the word amaze. What amazes me about “Pig” is how the poet establishes a simultaneous state of violence and vulnerability. Carolyn Hembree begins “Pig” with,

The pig’s hindquarters flip-flopped;

a cane, finger’s length, into its vagina slid.

Meet its eye; your fear to the wayside dropped.

To create this state, many things are at work, but for me most notable are Hembree’s use of phonics, irregular meter and juxtaposition. Hembree creates violence with the sounds of the words: the plosive /p/, /b/, and /f/ combined with the guttural /g/ and the fricatives /s/ and /z/. This combination creates a tension that is accented by Hembree’s choice of irregular meter — with unexpected accented syllables, to mimic the beating of “the pig to marshmallow.” Hembree positions this violence against the vulnerability of the pig, “flip-flopped” with “a cane…into its vagina slid.” Here the words cane and vagina jab at me. Cane: hard and crooked, with its long history of violence. Vagina: its soft, tender tissue. This juxtaposition is unsettling. And with this vulnerability, I meet the pig’s eye in line three, where like the speaker, I am ashamed. I am ashamed to have borne witness to the violence and to have been helpless to stop it.

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