Hanging out with chickens brings the fundamentals into focus. Death, birth, grief, loss, and our communal nature comprise the theme and substance of Jackie Polzin’s meandering debut novel, Brood. At the outset of this short book, the unnamed narrator has been caring for her flock of backyard chickens for four years. Through her accounts of subzero Minnesota winters, poultry trivia, run-ins with neighbors, friends ignorant of eggs and their ways, and her professional house cleaning business, the narrator eventually reveals the miscarriage six years in her past.
It was the pairing of miscarriage and poultry that prompted me to peruse Brood. I came to chicken keeping in 2009 with purely utilitarian interests. A neighbor proposed a partnership, whereby both households would share the labor, expense, and eggs. I readily agreed, but, ambivalent toward animals and allergic to most, I was up front: I was in it only for the eggs.
Our initial six Australorps, indistinguishable in their glossy anonymity, were followed by chickens of varying breeds, names, and personalities. At the inception of the project we had a two-year-old daughter; I soon found myself expecting what was to be our last—a pregnancy that would end in miscarriage. Perhaps the absence of siblings accounted for my daughter’s immediate affection for the poultry; in any case, it proved contagious. At age nine or ten she took over caring for the chickens, and I, having caught the bird fever, moved on to pigeons. (But that’s another story.)
All this accounts for the resonance I felt with Polzin’s narrator, both in her longing for motherhood and in her frantic efforts to safeguard her chickens. For surely the two intersect—twin instincts to nurture creatures whose existence depends on us. (Admittedly, the roving chickens of Hawai’i, whose existence I recently discovered, survive on their own much longer than a human infant would in the wild. But domestic poultry in North America—not so much.)
Brood’s narrator is a master of ironic wit, but beneath her banter lurks the inescapable reality of death and deterioration. Her flock is constantly beset by the hardships that plague these bottom-of-the-food-chain creatures—cold, predators, the mysterious maladies that arrest seemingly healthy hens in the prime of life. “Life is the ongoing effort to live,” she observes. “Some people make it look easy. Chickens do not. Chickens die suddenly and without explanation.” Our household can confirm this to be true, although a chicken that dies suddenly is much to be preferred over one that lingers.
Indubitably, the demise of the narrator’s unborn child factors into all this meditation on death. But for all that, this is not a book about infertility. It’s a book about a woman, who happens to be childless against her preferences, caring for a flock of chickens. Her namelessness could suggest a sort of everywoman identity, or it could signal a need to find and define herself. As readers we gain access to only the narrowest of windows on her life—or a series of them in a seemingly random array. Our protagonist cleans houses, but not as a steady occupation. She has attended university, but we learn neither what she studied nor what career options she might possess. We are introduced to her mother but learn little else about her background.
Cleaning houses for her realtor friend, Helen, provides Polzin’s protagonist with ample opportunity for reflection. Neither order nor cleanliness, she propounds, is a natural condition. “Of all the circumstances that may randomly occur, cleanliness is not one of them. Cleanliness is a temporary state, inseparable from the act of cleaning.”
All things, in other words, tend toward chaos. What is dust, if not evidence of the unavoidable degeneracy of matter? Indeed, the temporal limitation on a woman’s ability to conceive is itself testimony to her body’s inevitable march toward the grave.
The home the narrator shares with her husband, Percy, provides further evidence of this predilection toward decay. “A house,” she avers, “falls apart. I have charted the growth of a crack in the kitchen ceiling for the six years I have lived in this house.” Most of the neighboring homes boast boarded-up doors and windows. Generally speaking, the neighborhood has “not lived up to its potential.”
Even the local rail lines manifest this tendency. “Trains used to run two times a day in a charming fashion. Three-quarters of a mile down the road, the engine would cough to life, followed by the heave-all clang of each car bumping up against the car in front of it, signaling the beginning of the show. . . . Now the trains pass by at all hours.” Their “nostalgic rumbling” has been replaced by a noise that is “irregular, sometimes jarring on account of the weight of crude oil.”
Husband Percy is an unemployed economist whose self-absorption yields boundless optimism, despite the obscurity of his publications and the apparent paucity of his income. Early in Brood, he flies to California to interview with a university. If, against the odds, he gets the job, the chickens will have to stay behind; the university township does not allow poultry. Percy claims he will miss the chickens. “I had no doubt,” his wife says, “Percy would miss the idea of himself as a man who owns chickens.” She will miss their flesh-and-feathered, needy selves.
Certainly not all women yearn for motherhood. But Percy’s indifference and the narrator’s longing, which receive and require no justification, follow well-worn tropes. Nevertheless, by the conclusion Percy has gone from hypothetical partner-in-chicken-keeping to the sort of husband who stays up alone into the wee hours, abetting the search for a lost hen.
Possibly, however, the real shift in the book is not in Percy but in his wife’s perception of him. Some passages suggest Percy may have been equally attentive all along. His wife describes his customary attentions on the day the baby was to be born, pouring her coffee, clearing her plate, looking up from his work to smile at her. But none of it obscures her prior discovery that he has torn the day from his dated notebook. “Nothing he could have written could have hurt me more than to know he had torn this page so carefully as to leave no trace of it.”
It is no secret that people handle grief differently. Perhaps the written reminder was too painful for Percy—or he feared its effects on her. Grief and insecurity can profoundly affect a marriage. The narrator admits, “Sometimes I do question my role in his life and the likelihood of exhausting it.”
The chickens reduce life to its essentials; Percy takes the stuff of everyday life and makes it arcane. In response to a claim that manufacturers eliminated dried eggs from brownie mixes to increase brownie makers’ sense of agency, Percy conducts an experiment. He makes two batches of brownies a day—one from a box and one from scratch. His enlightening conclusion: even though the brownies made with fresh eggs are more variable in quality, “we would rather contribute poorly than do nothing.”
Where Percy analyzes, the protagonist ponders. Both capacities are a privilege—and a curse—reserved for humans. The narrator often observes that for chickens all times are now. “A chicken has no memory of what has gone before and does not anticipate what comes after.”
The rambling nature of Polzin’s narrative merges timelessness and reflection. As with chickens, all written scenes, whether six years ago or six days ago, are now. Context and brief verbal time stamps clarify when needed, but chronology doesn’t matter substantially. Caring for her flock prompts the would-be mother to process her losses and roles as she relives the experiences leading up to and following her miscarriage, whether in or out of order.
The telescoped process we witness is all the more painful for its essentially private nature. A friend once commented to me that miscarriage is a solitary grief; no one but the mother knows and experiences the reality of her deceased child. Perhaps this is why, as Polzin observed in a 2021 interview with the Center for Fiction, fertility and miscarriage are uncommon topics in our society, both for conversation and literature. In the interview Polzin says of her miscarriage, “When I experienced it, it felt like silence was the rule and I felt so angered by that, so part of my motivation is just putting something out into the world that combats the quiet surrounding it.”
I appreciate that Brood doesn’t end with a birth announcement; not all griefs are salved. Months after my miscarriage I was forced, at age thirty-seven, to come to grips with my post-menopausal condition. When a friend gave me a book of stories about infertility and adoption, I thanked her but said, “I’m not ready to read other people’s happy endings.”
Nor does Polzin fall in with those who told me (in all justice), “At least you’ve got one child.” Brood’s narrator muses, “If our baby had gone on living, I, too, would want another. I suppose it would feel no different from the way things are.”
All of us are defined to some degree by our relationships—son, daughter, spouse, friend. Polzin’s protagonist manifests few close relationships in this passage of her life. Moments of vulnerability with Percy and her realtor friend Helen are scarce. Her cross-country move poses genuine risk, removing her from her mother, who is nurturing if spartan; neighbors, however distant; and Helen, however wanting in understanding. Her evolving relationship with Percy offers a glimmer of hope, whether one ascribes this to newfound steadiness on his part or growing security on hers.
A narrator with such a propensity for contemplation as that of Brood could risk losing the reader in the ether. But Polzin is an expert storyteller. She keeps to observable facts, whether that be poultry science or a tornado tearing through the chicken yard. Even her protagonist’s philosophizing concerns the concrete—the qualities of clean surfaces, the tendencies of dirt. Good stories present the facts and invite the reader to brood upon them. Polzin’s compact work is one of these.