Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Milk by Darcey Steinke


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




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The three central characters of Darcey Steinke’s new novel, Milk, are all dreaming that they will get what they are looking for. Mary, a young mother whose husband neglects her and the child, dreams of finding the touch of God. She moves into the rectory of her college friend, Walter, a gay Episcopal priest mourning the death of his lover, and who dreams of finding comfort from his desire. The third central character is John, a former monk, who left the cloistered life after 15 years dreaming that he will rediscover his sexuality and find intimacy.


Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 3, from part I, Mary, pp. 27-31:


When Mary woke at two A.M. her husband was still not home. The baby slept pressed against her breast like a puppy in a litter, and she was afraid if she slept again she’d smother him with her hair. She heard this had happened in Utah, a baby choked by sucking a clump of his mother’s hair; she heard too that a father had forgotten his baby in a car seat and that the baby, in the heat of the sealed car, had died. She heard that a helicopter blade had decapitated a baby, and that a grandmother on a ferryboat had lost her grip and her tiny granddaughter had disappeared into the boat’s churning water.

The baby whimpered and agitated his mouth. She carried him to the front room, sat on the blue chair and helped him latch on to her nipple. Objects in the dark glinted, as if mica chips ran through everything. Her lucidity was terrifying; she wanted her consciousness to break down into softer parts. So she ran through all the car games she’d played as a kid. Telling the baby how first she would ask a silly question and then her mother would ask an even sillier one: Can I eat my hat for lunch? Are your underpants made of ice cream? Did you like your butterfly sandwich? And then the other game where her mother would give her a choice between two things: Would you rather be a dog or a cat? Would you rather be a cheese sand­wich or a toasted cheese sandwich?

The phone started its electronic purr and for some reason she thought of an image from her childhood: President Kennedy’s wounded head, not scary now, just soft and sad. After the beep her husband said, These jokers are keeping me out all night. Muffled shouts, a girl said something in French and then her husband again: If I can get a cab, I’ll be home soon, if not, I’ll have to take the subway. And it was in the silence after the tape rolled back as she set the baby in his bassinet that a flash of light came from a source behind her. She turned and saw the sparks hovering again but this time in the corner of the bedroom.

She walked closer; each diorama showed a different scene. A porcelain lamp, a fluorescent panel, each smaller than a pea but so particular, as if her eyes were as powerful as microscopes. A chrome lamp showed a woman cutting the fingernails of a small child, and an oak tree was silhou­etted by a streetlight. She stepped closer and saw the expression on the face of an old man reading a newspaper.


Outside half-hearted flurries swirled down over the side­walk. She’d decided to put the baby into the carrier and walk down to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Flakes collected on the shoulders of her coat, and the cold bit into her bare hands. Since the very first week of her pregnancy all her senses had been elevated. She was like a wolf able to smell cigarette smoke from half a block away and warm Chinese food from the restaurant on Court Street. Her vision was sharper too; she could make out every nuance of the rotting leaves between the grates of the gutter. Static snow flew around, and it was so quiet she could hear her own footfalls and so looked down at her boots making patterns in the fine layer of sidewalk snow.

She looked up to the lower Manhattan skyline. Office windows lit up like links in a gold chain. Flakes whirled around as she stood on the cobblestones between Bargemusic and the River Café. Bee lights covered the maples. Above them, the stone base of the bridge, steel girders fanning out. Through the restaurant’s sliding doors she saw a bartender in a white jacket move into view, pick up a glass and step toward the liquor bottles, which were tiny and radiant as jewels.


When she got home her husband was sleeping fully clothed on the bed, his hair reeking of cigarette smoke. She watched him for a while, his chest moving up and down, his eyelids jerking in REM sleep. He was very beautiful with his long face and narrow shoulders, like a stone prince on top of a crypt. When she first met him her own father had just gotten married again and she’d been new to New York City and lonely. He was a bike messenger with a long ponytail, he smoked joints in the back of churches on his rounds and on the weekends took her to raves where they took ecstasy and danced in crowds of sweaty people. Stellar sex always followed and she wanted him past all of her expe­rience of wanting. Wanting him was like wanting the moon, an aloof and glamorous disk of shifting light.

The baby began to whine. She changed his diaper, then sat with him in the blue chair, but each time she offered her nipple, he pursed his lips and turned his face away. To calm him she walked around the apartment. It was as ritualistic as the Stations of the Cross, beginning with her polka-dot shirt; she held up the shirt on its hanger and he grew pensive. Before the pattern ceased to interest him, she moved on to the ivy plant, that one particular leaf that fascinated him, and she felt him relax his weight against her shoulder; his head fell into the crook of her neck and he slept.


Steinke’s prose is spare and poetic, and Milk will appeal to readers who are prone to appreciate the delicate way she weaves the stories of three characters together, and explores in a tentative way the connections between sexuality and spirituality. We all long for the nourishment we need in life, from mother’s milk, through relationships, through finding meaning and purpose. Milk touches on those themes and leaves readers thinking.


Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the October 2005 issue of Executive Times


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