Down the Rabbit Hole: Erina Harris’s The Stag Head Spoke

In her first book of poetry, The Stag Head Spoke, Erina Harris’ dark and complex verse takes her readers down a rabbit hole. Harris removes our footing; what we catch in terms of characterization, or setting, or conclusion, what sense we make from syntax, comes through collage and glimpse and echo. Her expert play at language, reminding me at times of Dennis Lee’s work, acts like — to modify Lewis Carroll’s metaphor — setae or bristles on an earthworm. We are pulled along. We see the spectacle. We are spoken to.

The stag head spoke:

“This is the house.
It collects children.
In they ride.

Come in, come in.”
The stag head spoke
From its plaque, inscribed

Harris’s book of poetry is part journey, part bestiary, part theatre, but at no point does it feel like the poems have been fabricated to fit a preconceived conceptual framework. The ten years she took to write this book were well used.

Harris divides The Stag Head Spoke into two books: “Bestiary: The Enfantesques” and “For the Suicide of Vespertine; The Figures”. The first book is a journey that can be read in several ways — as the loss of innocence, or as an examination of ecology’s deepest sense: humanity’s connection to earth, our home, our house. Harris begins, delightfully enough, in a classroom — not to be instructed by the teacher, but by the dunce in the corner and his shadow.

Ambling, one two we traipsed along went –

metal lunch boxes toted hi ho
by small secret soldiers,

daytime had lent
us its things in snowflake fusillade


beneath their shelf we are the visible
The dirty princess, the spectacled boy, we
are the watched a kingdom we imagine

in our image we make in stick-time
puttied, in scissor-time rutted
in time

of the table, a song.

We are not allowed to rest, but are quickly toppled with Dionysian excess in poems like “Rocking-Man” and “Messengers of Dusk: Tavern Song.”

The elegy in book two is our troubling sorrow, as song turns to mourning. For Harris, this mourning is for the loss of a friend, as she has stated in various online interviews, but it can be read at a more universal level as well. The stage, the place we stumble upon — a man in a marsh, twirling; a woman walking dank alleyways; another man, standing on a hilltop — acts as a heterotopia, a nowhere place.

The star appears to swell, not them. It turns –

It flails, or is it
the image of damage among the others, and it, skids
stiffly alighting in momentum, its, into momentum, from or for unlight
unlit outside of it, as if toward the others, skidding, lit –

or toward darkness

Each act in book two plays out the same three scenes with its three figures, as if Harris is taking us around and around the carousel, the carnival of sorrow, to see it differently each time. We are brought face to face with the absurdity of death:

Man with box of god in tow, with heave-ho, he steps off –
pointing deities up high above
all hill all visible, beside

The listening.
Into mental night motherless growing.

The depth of the poet’s grief unfinishes us, and echoes with the voice of the dunce’s shadow in the beginning of book one: “A monster’s work is never done.”


Al Rempel’s books of poetry are This Isn’t the Apocalypse We Hoped For and Understories. His poems have appeared in subTerrain, CV2, and Event. He can be found at



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