“Real gods require blood.” Dantiel W. Moniz’s Milk Blood Heat opens with this haunting epigraph from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Moniz’s stories require just that. Blood. Life. The people and the world she creates on the page are alive, beating and thriving and demanding to be met on their own terms. Two young girls play at all the ways they can die, just as they are coming into their own bodies. Zey devours every word offered to her, creating a world from their many syllables as she self-destructs. A man vacillates between rage and pain as he mourns his dying wife. In all of these stories: mortality. The beauty and fragility of life set against characters equally delicate.
There are no wasted pages in this collection. Each passage is richly detailed, unfolding layers of character, emotion, metaphor, place, circumstance, and their legion intersections. In the titular story, the description of two young girls eating sugary cereal out of metal mixing bowls buoys the main character’s pondering of dichotomies—the differences between herself and her best friend; their parents; their skin; their freedom. Milk Blood Heat aches. It presents two young girls, Ava and Kiera, desperate to be seen, their first meeting marked by a recognition of mutual sorrow, that they feel they are “drowning.” Moniz writes, “it was…a heaviness, an airlessness, that was hard to talk about…. Trying to name it was like pulling up words from her belly, bucketful after bucketful, all that effort but they never meant what she wanted them to.” A sentiment that becomes motif, returning each time Ava cannot make herself understood, the ache and tension building until, when Kiera dies, Ava lets herself sink below the water in her bathtub.
That tension is everywhere in Moniz’s writing. Ava is written with such intimate fragility, anguish and discomfort and all the awkward frailty of girlhood. “Ava knows she really is a monster, or at least she feels like one: unnatural and unfamiliar in her body.” All the while carrying an emptiness she “owns.” And, with that emptiness, Ava considers the multitudes she contains. Because, alongside the emotional demand, the cutting sharpness of Moniz’s frank and nuanced depictions of mortality, there is the constant unfurling of womanhood and the plurality of existence. Here, there are women exploring the implications of being more than daughter, mother, friend, cousin, walking the precipice between living and loving and not. What it means to ache and exist as a person separate from, bonded to, not defined by the labels of relationship. It is a vibrant tension that runs through nearly every story in the collection.
Often, when reading a collection, I will skim over a story if it doesn’t catch my fancy. Not so with Milk Blood Heat. Each story pulls the reader along, inviting them to reflect upon their own delicate grasp on mortality, the tenuousness of emotion, until the story ends. And it is in her endings that the power of Moniz’s writing lingers with the reader, sinking into your chest, pumping hard “a howling, creating heat.”
Publisher: Grove Press
Publication Date: February 2nd, 2021
Reviewed by Dan Mazzacane