‘Milk Blood Heat’ Immerses Readers in Incandescent New Worlds

To describe Milk Blood Heat, a new collection of stories by Dantiel W. Moniz, as elemental is to summon the chemical definition of the term, to invite the reader to imagine an elixir that acts on the spirit as well as the body. Moniz has been weaving words in publications such as One Story, Paris Review, Tin House, and Ploughshares since 2017. Her collection of prizes is stellar. Most recently, she was one of ten finalists for the highly coveted Princeton Arts Fellowship. A bright element in our literary sky, Moniz has several upcoming online events accessible through her website.

In these challenging stories by Moniz, each character is altered by basics — death, birth, desire. Enthralling in simplicity and grounding in the details of her reality, Milk Blood Heat is kin to We the Animals by Justin Torres. Like Torres, Moniz’s settings are based in concrete detail and her stories open questions about human nature. Set in a steamy Florida, each of the eleven stories offers the reader a full immersion into one world after another. Each storyline is a surprise. You may need to sit back with eyes closed after each narrative to recover before diving in again. The characters’ journeys of transformation are always unexpected.

The worlds in these short stories are so specific that any distance is absolved in the first sentence. “’Pink is the color for girls,’ Kiera says, so she and Ava cut their palms and let their blood drip into a shallow bowl filled with milk…” begins the title story. Moniz continues to challenge the reader with each of the eleven pieces. In “Feast,” a woman sees the body parts of her miscarried child everywhere in her daily life. In the final scene, she observes an octopus eating its own tentacles. According to Science Daily, after laying a clutch of eggs, the female octopus refuses to eat and dies, and those in captivity frequently eat their tentacles to hasten the process. Life and death, as well as captivity and freedom, are intertwined themes in much of this collection.

In “Tongues,” teenage Zey ponders on the origin of the word ‘luciferous.’ Condemned by the pastor for disrespecting him when she rejects his touch, Zey realizes the power of sex and autonomy. She passes the Scylla and Charybdis of sex and religion to arrive “incandescent.” In “Loss of Heaven,” Gloria has cancer. Fred has money and possessions. She’s dying but he can’t find a way to live. In “The Hearts of Our Enemies,” a mother protects her daughter from seduction by making a meal of pet snails. “Outside the Raft” allows the characters to drift out into the Florida ocean. Once out of the raft, the protagonist tries to climb up on the other girl, almost drowning her. Trinity reconsiders her married life in “Snow White” after an encounter with a blond Vietnamese person named Snow at the bar. “Necessary Bodies” reflects pregnancy and identity as Billie and Violet attend their mother’s birthday. In “Thicker Than Water,” a brother and sister dispose of the ashes of their father. Simple? Far from it.

In the allegory, “Exotics,” a story of horror, morality, and darkness, Moniz challenges perceptions about caste and consumption. Told in the first-person plural, “we,” the servants tell of a members’ only supper club that serves exotic meats to diners dressed in costumes of the rarest animals. This story, more directly than the rest, shocks the reader with the finale. In the final story, “An Almanac of Bones,” a mother who has abandoned her child for her own impulsive journey asks not for forgiveness but for acceptance. These stories are more than each plot sample.

The action sears into the reader, bubbling up later like the body parts in “Feast.” Read once for the raw poetic individual stories, read twice for the provocative echoes of primordial images. The word blood is mentioned thirty-three times in these stories, discounting the Zora Neale Hurston quote that begins the collection: “Half gods are worshiped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.” Bone is used twenty-two times; milk fourteen. Heat was used fifteen times. Moniz uses patterns beyond the repetition of words or images. This group of stories requires an active reader. Moniz has created an alchemy that converts base literary elements into a transformative elixir of the reading experience.

Milk Blood Heat
By Dantiel W. Moniz
Grove Press
Published February 2, 2021