Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Poet Who Doesn’t Suck (review from 2011)

“Garden of Eye” canvas created by Digital-Matrix.*
The following review was published in American Book Review, Volume 32, Number 2, January/February 2011. 

It is reprinted with permission of the author.

The Future Is Happy, BlazeVOX [books], 2009. $16.

The Eccentric St. Sarai, a Poet Who Doesn’t Suck

by Melissa Studdard

The unspoken rules for writing contemporary literary poetry are clear
to all serious poets. For starters, it is NOT okay to use words like
“love,” “rose,” “heart,” “soul,” “butterfly,” or “grandmother” unless
you intend to systematically deconstruct, or even better, negate,
them. If you do insist on using these horrid words (which, I remind
you, is not recommended), you must find a way to rough them up and
scrape away the centuries of grime left on them by the grubby hands of
former poets, such as Shakespeare, Donne and Petrarch (who sadly, did
not know what they were doing) . You must concede to the premise that
sentiment is embarrassing and sincerity is downright disgusting, and
you must recognize that if you’re feeling attached to a line you’ve
written, it’s probably too “precious” to be published and should be
deleted quickly, before anyone else sees the shameful thing that you
have done. Most of all, you must never, ever do anything that comes
across as too poetic. God forbid that anyone should see your poem and
deduce from it that you are a poet. Better for your poem to imply that
you are a bricklayer, waitress, or serial killer.

The problem is that the anti-cliché has itself become clichéd, and the
gruff tone and handling of subject matter are now as anticipated as
the sentimentality they replaced. So what’s a poet to do in a post
post era, when everything that can be done has seemingly been done and
surprise itself is a cliché? Literary history would suggest a swing
back to a kinder, gentler poetry, as each new literary movement has
been a reaction against what came before it. However, the poets of
this generation find themselves in a particularly bitter pickle in
that anyone who writes in the old style would appear not to be aware
of the new style and would therefore run the risk of coming across as
uneducated. That, we cannot have.

What we do find, however, is that there are poets who are aware of
craft, literary history and current trends but who have decided to lay
their own unique voices and minds down on the page anyway, poets who,
finding themselves at the crossroads of convention and deviance,
choose neither but instead drop the reigns altogether and lift into
Pegasian flight. They are smart and sensitive and funny and well-read.
They are aware of what’s going on around them and what came before
them, yet they allow that knowledge to inform rather than dictate
their work. They are skilled at craft, but they do not craft the life
out of their poems.

And so, despite what might have initially sounded like a complaint
about contemporary poetry, I’m here to tell you that there is still
much good poetry being written, and there are still many good
collections coming out. One such collection is The Future is Happy,
by Sarah Sarai, published by BlazeVox Books, a press that proclaims to
publish “poetry that doesn’t suck.” In Sarai’s case, I wholeheartedly
agree. It doesn’t suck at all. It is, in fact, a poetry of luminous,
brave transparency, and though it would by no means be considered
confessional, it lays bare the unique mechanisms of Sarai’s mind, the
wild fluctuations of her pulse, skipped beats of her heart. Sarai has
no qualms about mentioning weed, chili peppers, the bible and the
afterlife all in the same poem, and her wacky, unique perceptions of
the world spawn metaphor after metaphor, analogy after analogy of
sparkling, lyrical, hilarious insight. Crossing the border is compared
to crossing into the afterlife, Emily Dickinson is presented as a Jew
in hiding, and poop cleaned from a baby’s butt is likened to sin wiped
away by grace. What may appear at first to be flippant always has a
deeper meaning, and the mundane is frequently combined with the
sacred. Take the poem “Aristotle,” for instance, short enough to be
considered in its entirety:

There’s no clean slate
in God’s classroom.
He was clapping erasers
as your ebullient soul popped
like gleeful corn charging
an aluminum lid.

You ker-chewed
from dust falling milky.

What an act of hubris, to be born. 
(Sarai 50, 2009)

Here we see Sarai’s characteristically zany way of handling subject
matter. Reincarnationists have long considered the idea of the earth
as a schoolhouse for the soul, but Sarai makes the idea palpable by
giving God a classroom and erasers to clap. One only need look at the
titles of the individual poems, such as “St. Sarai Carrying the Infant
Christ Child,” “Like Breasts on the Copier,” and “When the Sun Sets
Like a Nice Salmon Mousse,” to pick up on the humor and originality of
the collection. Yet reading the poems reveals a voice that is also
earnest, vulnerable and raw. Alongside these wacky, philosophical
poems are poems about losing faith in poetry, running into a former
lover, and empathizing with a mother who has cancer. Particularly
stunning is the poem, “My Various and Sloppy Forgiveness,” which ends
with an unabashed portrayal of longing.

Sarai is sexy, funny, philosophical, gracious and irreverent –
sometimes all in the same poem, combining the elevated with the lowly,
the drab with the lyrical, the complex with the simple. But in the
end it is not her eclectic subject matter or her charming, sassy style
that will win the reader over - it is her willingness to, without
artifice or pretension, offer her truth to the page.

American Book Review, Volume 32, Number 2, January/February 2011.

Melissa Studdard is the author of the bestselling novel Six Weeks to Yehidah (winner of  the Forward National Literature Award), as well as the newly released My Yehidah, both published on All Things That Matter Press.  She is a book reviewer at-large for The National Poetry Review, a contributing editor for Tiferet Journal, and host of the radio interview program Tiferet Talk.  

Melissa's blog, Bareback Alchemy. Her website.

*Digital Matrix: http://maat-order.org/blog/?p=1113