Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Future Is Still Happy, Go Figure

The Future is Happy, by Sarah Sarai, is a variegated quilt that demonstrates a knack for patching together unlikely juxtapositions which flow naturally and vibrantly, without feeling forced or contrived. A thread of spirituality runs through much of this collection, but it is a very open, inclusive, and generous thread rather than being tightly affixed to any one viewpoint or belief system. Richly hand-dyed yarn is interwoven with glinting fishing wire is interwoven with glittery fibers. Overall, this is a bright, warm, hearty quilt, with much to offer and reveal.
Often I am put off by spiritual extrapolation in conversation or in literature, as it too frequently seems to be presented in a way that seems both vague and judgmental or at least overly lofty, for no reason I can relate to. I tend to dislike goddess talk and generic references such as, ‘The universe will provide.’ Fortunately, Sarai’s breed of spiritual infusion is much more resonant, because it is a lively cross-breed. She speaks in a specific language, redolent with varied life experience and details culled from those experiences. Cosmic references interestingly coexist with everyday objects. In “Front Yard (I Have No Mythology),” Sarai writes:
My lace bustier has slender ribbons attached
to the nine or so planets. Await with a shiver
my dance that says mortality.
I jut one hip and you’re revealed
as, well, tragic. I snap the crushed grapeskin
of your life to obeisant heavens which shuttle you
farther out. Although you might wonder what’s next,
I’ve got a bead on things.
It seems to me it’s not that Sarai has no mythology; it’s more that no one view takes precedence. Everything has its place: sometimes the placement seems unlikely, but somehow it all converges into a cohesive and engaging whole.
The entity behind these poems is in possession of a generous spirit of inclusiveness and harbors a broad-based view that is able to draw from multifarious sources to express relevant connections. This makes me feel connected to her world and to the larger world. In “Monarch of the Desert,” Sarai writes: “The springs of Baden Baden? / Miss Piggy Bubblebath soothes as good,” which is one small sample of how Sarai delightfully juxtaposes personal microcosmic details with those of larger landscapes. As evidenced in this excerpt, her tone tends to be conversational, but doesn’t fall victim to an aphorism-laden style (like a self-help book) or become overly accessible (like sappy inspirational verse), which are too-frequent faults of much spiritually oriented writing. Sarai’s language is too specific and intelligent for that and makes me as a reader feel included in the landscapes she explores. In “We All Know Things Together,” she writes:

Together we know our lives
together could be more than
performances we all know
we can never simply forget.
Though we forget, don’t we.

As that last line does not end with a question mark, it strikes me as a sort of observation about our collective human flaws, frailty, and sometimes culpability-and the speaker includes herself in this.
Sarai’s vocabulary is multifaceted and sometimes erudite, but not in a self-aggrandizing or preachy way. Her style is that of someone who takes delight and draws insight from diverse terrains. Many of her poetic observations are both playful and apt. Her references run the gamut from Biblical to philosophical to pop cultural to personal, often within the same poems. Indeed, some of the pieces that resonate most strongly for me involve poignant universal themes personalized with contemporary pop culture dreams or recontextualizations of intersecting identities, such as those of Anne Frank and Emily Dickinson. Here is the first and last stanza from “Emily Dickinson Is Jewish”:

Emily Dickinson is Jewish and hides in an attic.
Restriction and Emily’s selective nomadic soul breed
Speculation. She misses bees, frogs, familiar sovereign woods.
She squints at dust, the Oriental carpet, a creaking plank.
Faint breath and her thin tongue.
Stanzas lapped in smoke.
Poems as long as one letter, rise.
I find this fusion of identities to be powerfully effective, poignant, even shiver-inducing. I think the language and details within the piece are well-chosen. It also makes me think on some level that if someone else (a poet, no less) could fit into the role of Anne Frank so seemingly interchangeably, then maybe so could Inever mind the fact that Dickinson, Frank, and myself each exist within different eras in time. This leads to another interesting facet of Sarai’s collection. In addition to intersections of identity, the poet also weaves intersections in the fabric of time. The past and the present rather seamlessly interact and interplay, both in terms of the references in the poems and in terms of the chronological order of the collection’s presentation. It doesn’t have a chronological order that is dictated by time or any other kind of linear progression; it has its own order, its own logic, and of course its own titular assertion that ‘The Future Is Happy’: not that the future will be happyit is.
The Dickinson/Frank amalgam is just one of numerous poems that fuse Biblical figures with pop cultural personages or historical icons with contemporary people. “The Brave One” begins with the lines: “I’d marry Jodie Foster, if only to fatten/and teach her what God wants from us.” The poem after that is called “The Blood of Billy Bob Thornton.” There are references to Jack Kerouac, James Brown, Parker Posey, a heaven populated with literary characters. We even get a piece in which a version of the poet herself takes on the identity of the Virgin Mary, “St. Sarai Carrying the Infant Christ Child,” which includes the wonderful lines: “Isn’t making art remembering / what we knew? Why not, then, salvation?”
I’ve read plenty of poems in which the writer inserts Jesus into some seemingly unlikely contemporary context (the whole ‘what if God was one of us?’ question, which frankly, strikes me as clichéd), but Sarai manages to put a new swirl on this. In her poems, Biblical figures interact with seemingly disparate figures until they become analogous to one another. In “No End Out of Mind,” she writes:
There is no sorting genitalia,
fleshy playthings for Shiva’s lust.
All gods desire image.
The saints are graven and simple
with love of the Other.
You are a teenager dreaming,
both hands curled around the nimbus
in delirium and pleasure at the brush of
a pink Persian hyacinth along your
thigh. Your besotted blouse
is proud of its place on your breasts
and their sharp cry for more.
Here, saints and gods and teenage lust intersect in a transfixed realm that is not quite heaven, not quite real life. Elsewhere, Sarai presents realms that are not quite the present, not quite the past; they are the future before the future has actually arrived. It is an open, generous, inclusive glimpse into a future of fusion, potentiality, and ethereality.
Don’t be scared off by the word ethereality, though, if you’re not a fan of the overly abstract. The language of this collection is specific, dynamic, and rich with myriad detail. It also includes some poems that are more based in reality or real world experiences. Some of these poems strike me as celebrations of meaningful moments or personal adventures, complete with the occasional small epiphany. Although many of these pieces are presented with a certain joie de vivre, this is not to say that all of the life experiences Sarai sets forth consist of joyful, happy-go-lucky times. Some of them are heavy with grief or the pain of other hard life lessons, including response to the AIDS crisis, the death of loved ones, 9/11, and war. In “From a Strange Planet,” she writes:
not immortal but just a man who hits
an unblinking blue and whisks among
skyscrapers, your friends feathered,
winged or God forbid, self-released
from the life stationary, succumbing
to acceleration.
Despite such painful awareness of human mortality and hard-earned wisdom resulting from other harsh experiences, though, the speaker does not force any doses of bitter medicine or unsolicited advice down readers’ throats. Indeed, part of the generous spirit that shines from within many of Sarai’s poems may be associated with her ability to convey genuine gems of affirmation that are not tied to sappy platitudes or false hope. They are like patchwork pieces of truth that are simultaneously sad and happy, the way lived experience often is; the way our world often is. For example, the final stanza from her poem, “How to Love Your Country,” reads:
…Finally I advise nothing but to
stalk and cherish moments you almost see
the amaranthine beauty of life’s binding
truth: You belong to nothing. You belong.
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Juliet Cook’s poetry has recently been published or is forthcoming in Action Yes, Columbia Poetry Review, Diagram, Diode, Oranges & Sardines, Robot Melon and many other online and print sources. She is author of numerous chapbooks, most recently including Pink Leotard & Shock Collar (Spooky Girlfriend Press), Tongue Like a Stinger (Wheelhouse), and Fondant Pig Angst (Slash Pine Press). Her first full-length poetry collection, Horrific Confection was published by BlazeVOX in 2008. For more information, feel free to visit her website at