Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines
Coffeehouse Press, 2010
Reviewed by Megan Burns
A Doubled Woman: Julie Carr's Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines
This slim volume is a meditation on birth, death, grief, and nature in a series of poems designated by Carr as fragments, lines, and abstracts. The poems echo one another in images of birds, shores, rain, leaves, salt, and honey. The subject matter of the mother, the daughter, conception, and death are also woven into the tapestry, but it is the language, the sounds themselves, that interconnect and create a whole in a book that speaks about what is in pieces. The loss of the mother, a double loss due to the mother’s Alzheimer’s, is complicated by the speaker’s pregnancy. Images of birth and death as well as daughters and mothers become blurred and confused in the poems as the voice attempts to tease out with language an order built upon internal sounds. Sounds become a mainstay, propelling an investigation into complicated gestures.
The book begins with a poem titled “Landlocked Lines,” an important departure as the poems that follow seem to flow further from the shore and into the abyss. “It would be absurd to imagine the absent person in the margins of the book” this poem tells us, and here we begin to confront the idea of elegy and how this form shapes the person who is lost. This first poem introduces ideas or images that resurface, much like memories of a lost loved one; a physical object like the “red wall,” birds, and stories about giving birth to save a life all return in later poems. Alliteration and internal rhymes ground most of these poems; they escalate to a frenzy especially when grief seems to overpower the speaker:
now rectangles of fluorescent, of bold blonde daylight on walls of old dreck now shine like gestalt or defense, like splayed hair. Now old odes or seeds of thought turned snug in gummy mugs: I’m alone here in a day like an arrow or a lance in a gash. Day, don’t say things, don’t order (12).With a few exceptions, almost all of the poems have the words “lines,” “fragments,” or “abstract” in the title. The obvious connection is that these speak to the mother’s fragmented thoughts before her death, but they also mirror the speaker’s nonlinear thought process. The process of waiting for someone to die is ironically similar to the process of becoming a new mother. Time takes on a new meaning as it lengthens and slows; absent of logic, the mind struggles with exhaustion and an ever changing range of emotions from joy to relief to depression. Again, these poems point out the blurring of these roles, so that it is hard to pinpoint if it is grief or being a new mother that causes the emotions. The loss of the parent complicates the speaker’s new role as a parent, the loss of a mother complicates the daughter’s new role as a mother, and both death and newborns cause worry, fear, stress, disjointed thinking and exhaustion. The emotions are either confused or--as the speaker points out, “doubled”--much like the mother’s body is doubled during pregnancy. The poem “Conception Fragment” introduces the speaker’s double bind
daylight and tree budsThe poem begins to mix the metaphor of the bird imagery that is attached to the mother with that of this new addition. Birds historically have been connected to both birth and death from religious ideas of sparrows bringing in new souls, to the stork, and to references of the soul departing the body and taking flight. It’s no surprise that bird references and birds by name, quails, doves, hawks, herons, owls, gulls, pigeons, magpies and ducks, are all present in these poems. The fact that birds appear in both poems about the mother and about the child further emphasizes this doubling, this blurring of the threesome. The mother, daughter, and unborn child create a trinity, but one that is put off balance, in an earthbound sense, as the mother departs and the child enters its life.
detritus and dust
in the open of your pregnancy? (17)
In one of seven poems with the name “Sarah” in the title, the speaker points out, “First you had to give up the meaning of words. And then water” (24). Here, again, a doubling is suggested, as the mother loses her memory and her language, the poet/daughter is faced with the challenge of creating a language that will express this loss. For the poet, giving up language is as life-taking as giving up water; without either there is the sense of being bereft of all that nurtures and helps us to survive. By contrast the fetus survives in water and is a constant companion to the mother’s words even though they lack meaning at this point. Sound is important to the unborn baby in the same way that sound seems to carry these poems beyond meaning to a place where rhythm and rhyme provide the emotion:
Every boy with a stick, every ache of the pen, every fool’s me. The split or slit of me’s unseared, unsutured. This being’s strut rests not. Veil of rain in the leaves again. Tangle of future untried, untied. To gain my ruse, my reason, my route. Gnast’s a spark, a bit of coming, a flit or flash in the foot of it.This is less about what the poem is saying and more about the tone: the feel of saying these hard sounds, their ability to pile up, to hold the speaker’s anger, her exhaustion, and her inability to make sense of the senseless. This is a hard book to read not only because the emotions are painful and raw, but because of the sonic density of the poems. Lines like: “Since I lost her I stored her like ore in my form as if later I’d find her, restore her” (36) or “If the soul is in the body a silence/ The silence of flames that don’t sputter don’t burn out” (38); these are lines that pierce the heart. You have to put the book down to allow the sounds to swirl in your mind. You have to put the book down because you have your own losses and your own loves that you fear to lose. It takes incredible courage to share this with the world; these poems have songs to give us as human beings.
Megan Burns has a MFA from Naropa University and edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter (solidquarter.blogspot.com). She has been most recently published in Jacket Magazine, Callaloo, New Laurel Review, YAWP Journal, and the Big Bridge New Orleans Anthology. Her poetry and prose reviews have been published in Tarpaulin Sky, Gently Read Lit, Big Bridge, and Rain Taxi. Her book Memorial + Sight Lines was published in 2008 by Lavender Ink. She has two chapbooks, Frida Kahlo: I am the poem (2004) and Framing a Song (2010) from Trembling Pillow Press. She lives in New Orleans where she and her husband, poet Dave Brinks, run the weekly 17 Poets! reading series (www.17poets.com).