"She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live."
Predator and Prey:
The Story That’s Older Than Fairytales
a review of Sarah Sousa’s See the Wolf
by Jo Freehand
The cover is haunting. It exudes danger, and danger there is in Sarah Sousa’s third collection of poetry See the Wolf. It’s a story that is older than the earliest version of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s a story about violence against girls and women. It is the story of growing up female and growing into prey-hood. This time the story, including the retelling of myth and fairytales, is set in the 1980s along with “Cabbage Patch plastic,” knowing that Luke was Laura’s rapist on General Hospital, milk carton images of missing children, and having a secret word in case your mom couldn’t pick you up. As in “Tom and Jerry”:
I might have enjoyed the quiet, the purpling
sky if I wasn’t so timid, seen some humor
in the scenario that had me terrified: a dark car pulls up,
a man opens the door, says the words
that mean you’re mine.
Little Red-type wolves freely roam on, off, and between the pages. Off the page in a bearable, yet clearly visible, distance. Between the pages, Wolf shadows and lures. On the page, some of the wolves are disguised as a mother’s boyfriend or a stranger in the park who, in “Like a Name,”
[…] pointed at my skinny, dark haired sister and all but said, meh.
But when he looked at me he beamed; […]
Or the man in “Poem Without a Forest”:
[…] in the dark/ space/ between /cement wall/ and stunted pines -
filthy and gripping
And a grandfather in the front room in “PAW”:
[…] Sometimes he wanted to hug me
and I would rise reluctantly,
let him pull me against his sinewy body.
Throughout there is also a literal wolf disguised as domesticated dog whose bite required seventeen stitches. Sousa writes that in her version of “Red”:
I’ll include how it feels to be eaten,
the entering isn’t clean –
teeth are like dull keys.
The wolf opens you
to your own red
glister like a docent to the body.
It’s not surprising that a sense of being one step away from death permeates this collection. It loops and loops, as it does when you know you are prey. It appears in nightmarish daydreams, and it appears in actual nightmares as in “Don’t You Forget About Me,” a poem Sousa wrote about a night at a drive-in theater with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend.
[…] You were fun, you were young, you
would become obsessed and want to kill us, but this was before all that
Later in the same poem, Sousa writes how this particular wolf became part of her nightmares:
[…] a dark figure in an idling car, a dark figure at the door, in the house.
I was murdered in myriad ways: suffocation, fire, gunshot to the head. […]
Yes, as the title of the book warns, there are wolves, and there is blood and broken glass and fires and predation and threats and humiliation and devaluing and objectification and loneliness. There is no safety to be found. Unless…
Unless we go back and start with the first poem in the book entitled, “Self Portrait with Mabel, Rose, Lillianne, Fern, Mildred, Bea.” It sets the stage with a once-a-upon-a-time. The stage curtains are opening. They’re embroidered with Sarah Sousa’s dedication:
For Mom and Jess, for the three of us
The three of us. Sousa is on a stool center-stage, slightly lit. She is telling the story of her birth, the story of her name. The stage lights brighten as a single-file and hand-in-hand line of Sousa’s female relatives enter the scene:
They embody the word habit,
placing a napkin atop my glass
of water, one beneath to absorb the sweat,
carry a magnifying glass
to read menus. With them
I’m always the youngest in the room.
They form a circle around Sousa and in unison:
do you believe us?
does it help you to believe in us?
With this first poem in See the Wolf, the interconnectedness of women throughout this narrative is established and unshakable. It’s a union of women that is stronger together than alone. See the Wolf honors the power of women united. This is where safety is found. In “To the Comedian Who Called Thelma and Louise Two White Heifers”:
Don’t laugh. Women have driven off cliffs,
burned men in their beds, to escape.
Her body over my body, my mother and the dog would face off.
I could feel the answering growl start deep inside her,
erupting in a voice not my mother’s,
a voice to make us larger than we were. Stronger
This connection of girls and women includes raped survivors of an 18th century shipwreck in “The Wreck”:
[…] They dressed each other’s wounds,
sewed cormorant feathers into garments with needles
of bone. Each carried a two-note whistle
from the keeled sternum of a gull.
It’s this connection of girls and women that transforms See the Wolf into a mastered craft, a fine weaving.
Maybe, in the end, trauma of prey-hood never goes away. Maybe it remains as the longitudinal warp, fibers of the wolf, that are held taut and ever-stationary on the framework of being a girl, being a woman. And the weft, the transforming transverse weft to be drawn through, in Sarah Sousa’s case, is every woman in her narrative. And it’s a weft created of a wild and free landscape: grass, spider webs, apples and apple trees, “a quartz boulder in the woods,” “that moment of dawn,” “intricate bracts and branches,” eggshells, “under feathers,” “fields of ravens,” birds.
So many birds. Birds punctuate Sousa’s poetry: bird as creator of a soft place to land, bird as a unit of measure and resolve, bird as a covering, bird as an instrument for protection, bird as companion, bird as song, bird as transformation, bird as myth and magic, bird as a painter’s inspiration, bird as something steady when a partner is away, bird as baptizer, bird as voice, bird as bird, bird as animal other than Wolf.
Over and under, over and under, Sousa weaves her imagery-rich weft through the dark warp of predation. She weaves with a touch of mystery. She draws it over and under with enchantment of language and sound. From “Not the Same Bird Twice”:
When I called for him in the crawl space
I felt a century of domesticated ghosts
undrowse and rouse themselves, some
plastic sheeting rustled,
a long yawn silence stretched.
Over and under, she draws the weft through her hands, often allowing it to wander off into its “own woods.” Over and under, Sousa draws the weft until she has created a beautiful multi-fibered tapestry that she has called See the Wolf.
...comments may be directed to Jo Freehand at: email@example.com
Dark and Without Despair
a review by Jo Freehand
The Whetting Stone, by Taylor Mali, is life-affirmingly dark. Life-affirming, not in a “happily-ever-after” or “light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel” way, being a collection of poetry in dialogue with death and the suicide of Taylor Mali’s wife, Rebecca. It is life-affirming in that, although intense grief is present throughout, Mali remains fully present in that grief. He is committed to whole engagement without turning away. It is an engagement without need to polish, romanticize, sensationalize, solve, or fix anything. It is a fierce and vulnerable full-bodied allowing-for-all-that-life-is, which includes brutal loss and pain. Grief, too, is life and alive. And, as Mali expresses in “Grief Moves”, his opening poem that addresses his father’s death, there is a life-affirming sensuality in allowing this darkness to touch the core of your being:
how my wife let me fill her full
of my tears when I came home,
silent, hard, and broken;
how we came together, loss now
a moving thing between us. […]
“Grief Moves” foreshadows further loss. But first it is followed by “Making Ravioli,” an extended relationship metaphor that is bubbling over with delicious embodied imagery. There is “holding” and “stirring” and “kneading” and “gripping” and “…together, using all four hands.” The first stanza beautifully echoes “Grief Moves” with a brokenness that appears again and again:
If you were the flour,
I would say you hold me like the eggs,
broken and mixed up as I am.
There even seems to be a bit of humor with Rebecca naming the not-so-perfect piece of ravioli, “deformioli.” Here is a glimpse of Rebecca alive and participating in full ravioli-producing union. And then, third poem into this narrative, with no metaphor about it, in the first stanza of “Six Stories:”
Years ago, on a Monday morning, my wife,
dressed for work in a new suit and elegant shoes,
stepped outside the window and fell to her death
six stories below.
Mali continues to describe six possible “stories” that led to Rebecca’s death, each story a descending stanza. The first addresses inherited trauma of being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor:
Perhaps the first is the one about the tattoo on her father’s arm,
the dark number he never spoke of.
The Whetting Stone is not an easy read. Darkness permeates. Mali does, however, have a way of lightening the weight of the sorrow for his reader. Fine details and clear particulars, which Mali does so well, fill this tragedy and make it bearable. It’s those concrete details that, by the end of this book, have you longing for a stranger, longing to have met her, longing for Rebecca’s survival; and yet it’s those same details that make the sorrow bearable and even call you back to read and re-read.
I’ve come to think of this collection as the Rebecca poems. There are a few poems that read as letters written directly to Rebecca, posthumously. They seem to ground the entire collection. They include: “Twelfth Anniversary,” “Things We Both Know That I Still Have To Tell You,” “Meeting at Monet’s Water Lilies,” and “News of My Divorce Reminds Me of Your Death.”
From “Things We Both Know That I Still Have to Tell You:”
You are not ugly, old, broken, broke, or stupid.
And you certainly are not fat. […]
In “Twelfth Anniversary,” it’s Rebecca’s voice telling us:
I’m not the type of woman who would drive such a car!
This car should be driven by someone peppy named Cindi
who dots her eyes with flowers, hearts, or stars.
That was possibly another brief moment of humor on Mali’s part as he finds his wife “aghast” to admit that she owns a red “sports car.” It’s also another glimpse into the perpetual dark that infiltrated Rebecca’s life.
In “Elegy for the Lighter Sleeper,” Mali writes of facing that darkness in the darkness of night.
She the lighter sleeper, needed noise not to think,
needed it to sink into the rock and tide, even if
it only be the late-night sweeper come to sweep
the dust and grime and darkness from the ground
With this entire collection as a whole, Taylor Mali has enlarged the conversation of mental health and suicide with gentleness, dignity, and authority. In particular, I’m thinking of the above poem “Elegy for the Lighter Sleeper” and “Depression, Too, Is a Kind of Fire”.
In “News of My Divorce Reminds Me of Your Death,” grieving now at the end of his second marriage, he lovingly addresses Rebecca, his first wife, in sonnet:
Lover, at last, please leave me, after all these years.
You have cried enough. Leave me to these tears.
Throughout this book, we are witness to the reunion or union of Taylor and Rebecca, in grief and in love. And we, too, as readers, must let go of the happy ending, as Mali himself has reconciled in “Sestina:”
[…] I knew she
was not all right, and I was not
her knight or savior. […]
“Sestina” is the nineteenth and last poem in this brief, but epic, work. It concludes with three of the most chilling lines I have ever read. Three lines that honor the fullness of Rebecca. This is a book worth having on your shelf, so I am refraining from quoting those and many others so that you can experience them on your own.
Mali does not try to force a meaning upon his wife’s suicide, but by being present and bravely engaging with his grief, he has provided us with poetry that is deeply meaningful and significant. The Whetting Stone is not a work of despair. There is no despair. There are poems, well-crafted poems and a raw accounting. It is clear language given to the unspeakable. Poetry made possible because of the depth of the darkness that Taylor Mali was willing to embrace and bring to the surface to share with us. It is why poetry matters.
...comments may be directed to Jo Freehand at: firstname.lastname@example.org