What seems to come easy to us is poetry about personal despair — the more recent and fresh the wound the better. That’s a broad, sweeping statement, I know. And while I am a fan of confessional poetry and raw emotion, what I also crave is perspective. When a poet can pull off intimacy and distance at once, the poems stand out as something truly remarkable. Sad Math by Sarah Freligh is full of poems like that. As Sandra Meek says in a blurb at the book’s beginning, these poems are “nervy and frank, hilarious and heartbreaking.”
My favorite Sad Math poem is “Blissfield, Michigan.” It not only has those qualities Meek points out, but it has two of my favorite things: sex and space. In it, the speaker recounts wandering into a moonlit cornfield and getting high, imagining Neil Armstrong “bouncing around from crater / to crater.” The poem captures the electric quality not only of what it means to be young but also to be desired:
“… we lay on the ground and stared some
more at the sky. Billy ran his hand up my thigh
and I said stop though I felt lit up, all green
as in go, and when I’d run out of nos, I
rolled over and did it there in the dirt
while everyone and the astronauts watched.”
It’s brilliant how the poem handles nostalgia (Neil Armstrong, for example, and there’s also mention in it of The Mickey Mouse Club) and sex without sentimentality. These are kids trying so hard not to give a shit. We “did it there in the dirt.” We did it.
“While everyone and the astronauts watched.”
That blows it up, right?
When I met Sarah, we were students at Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program. She was in the thesis semester of her MFA, and I was brand new to the program. We were in the same workshop, and so I had a chance to see many of the poems that would eventually appear in Sad Math. I watched as she shuffled the poems around and played with structure, too, and I have to say that the final order of this collection is masterful. I have been a fan of these poems since I first read them, but as they’re presented, they carry and earn their meaning with greater assurance than I remember. They insist we lean toward them and listen up. They insist we stay at the table and buy another round. You’re not going to want to miss it, they say. Wait ’til you see where I’m going with this.
Meek’s blurb for Sad Math summarizes the stories you don’t want to miss this way: “Freligh traces her speaker’s coming of age, from an eighth-grade pregnancy and banishment to the Mercy Home for Unwed Mothers, to her new self-described identity as birth mother of a daughter she would not know, ultimately becoming the aging daughter of a mother lost as well, first to mental illness, then to death.”
With topics like those, it would be tempting for a poet to make two big mistakes: #1) to lean toward melancholy or otherwise get mired in how unfair it all is and/or #2) to force the “I” of the speaker upon us. Sarah does not make these mistakes. Instead, the speaker — that first person “I” — manages a strong, yet also unobtrusive presence as she delivers the details and the narratives. The gravity comes to bear mainly by what the reader brings to the poems.
Take “The Beginning of Something Is Always the End of Something Else.” Sarah starts us with details of a normal day. There is sunshine: “How the ruff / of sun’s first light shoulders the night // aside.” (Notice that verb: shoulders. It is everything to the poem, the speaker and maybe to the collection. It is strong. But it’s quiet about it.) The speaker is smoking a cigarette (“my absolute last one”), chewing her cuticles and tolerating a neighbor’s daily whining about an ex. The speaker is also worried about her elderly cat, which leads us here:
“I know this will end in ashes
at a cemetery where we stood
over my mother’s urn, hugless, useless
hands dangling from our dumb arms
while on the hill above us a guy wearing
soiled khakis lounged in a golf cart,
waiting for us to understand this was it,
the end, we needed to leave already
so he could finally begin to dig.”
In this poem, as in the others, neither Sarah nor her speaker tells the reader what to feel. We come to that in communion with these poems. We feel the weight of the stories, not the weight of the speaker’s feelings. As a result, the poems pull us in: the grave digger drives a golf cart, and he wants to go home. Enough already with this lingering around the grave.
Pour another round.
Among the things that Sarah and I have in common is the loss of our mothers. I’m sure many of you are in that terrible club, as well. It’s not something we discuss as friends, but we both toy with the fact of it in our poems.
I don’t know where I’m going with my own grief, but I know I’m not one for happy endings. Hell, I don’t even know what that looks like when you’ve lost your mother. It was interesting to feel that pull in the collection, however. What exactly was the speaker after? What did I want for her? What did I want for myself as a reader?
The book gives us what we didn’t know we wanted when it delivers its final poem: “Wondrous.” It’s a poem that transports us to a scene from the speaker’s childhood that had repeated many times: her mother reading Charlotte’s Web out loud. Like E.B. White himself, the mother does not make it through the passage — She died alone — without choking up. Here’s how the speaker recalls it:
“… wondrous to hear my mother’s voice
ten years after the day she died — the catch, the rasp,
the gathering up before she could say to us: I’m OK.”
Mom’s OK. We’re OK. It’s OK.
At least for a beat.
And sometimes that break from the strain of it is enough. I’m not sure I’ll ever gain perspective or peace about my mom’s death, but there’s a moment of it for the speaker in Sad Math, and I’m grateful it’s shared with me. It’s presented with such skill and clarity — by that adept and subtle “I” — that it becomes a moment for me, too.
And I know this will shock you, but it’s not really about me. In addition to being a revelatory moment for me as a reader, I’m OK is the perfect ending to this book. Despite everything on that list Meek gave us — coming of age, 8th grade pregnancy, banishment, loss of her own mother — the speaker is OK, too.
And that’s as sentimental as Sad Math gets.
And thank God.
Remember that verb shoulders? While the speaker is tender toward herself and the other subjects of the poems, she gives no free passes. Life is tough, kids.
This is for you / who do not fear*
Go on, now. Get through it. It’s a refreshing take on personal poems, and I intend to learn from it in my own work.
Sad Math by Sarah Freligh was published by Moon City Press, as winner of the 2014 Moon City Poetry Award. The book has also winner of the Whirling Prize, a post-publication award from the University of Indianapolis.
So buy Sarah a drink. And buy her book. And take a picture of your pet with it. She has quite a collection of photos already, in which dogs and cats are in close competition for who loves it more.
* from “An Ode to Aging Swimmers”