“kind of lovely in their shadowed dark”

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This blog post is part of my ongoing effort to capture personal reading notes for poetry collections and other books. Far from official reviews, these posts represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text. Scroll down for ta list of quotes, reviews and links.

Many of the women I know feel like we’ve “been through something” during the Tr*mp administration. The very good reason for that is that we’d already “been through something” (likely many somethings), and recent years scratched those vulnerabilities raw. They made us aware more than ever of the molds we’re meant to fit and the difficulty of navigating them, something we’ve been doing all our lives.

Much of that has to do with sex. The adventures of it. Its hazards and manipulations. Parts that entice us. Parts that repel us. How we see ourselves inside that context. How others see us in it (and if they can see us outside it). For example, “Truckers honked around us, past us. We waved to the cute ones, hiked our skirts higher on our pale thighs.” We age into sexualized versions of ourselves, age a bit inside those years and then just age.

A new chapbook, We by Sarah Freligh (2021, Harbor Editions, Small Harbor Publishing), interrogates those spaces: What say do we have? What do we claim as our own? Here are some poem titles with answers: “Those Girls.” “Good Girls.” “A Kind of Magic.” “Goddesses.” In just 16 poems, We takes us through all of those and more. “We” are those girls. In any combination. Or one at a time. Or none at all. And “we” are made appealing for ourselves instead of any “other,” though we go through some things figuring that out.

We is a balm for that — beginning with its dedication page, which reads, “All the girls, everywhere.”

We is an offering to ourselves and our sisters, to the nostalgia of sisterhood and all its dreams.

And We is an experience that takes readers through the lunacy of what’s done for beauty, through the confrontation of gropes and grabs (“endless / ass pats from drunks at the bar”), through how we learn to go get what *we* want out of “the cycle // of life, mesh of gears and speed, grinding / on” knowing full well the process is gonna kick us in the teeth.

Some random notes about craft in We:

  • Sarah writes about the strangeness of treating school shootings as basic elements of evening news broadcasts: “an epidemic of violence say the glossed-on faces before tossing to the weather guy for tomorrow’s forecast more rain on the way.” The casual quality “toss” conveys is perfect for the point she’s making. And in the opening poem, she writes this phrase: “before the bus chuffed in.” “Chuffed” isn’t just about something being pleased with itself (as the narrator in this poem is); it also has a sound — not just alliteration with “bus” but also onomatopoeia (hear the bus pulling up?). There is no lazy writing in We! Every word is precise to experience, scene and metaphor; We offers a master class in that regard.
  • For another master class, pay attention to sound in We. Here’s just one example: “leer // at me, his co-conspirator” (a phrase that lives near these: “fingers,” “ordered” and “adorable”).
  • I imagine readers and reviewers are going to wonder, Are the pieces in We are poems/prose poems or microfiction? I’d say yes. I think the pitches I’ve seen for it say microfiction, but really, girls, you can be whatever you want.
  • And finally, the prize for the most well-earned blow job in a piece of creative writing goes to “We Dive,” which I link to below, so you can see for yourself. I also admire “We Dive” for being told from the vantage point of female main characters (through the voice of the narrator) instead of that male gaze that’s so common in material with any hint of the sexual or sensual.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “I took a cell phone shot at sunset of the Badlands, which weren’t bad at all, in fact they were kind of lovely in their shadowed dark.”
  • “Now, the merry- / go-round of years, a heartbeat / between Christmases. It’s like you // go out a girl who can honky tonk / all night and come home old, smelling / of spiced apples and cat, fat / with memories coding your bones.”
  • “… paint you up into somebody else. Somebody who’d look good riding shotgun, bourbon-breathed, arm cocked on an open window. Someone at home with a cigarette in her hand exhaling yes, yes, yes.
  • “… on the freight dock where dishwashers / passed a joint and named // the constellations for me: the Big Dipper, Orion / and his flashy Elvis belt of stars; Cassiopeia // wife of Cepheus, sentenced to life / in the sky for boasting she // was more beautiful than the sea / nymphs …. The earth was turning, tilting // fat on its axis and I ached / for a kingdom to be queen of.”
  • “I was sure I could feel the earth turn but you said no, it was only the grumble of trucks on the interstate. Still it was nice to think we were moving forward, away from ourselves, even while we were stuck.”
  • “In the bar, we could dream / big, cop to it without apology, and when we sailed out / into the dusk, first stars hatching in a vast / indigo nest of sky, we wished on the first / one whose pulse and glitter caught / our eye, full up enough to believe / we’d someday get what we asked for.”

What others have said (the book was *just* released; I’ll watch for a few online reviews to share when they start to publish):

  • From Jane Springer at the Small Harbor Publishing website: “Freligh’s voice is fresh & flagrant, tender as it is Olympic, the curse that works its own godspell—& this book broke my heart open.”
  • From Meg Pokrass at the Small Harbor Publishing website: “If you’re anything like me, you’ll reread the beautiful broken-hearted stories in We many times to savor their uncomfortable magic.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

A quick plug before you go! I know Sarah in real life, as they say, and write about a full-length poetry collection of hers that won the 2014 Moon City Poetry Award — Sad Math. For more information about Sarah, other books and the classes she offers, you can visit her website.

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