Sunday, January 27, 2013
Earlier Lives: Poems By Sara Dailey
Dos Madres Press
Review by Dennis Daly
Can writing poetry console? Can it deliver solace in the face of unbearable grief? Perhaps more to the point—can poetry do or accomplish anything that aids ordinary people in coping with the human condition? I think so. Apparently, so does Sara Dailey. Her book of poems, Earlier Lives, looks at anguish in an angular, near scientific way that includes sharp observations and a hygienic reductionism. Together Dailey’s collection of poems deals with the traumatic loss of her younger brother in a motorcycle accident, made more intense by her broken family history and the subsequent closeness of their sibling relationship. Throughout the book the poet studies the various facets of her overwhelming sorrow and that very act seems to engender a useful catharsis. Indeed, Dailey lords over her tempestuous territory with absolute control and the reader gets to see this commanding poet define a very difficult subject.
“Listen and I will fill your ears with truth,” says Dailey in her opening and introductory poem, Globe Artichoke. She lets her readers know that they are in for a rough, not a smooth experience. The tipped spikes and leathery scales need to be worked through and the density needs to be thinned out. The poet continues,
…What you desire of me, sparse
in proportion to what you will discard.
Ardishauk, ground thorn, artichoke:
Like a throat full of accordions
in a sommelier’s nightmare,
Come taste my heart.
Dailey’s persona, in the poem Dressing for Funerals, studies her every move, watches her dress appropriately for sorrow. She says,
But it is always sorrow
that moves you from speech.
In the mirror, your face, sepulcher,
feels skin soft over bones,
the racketing click as jawbone clenches
and teeth tier into caged smile, mouth a cave
Aristotle would never see
his way out of.
Black linen slides over hips,
sways in rhythm with the body’s rocking,
how it shoulders sobs
like cliffs being crested by waves…
A Recognition of Being Left Behind is another poem which makes good use of a mirror. The poet sees her brother’s features in her own face and describes the phenomenon thusly,
When you became no more than my haunt,
ash bits boxed on the mantelpiece,
I sometimes felt the bathroom mirror
was my enemy, showing skin pale like
paper or oak brown eyes, a crooked smile
no longer shared
by anyone. You startle in my heart
like blood welling up, brother.
Who’s to know my secrets now?
The poem entitled Mary to All Her Painters insists the reader confront the reality of death (like the poet confronted her younger brother corpse). It’s never pretty when you’re caressing your dead son. In this case the material feel of the dead Redeemer is a carcass of meat or a formless octopus. Mary additionally admonishes her painters on the state of her being. She complains,
I’m never dirty in these paintings,
despite how far I might have walked,
and the flush you see is faith
not the red of too much weeping.
None of these paintings show
how the hard stones of ovaries
shrank to the dead pits of plums
or how I turned my face away.
In the title poem, An Earlier Life, Dailey’s persona relates her engagement with life before her brother’s death and after it. She once lived with risk and joy and lighthearted love. No more. The poet says,
…Not this life.
Here it isn’t like riding a bicycle.
You must relearn the falling,
the getting up after,
even the willingness to try.
And she does try. The Poet turns scientist and like Gregor Mendel she reads the microcosm of nature and sees her brother’s genes inside herself. She meditates on this in the poem, Gregor Mendel’s Peas on the Anniversary of my Brother’s Death. Following this train of thought to its logical conclusion, she comes up with an interesting question. Dailey asks,
When my blood at last spills,
or my body gives in to entropy
and finally rests, brother
will you still be there
in the strands of me, in DNA
like threads in the loom
of some cosmic weaver
leaving each breath
a silver shimmer?
Dailey composes a good number of Mendel poems for this collection. Her persona seems soothed by the sureness of scientific research that connects humans into families. Mendel becomes a surrogate for God. Not only does he breed animals, manage bees, and grow peas with desirable traits, but he offers a hope for coexistence between Daileyand her longed-for brother. The poet in her poem entitled Mendel, Age 27, Breeds Mice in His Room at the Abbey explains,
Because I wanted to believe in something with ease,
without doubt, your name was a prayer on my lips, words
sung into the air like a hymn. I was grown up far too young.
Unavailable mother. You know, the old story where child
sees parent as fallible, learns to trip lies off their tongue
because it is kinder than truth. I spent summers in the wild
overgrowth of weeds with skinned knees while she cried
behind a locked door we learned not to open. I created plaits
of clover and dandelions, found beauty by making it. When my brother died
years later I dreamt of your mice and plants, Mendel, wondered about traits
he would have passed on, the heritage of heredity…
In poem after poem the author portrays herself in as vestigial. Dailey expands on this concept in a poem entitled, That you are gone is but a fact. She says,
…like tailbones, a crude appendix
formed, structure without function, left behind.
Of loss, recall that even elephants grieve—
The need to touch the bones will make them pause,
Interpret, rage through huts like nettled wind.
As I read through this heartbreaking book of first rate artistry it occurred to me that the poems were working on yet another level. There is a tradition in Ireland and the Scottish highlands called keening. A group of professional mourners are contracted by the bereaved to formalize the grieving process. Each performer has a poetic purpose and together they lament and wail as a chorus. The effect of this sometimes disturbing performance can reduce the inconsolable to merely a singular sadness or even an acceptance.These poems do that. They are the keeners. They work magnificently for the reader. I hope they also deliver comfort tothis deserving poet.