It Might Turn Out We Are Real by Susan Scarlata
(Horseless Press, Providence, R.I., 2011)
Susan’s Scarlata’s new collection is bookended by both an introductory “Proem” and end “Notes”. The “Proem” explains that her 64 poems are: “A recoup of the Sapphic Stanza form [and] …show their cracks, accept their ruin, and get on with it. They are strung, one to the other, linked without attempt to present any sum total.” The first poem, “What Is Your Business Here?” begins, “I dreamed I carried a snake/ to a burnt cracked tree. Then the field/ called me doll without saying a word.” “…Our needs and wants…” include “a plectrum perhaps;” and we are advised to “throw these bits/ in two directions at once.” “Plectrum” is explained at the beginning of the end Notes, “A plectrum is a spear point used for striking the lyre, the Latinized form of the Greek (plektron).”
Those “two directions” introduce a repeated duality less reminiscent of Sappho than of Macbeth. “Two colors” (“Messaging”); “divide the bones” (“Of Prototypes and Pails”); “two of your vertebrae” (“Adjacent Bits Used to Represent A Unit of Data”) are twosomes that appear early and become familiar landmarks. The phrase that reappears most, though, and echoes Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” is “the red behind my ribs.” “Lake Over a Bed of Tires” continues liquid imagery in a Sapphic landscape of catastrophe and propitiation: “Two canoes tied together with a shoestring/ and the waves began/ to carry us/ past the breaker.” “Phantasmagoria” takes us further to when “it was all/Arcadia that whole day long,” and where “satyrs…/ …are…dancing” the “Hoof crunk.” Explained in the end Notes, “Crunk is a type of frenetic, urban, contemporary music and dance that fuses elements of hip-hop and electronica.” “The red behind my ribs” repeats at the end of this poem, “…crawling/ back toward what it needs.”
In the familiar modern quest to polarize the definitions of artifice/art, rejecting civilization in order to rediscover a more authentic reality in the archaic past, Susan Scarlata joins primitive repetitive rhythm & sway, unperiodically jarred by modern references that so vary perspectives, it’s druggy. She successfully takes you on the hoped-for trip. You’re almost communing in the ancient, incantatory expression of awe, mystery, and the human condition. Almost. The endeavor is not-drugged, but is necessarily two-faced. Susan Scarlata is studiously un-lyrical (though “looking for my plectrum,/ looking for my lyre” in “Wait, Did I Make the Universe?”). She rejects at the very same time she invokes earlier forms of lyric, narrative, and epic poetry. It Might Turn Out We Are Real is a marvel of expression of modernist tension between Classical/ Romantic inspiration and Ironic self-consciousness.
Midway in the collection, when a reader is in the groove of beat and scene, there is real delight at “What Part Reached?”:
I hear your re-mixed ring. Printer crunch.
Fax bleat. Like magic cabinets get filled
with early adopters.
In the long-distance relationship
the phone lines fleet.
In the short-distance relationship
lines of the poem on the street.
Either way, our atmosphere with its thickening skin.
Listen, words were once carved on wax tablets
then placed in jars for safekeeping.
And what’s strange about
the hippocampus is how it’s both
a sea creature of whimsy, part fish and part horse;
and the ridged part of our brains where our
shortest of memories spend time.
“And what’s strange about” is an echo of William Carlos Williams’s So much depends upon… You can feel yourself hoof-crunking along by “Of Pelts And Cuff-Links” (an image worthy of Magritte). An incantation to Fire & Broom ends the poem, “Our offer is ghee,/ so you will keep flaring, ad infinitum./ Broom, we ask that you don’t lose your straw./ We’re not ready for the implications of/ such suchness.” In “To What Do I Most Compare You?” (post-modern echo of not “to a summer’s day”), rejoice at the poet’s juggling of rapture & reason: “We know, we know, the knife was blunt/ the ram caught in thicket, or a deep appears,/ ‘in the place of,’ or/ it’s just a bead of blood/ that will suffice. Synecdochic day. Part for the whole, and ‘civilized’ starts.”
Synecdochic Day ought to be an international holiday.
This collection can also work as a precis course in the history of poetry & post-modern criticism.Tthe syllabi for three recent classes she’s taught are at http://www.susanscarlata. com/teachings/. One of the most influential texts listed is The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths by Rosalind Krauss, with its emphasis on the visual arts.
Anyone creative in the post-modern period – certainly in the Academy – has been ironically constrained by a century of critical rules of rebellion and rejection of past formalities. The hostile antithesis of art and artifice has not yet found synthesis. With Ferlinghetti, await a rebirth of wonder. The shortest lyrics in It Might Turn Out We Are Real are the least affecting and convincing. (“Vanishing Point”: “When I need/things in motion. /Wing light/ it is.”) But like Shakespeare and Shylock, real poets can’t stop themselves from letting Humanity/Beauty/Truth through. That’s what happens in some lovely moments in It Might Turn Out We Are Real, whose title is a Romantic wish expressed in Ironic terms. In “A Living,” the poet writes, “The honey the bees made from almond flowers was/too bitter to eat.” Now there’s a perfect metaphor for the modern poet’s predicament. Not so much: “Country, City” – “Pigeon chest/ I never had/ pigeon slump.” Poems like that ring bells that toll for me/thee.
In 2009, L.S. Bassen became a Reader for http://www.electricliterature.com/ and was the winner of the Atlantic Pacific Press Drama Prize. She has won a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and over two decades has been published (poetry/fiction) in many lit magazines and zines. Recently moved from NYC to RI. She is a prizewinning, produced, and published playwright (Samuel French, MONTH BEFORE THE MOON, NEXT OF KIN at New York's ATA, 2 other plays in OH, NC), and commissioned co-author of a WWII memoir by the Scottish bride of Baron Kawasaki. Currently, her three novels are being serialized at http://www.troubadour21.com/ and http://www.friedfiction.com/. This Spring ’11, audio (2 poems) at http://2river.org/2RView/15_ 3/poems/bassen.html