A Review of Sarah Marcus’s Backcountry

Sarah Marcus Backcountry

A Review of Sarah Marcus’s Backcountry

by Karen Skolfield

In my review copy of Sarah Marcus’s chapbook from Finishing Line Press, Marcus includes a friendly, cheerful handwritten note to me which she signs “Love & Bears.” Love – a not-unusual sign off, and she knew my gender, so it’s the salutation between two women writers, but bears? And I look at the title: Backcountry. Of course. Where there are bears.

Turns out, in the backcountry there’s also plenty of love, so Marcus was giving me a succinct preview of her book. There’s love and its near-opposite, a couple we see struggling in their relationship, their lives. By placing the couple so often in the outdoors, the usual trappings of domesticity disappear: no one’s fixing the indoor plumbing as a sign the romance has gone out of the relationship, no one’s passive aggressively leaving dishes in the sink. Instead, they’re looking at maps, watching for storms, telling stories and dreaming, building a fire, building a fire again, that deep symbol of made and shared warmth, the collapse into coals, and is that good or bad? – Marcus lets us answer that question ourselves, even as this couple cycles through unhealthy behavior that may or may not be healthier than the lives they lived without each other.

The couple flashes in and out of the backcountry and a more urban and expected life, both offering their unique dangers. The way a simple rain can turn into a flash flood, “how water steals faces but leaves bodies.” A car rusting in a driveway as the woman contemplates the relationship. What a boat’s spinning propeller can do. When a coyote follows the woman and the couple take up a gun and bow, it’s clear this is not a real coyote but the specter of the relationship’s disintegration they’re warding off.

We hear that howl. We wish the couple well.

I should say: We sort of wish them well. This is a couple we sense shouldn’t be. Still, if this invented couple were all prairie paintbrush and squeaking marmots, all fireweed – the flower that blooms prolifically and purple after wildfire has scarred the landscape black – we’d be disappointed. We need their struggles and their troubles. We know those troubles, and hope we’re mostly beyond them, or won’t stumble into them again. We’ve been the man, telling her “not to make this more difficult than it needs to be.” We’ve been the woman saying everything’s fine, but “annoyed they’ve hiked all these miles to have the same conversation they’ve had at their kitchen table hundreds of times before.” We’re the looming need for rehab, the possibility of prison or a psych ward, the needle scars, the parent dying, the waste of looking for completion through another person instead of through the self.

Though I’m spending time telling the stories, that’s not to say it’s the only reason to keep reading. The narrative arc is pleasing, no doubt, but it’s the fineness of the poems and the finesse of language that makes each poem worthwhile. Like a tracker, I follow Marcus’s language, looking for the misstep in the mudbank – the classic mistake of a creature not wanting to be noticed – but there are no missteps here. Marcus’s chap is the literary equivalent of walking on rocks, each line firm and carefully placed. The endings are an absolute pleasure, never forced, and when I go back through and read them I notice that all but three or four of them end on the woman’s actions or point of view, and maybe this shouldn’t be surprising but I’m enormously pleased by this. Toward the end of the book, the softer third person switches to first person, the hammer of it – there’s been a major shift in the relationship – and it’s dizzying and perfect, both sad and triumphant.

And not to give too many spoilers, but there are bears, though not, perhaps, the bears you might expect. Take a woman and a man. Add some hardships and addiction. Have the adults deal with those things again and again. Now add bears – see how the wildest things go on and live or die without us, see how they move on, as in dreams? That’s how it is, Marcus tells us, for good or ill. That’s what happens in the backcountry.

Sarah Marcus, Backcountry. Finishing Line Press, 2013: $14

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Karen Skolfield is the author of FROST IN THE LOW AREAS (Zone 3 Press, 2013). She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two kids. She teaches technical writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she also earned her MFA. She is a contributing editor at Bateau Press and the literary magazine Stirring, and her poems have appeared in 2011 Best of the Net Anthology, Cave Wall, Memorious, Painted Bride Quarterly, Rattle, Tar River Poetry, Verse DailyWest Branch, and others.

 

 

A Review of Mike James’s Elegy in Reverse

Mike James Elegy in Reverse

A Review of Mike James’s Elegy in Reverse

By J. Andrew Goodman

Elegy in Reverse is a tense poetry collection exploring how loss and absence manifest. Family, friends, lovers, talents, and faith are shadows made measurable by experience and reverence in Mike James’s eighth collection, released by Aldrich Press earlier this year. James’s verse reminds us that what we hold dear is perishable and that words are often not enough to hold these things accountable for leaving. His poetry is plainspoken but evocative, fully rendering the familiarity of longing and grief for that which has a propensity toward leaving. Amid such an exodus, James captivates readers with his rapturous voice.

The characters of James’s past are made tangible by his written memory. In the early pages of his collection, readers are introduced to his mother and his alcoholic father; the latter is deceased and the former presumably so. In “Jailbird,” his father invents a dance, “the prison shuffle,” that the son enjoys, but his mother refuses to join:

when i was with your father
i had enough dancing
to do me
until cows or jesus
came home

she always
laughed
when she said that
as if she were saying it
for the first time

In economic verse, James details the family situation of his childhood: His father goes or returns to prison. His mother hopes to prevent her son from making similar choices. She makes light of her husband’s antics, yet reveals in doses the continuity of the past, her worry refreshed.

His mother appears sparingly throughout the collection, despite James’s apparent fondness of her, while his father returns frequently. The collection contains a number of heartbreaking poems about his father’s alcoholism, which “cost him a sense of direction,” ultimately turning him away from his family. The son is left only with his memory, piecemeal and bitter. James seems to believe he has inherited such transience. Or, possibly, he recognizes this as a feature of human nature, the human condition. He expresses “a sad anger” toward most loss or abandonment, writing in a poem later in the collection that “an old friend says leaving is contagious.” This sets a precedent for the remainder of the book.

Despite his ability to make good use of them, James recognizes that words often escape or fail us as well. In “Message at Babel,” James alludes to the biblical account of God confounding the human language. As part of a short series of poems within the collection that questions the necessity of disparity in faith, James explores through a lens of mourning what it means that Eve was possibly judged “before she even chewed,” that Job’s wife was silenced by her children’s “faces / so stiff in death.”

Still, James shows us clearly that language and voice help diffuse the power of death and grief. Our memories become stories, become physical. “I don’t know what to make / of the language / of grace” James writes in a poem about refusing to offer a prayer before a meal with his wife. The litany and ritual of biblical language are not as significant or endearing to him as experience itself:

those words / don’t cling to me / the way a blanket does / on mid-winter / mornings / / or the way we cling / to one another / at night / as we swim / across the ocean of our bodies / past the edge of our wants / / the night sky full of stars / mariners used / for passage/ their breath filling sails / with a word / that can be a taunt / a promise / or something close to grace / / home

James’s refusal isn’t a rejection of faith, but of its language, poor in its appraisal of our desires and necessities. He suggests silence is its own grace in “However Bright the Sun” and “Wild Apples.” In labor, we work through our grief and unpleasantness. We forget our losses, even though their accumulation manifests into a shadow, “some days . . .  into a taste.”

The dichotomy of what is unreal as it exists in reality is essential to James’s collection. He is visited by his father’s ghost, and they converse. Eden’s inhabitants are capricious, envious of Eve’s taste. James even defines an elegy as “a love poem to an abstraction / once touched.” It seems, then, that with poetry James is enabled to seek the abstraction through language, to define absence by its bounty. The way the monk in “The Monk’s Dream” seeks God’s face during sleep or contemplation but can think only of hawk’s feathers and an empty bowl is how we, with James, seek the unreal through the limitations of the real.

More than a reconciliation of grief, Elegy in Reverse is a love poem to language and the surprising result of what happens when we’re able to say the right thing. Even when describing that which is fleeting, Mike James’s voice is nascent, emerging. He is never at a loss for words.

Mike James, Elegy in Reverse. Aldrich Press, 2014: $16.00

***

J. Andrew Goodman is a graduate of Murray State University’s MFA program and an intern for the independent literary publisher, White Pine Press. He currently lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky.