A REVIEW OF SARA PETERS'S
BY JENNIFER LOVEGROVE
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Poetry | Issue 7 | November 30, 2014
Robert Pinksy’s blurb on the front cover of Sara Peters’ poetry collection 1996 characterizes the book as “Deeper than mere darkness.” While accurate, this powerful debut is more than poems about unsettling subject matter. It’s a deft and confident new voice in contemporary narrative poetry, with a striking clarity and sureness in tone not always prominent in first books.
1996 is ordered in six distinct sections, with the title of each taken from a poem within it. The sections run loosely in chronological order, beginning with poems about or set in early childhood, and concluding in adulthood in the sixth section. The poems do not however move neatly in a linear fashion from the speaker’s birth to present, and there are plenty of diversions into what I like to call the Canadian Gothic--the landscape (both internal and external) turned violent: the paranormal, meditations on desire and revulsion, anti-abortion propagandists, lobster feasts, and a compelling cast of assorted characters we meet along the way.
1. Tension or "she could pause with her fingertips" (9)
Sara Peters writes with an intuitive and masterful sense of how to create and sustain tension. Her lyric narratives are seductive, but taut with danger; her poems ease you into a seemingly bucolic setting then leave you wondering by the end how you wound up in such a disquieting place. Part of this is as a result of her vivid, direct images, and part is in her control of time--which in poetry is both rhythm and the choice of what to reveal and when to do so. This tension also emerges from how tightly constructed her stanzas are, often consisting of (non-rhyming) couplets or tercets. Her control of pace and use of striking imagery in each poem is so strong that you can’t easily discern where the narrative shift occurred, or how you ended somewhere eerie, where “Secrets thud / like June bugs against screens, / and all you have to do is let them in” (3). This shift is also exemplified in the poem “Cruelty,” written in couplets, in which the speaker
watched my cousin cut open a gopher
The poem ends with lines so gentle it makes the entirety of the poem even more impactful, but I’m not going to spoil it for you. It’s a tough poem to read, but well worth it.
Her poems skillfully manage the tensions between romance and threat, beauty and violence, sexual desire and the cusp of self-awareness in a way that is often exhilarating without being gratuitous. In the first section, “In My Dreams I Am a Moral Child,” Peters offers us glimpses into a childhood where loss of innocence and menace lurk in poems like “Babysitters”:
But this Babysitter. She’d start with Goldilocks, then
I hear echoes of Lynn Crosbie’s early poetry here, like VillainElle’s “Betty and Veronica” or “Nancy Drew’s Theatre of Blood.” Never derivative, there is a freshness to her imagery which excited me, like in one of my favourite poems, the paranormal-themed “Mary Ellen Spook”:
One morning, the china cabinet doors
Later in the poem, she beautifully echoes this image with one of a plough turning back at the end of a row. The tensions she masterfully manipulates and sustains are constructed of and supported by vivid, unique images like these in every poem, from “her mother’s broken-armed boyfriend” (10) to “her rosy larynx furled in and out” (19) to “hold my breath till the sparks come” (47).
2. Paradox, or "A doorless house-a table set for none" (37)
Part of the tension Peters creates in 1996 comes from the paradoxes she chooses to depict and examine in her poems. She excels at conveying the paradoxes that the characters and persona of her poems must exist within, and the vigilance that must be employed to navigate the conflicting messages directed at young women and girls. Her visceral and almost darkly vaudevillian “Rehearsal” explores these contradictions:
We scrub too much skin
The poem inhabits the tensions between freedom (feeling the sun on your skin) and threat (future rapes) that women and girls must constantly maneuver through. Similarly, in “My Sister and I We Know We Are Filth,” the pair start off playing in their mother’s room “Of orchids and lilies” but pivots quickly to
I rip a velvet headband with my teeth. I spit
Peters infiltrates and exposes the paradoxical space between play and violence, between the private and the performative, as with “My sister's trailing her tongue // across our mother's mirror” (47). In “Playing Lesbians,” ideas of play and performance also manifest in lines like:
In my dreams I am a moral child,
As readers, we’re not privy to how the game is played, and it is the gaps in narratives that strengthen these poems; they succeed in strategic understatement.
3. The Unsaid, or "burning unattended in the dark" (54)
While writing this review, I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s book of essays Men Explain Things to Me and came upon the notion of the “tyranny of the quantifiable”–how what is not expressly measurable is often overlooked and unexamined in mainstream culture. Not so in 1996. Peters embraces the narrative and imagistic potential in not only what is difficult to quantify–desire, fear, trauma, longing–but finds power in what is left unsaid.
Part of the impact in 1996 is created by what Peters chooses to leave out or not name. In “Winter Jewelry,” sexual tension and a sense of menace comingle as “animals began to emerge… while in one corner, something nursed on something else.” (9) She knows just when to pull back, when not naming is actually more impactful than naming, and when to leave gaps that invite the reader to actively interpret. These narrative ellipses allow poems containing horror, violence and peril to find strength in their subtlety. What the poems are left with then is their most essential and strongest details, giving the poems a lean tautness that never overstates, deepening the experience for the reader by trusting us to fill in the spaces ourselves.
In “Mordechai” (38), the poem hinges on a question, but in the confines of the poem, the question is never asked. The poem exists in the perimeters of its topic, allowing the reader to infer what the dynamic might be, as Mordechai “tucks himself behind the wheel, / like Ophelia he floats down the street in his plastic car” (39). Sometimes these spaces exist between a poem’s title and its body, as with “Dead Boy Had Too Many Injuries to Fit in One Drawing” (42). The poem itself is set earlier than the title’s tragic reference, at a birthday party, with a cruel father, an undercurrent of brutality, but no real explanation of how we got to what the title tells us is inevitable. She constructs the poem in such a way that you don't need to know what happened in between. She sets out enough suggestive – though not lurid – hints that you can figure it out, but Peters isn't going to hold your hand while you do so.
1996 contains almost no poems that could be considered weak or out of place. The exception is “Your Life as Lucy Maud Montgomery” (55), in which the characters of Anne of Green Gables are depicted more darkly, but it seemed flat and less original in comparison to the strength of the rest of the book.
Overall, the voice in 1996 is so fully formed that, after revelling in its sureness, the reader must wonder how Peters’ poetry will develop over time. How will her writing evolve? Will she write more narratively or less? Myself, I would like to see more poems like “Hair” (37), which is the least narrative and most allusive and sparse, but I recognize that is the imposition of my own preferences. Still, it has a strange sharpness and one of my favourite lines: “A doorless house—a table set for none.”
JENNIFER LOVEGROVE is the author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlisted novel Watch How We Walk, as well as the poetry collections I Should Never Have Fired the Sentinel and The Dagger Between Her Teeth. She is currently at work on a new manuscript of poetry and another novel. Her writing has been published widely, with new writing forthcoming in Riddle Fence and Taddle Creek. In 2010 she was nominated for the K. M. Hunter Artist Award for Literature. For several years, she produced and hosted the literary radio show “In Other Words” on CKLN 88.1FM, and for a decade, she edited and published the literary zine dig. Currently, she divides her time between downtown Toronto and rural Haliburton, and can be found online at jenniferlovegrove.com.