Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sara London's The Tyranny of Milk in West Branch

Just Like Eve: Women Poets and the Writing of Trauma
by Rachel Mennies

In her 1991 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Nadine Gordimer speaks of the Word. For Gordimer the Word is neither fetishized gospel nor bland edict; it is a writer's everything: her birth, the materialization of her existence. Gordimer's words on words are prescient. "The word," she opens her lecture, "flies through space, it is bounced from satellites, now nearer than it has ever been to the heaven from which it was believed to have come." She continues,

But its most significant transformation occurred for me and my kind long ago, when it was first scratched on a stone tablet or traced on papyrus, when it materialized from sound to spectacle ... For this is the genesis story of the writer. It is the story that wrote her or him into being.

Gordimer combated apartheid, fought for AIDS victims, and wrote fourteen novels (and many more essays and short stories). She used the Word for activism, and she speaks to this challenge in her speech: the writer, she insists, "must take the right to explore, warts and all, both the enemy and the beloved comrade in arms," never shrinking from suppression or threats of censorship (or worse). For her, this has often meant writing about ugliness or strife, taking a reader deep into worlds as complicated as they are fraught with darkness.

Like Gordimer, the poets Mihaela Moscaliuc, Sara London, Molly Brodak, and Barbara Claire Freeman have created spaces of destruction in their art, gazing directly and powerfully at subjects that would be easier to avoid. Their speakers tell difficult stories of addiction and abuse, oppression and fear. Yet in each book, what lingers in the reader's mind is not darkness but ultimate triumph: two children in Brodak's poem "Roman Girls" noticing a world "small enough // to sing to in all directions"; the speaker in Freeman's "General Motors" imploring readers to "Walk with me to the end of the moment"; London imagining Holsteins feasting at her dinner table; and Moscaliuc's tiny yet complicated joy in bathing her newborn son.

"Humans," Gordimer writes, "the only self-regarding animals, blessed or cursed with this torturing higher faculty, have always wanted to know why." As women writers and scribes of struggle, these four poets transform wanting into an active search for knowing, making a thorough and at times traumatic study of what has made us us. They use their words to make the rest of us see.


In "The Front," from Sara London's The Tyranny of Milk, the speaker's sister gathers H.E.P.A. masks and syringes in preparation for an attack on the unnamed Israeli city in which she lives. Looking for an escape from this aura of war, the sister tells the speaker over the phone of her

to vacation in
the Sinai, shed
clothes, get an
all-over tan,
her favorite thing,
you know,
just like Eve
before the shit
went down.

Before violence, hints the speaker, comes fleeting calm. In this world, an attack can be tempered by shields and its results tended with medicine, but it can never be prevented.

The poems in The Tyranny of Milk play with our perception of time, using short, enjambed lines and moving at a brisk, fluid pace backward into memory and forward into a looming future. In "Sweet Salvage," the speaker's "great-uncles / can't put the video / cameras down," and the poem rewinds and fast-forwards along with the technology:

No more
"This is what happened,"
they say today,
and play it back.
"That's you, that's us ..."
if someone recalls
it happened otherwise,
they must be mad ...

For the great-uncles, danger lies in misremembering—or, worse, in never remembering at all. Without the cameras, states the speaker, you'd "never / know who did / what to whom, / or what to blame / when you wake." Like the speaker's sister in "The Front," the family in "Sweet Salvage" needs a clear delineation of "sides" in order to feel safe; they need to know, with the fixed assurance of film as an aide, who's guilty of family strife and who's innocent. As conflict enters the family unit, it threatens to rend it apart.

While London rarely examines severe trauma directly, that trauma is always present as a palpable possibility, especially for women. The poem "Tell Me" sets up a binary distinction, using the anaphora "in my country" to complicate understanding between the speaker and the poem's "you." "'In my country'," bemoans the speaker, "you say, 'there is / no word for it.'" We readers never learn what exactly "it" refers to, yet it is apparently a threat, and we learn that women have the most to fear from it. "It is always / the mother / in my country," the speaker says. "Tell me / it is different / in yours." While we cannot accept the speaker's challenge—we know "it" only as a dim, sinister presence—we can readily imagine what it might represent in other cultures, including our own. Vague but powerful, the force could be the same one that drives Moscaliuc's Mara to terminate her pregnancy; it could be the violence Brodak examines in A Little Middle of the Night, or the faceless stock-market panic of Freeman's Incivilities. Here, what is not said, the vast white space found on most of The Tyranny of Milk's pages, casts dark shadows over the written lines.

"What remains," asks the speaker of the poem "Prey," "after myth- // making?" Imbued with memory, The Tyranny of Milk examines the myth of the family—what it looks like, how it acts, what it chooses to preserve. The characters in this collection traverse generations and build traditions. In the wake of myth-making, then, after the video camera has been turned off and the sisters' phone call terminated, we find canonization, inscription, the setting-down through poetry of how it once was. We have fear—the preemptive purchase of the H.E.P.A. mask—to teach us, and heartwarming interconnection to strive for. We have questions to answer about how we've come to be, questions about our own personal geneses. "Mother, Father, / who's to blame for such / mixed-up blessings?" asks the speaker of the collection's eponymous poem, in which cows come to dinner and the child speaker must learn what to make of a tiny disaster. Because many of The Tyranny of Milk's inquiries go unanswered, we must use our own myths to investigate those questions for ourselves.