Monday, October 24, 2011

The Courier Journal Reviews BAD DAUGHTER by Sarah Gorham

by Dominic Russ

Disarming as it is honest, Bad Daughter — like the unruly child the title suggests — refuses to stay seated as it makes a mess of the dinner table. With pluck and tenderness, Sarah Gorham’s fourth collection of poems pulls back the veneer of American family life and feels out the complicated layers of satisfaction and disappointment hidden within the procreative imperatives that drive one generation into the next. Parents who lovingly watch their sons and daughters become parents of their own, inevitably stand vis-à-vis with their own posterity as they contemplate the faces of their children and grandchildren, no matter how adorably plump their cheeks may be. Likewise, despite the best intentions, the birth of every child launches each parent into unknown trajectories of love and despair, of fear and comfort. The traits we loathe in ourselves often find reincarnation in our onetime darlings, leading mom and dad to relive their childhoods through the lens of their children and re-evaluate the adults they’ve become. Though this often makes us more keen (and perhaps forgiving of our parents’ faults), ultimately the child the parent once led into the world leads them out of it.

From poem to poem, Gorham’s latest collection deftly assumes multiple perspectives as it tackles life as a parent, child, wife and grandmother. True, critics often avoid point of view in the lingo we apply to poetry, but it’s precisely her employment of point of view that allows this collection to permeate generations and peek into every room of the household. From the lulling, nursery-rhyme cadences of “Our House” to the phone call tandem of “Passeggiata” that traces the growing estrangement between a mother and a daughter away at school, the author carves out a full family spectrum. Fathers and husbands work their way in too, as the narrator of “Dusk” discovers revitalization in an aging marriage with these touching lines:

“We touch each other’s faces in the dark
the reason floats up slow —
why we married so long ago.”

Though unflinching and astute in her observation of family dynamics, Gorham never misses the opportunity to make us laugh. Yes, nature can be cruel with all kinds of hazards and accidents — some as charming as the evasions of a child to escape blame for a needle stuck in her foot, others leading to the surgeon’s table after a crash on a country road — but still the author reminds us to keep our humor as she slips the occasional laugh-out-loud jab. Lines like: “When we were bad, we were extravagant / Like cruise ships through a canal” and “Memory is a ditzy court reporter” chuckle alongside such playful interrogations as “Is it progress if a cannibal uses a fork?” and the more cryptic “What is progress but a deer chased through the forest / by Slovakian curses?”

Perhaps the most arresting feature of this collection arrives through Gorham’s uncanny ability to match the physical to the psychological through an exact appropriation of unforgettable details. In Bad Daughter these correlatives achieve a sort of sentient clarity as the author somehow sneaks the ephemeral into the tangible, the transcendental into the concrete: the blossom of a small girl’s hair sinking into a bath tightens into a mother’s and daughter’s teeth that match up like a zipper; the way a grandmother must slake her appetite to procreate (a newborn — the author reminds us — is a drug) upon something equally large and impassive, such as the Jungfrau peak in the Alps.

In the end, Bad Daughter manages to guide the reader through the ambiguities of family life, leaving us fuller and wiser when all the pages have been turned and we return to our own households.

Gorham lives in Louisville with her husband, author Jeff Skinner, and is the editor-in-chief of Sarabande Books.