REVIEW: Bad Daughter
By ROMAN GLADSTONE
You can already tell by the title of her new collection that Sarah Gorham has a sly, subversive sense of humor. From modified “prayers” saturated with irony to a five-part reflection on bureaucratic and other absurdities associated with a frankly horrific accident, Gorham regards the world with a disengaged, puzzled fascination, and at its best it is as if you see things through her eyes for the first time. Her poem, “Detach,” captures this attitude, evident throughout her poetry:
Thank the stars for distances between
stars, for broad mountain meadows
that shrink your troubles to ants
carrying leaves five times their size.
The sun is 91 million miles away;
not too far, not too close. Be like that.
Perch in a look-out tower, overseer of campfires
and dangerous breezes. You’ll spot the heat,
pick up the phone. Let others
put their faces in the fire.
The world is a wondrous place if you twist your head and look at it from a different angle. “Odd place for a sculpture,” she begins the poem, “Bust of a Young Girl in the Snow.” Indeed, Gorham’s logical leaps from line to line are breathtaking. “I long for babies,/but never more than mountains./My view of the Jungfrau: peaks like starched/petticoats I could bury my face in./She is a cold confection, a meringue/I feel in my teeth. When I am/in the presence of mountains,/there will always be enough sex./But never enough mountains,” she concludes the poem, “Three Sides to the Mountain That Are Really One.”
Gorham is truly one of those poets you don’t want to have to “explain” so much as simply “show,” bring to the reader’s attention. Look at this! And this! It’s the overall tone, a sort of Dickensonian playfulness, that’s really enchanting about her verse. Her poetry can pop and sparkle with the wisecracking wit of a Dorothy Parker. Take this sonnet, for instance:
“No woman should call another fastidious.”
- James Thurber
She had in mind dahlias, a stretch
of dianthus, Jack-in-the-Pulpit or two.
For this rot. In candid view!
Enough to make her retch –
the certainty of being touched, mussed,
dog-snouted till the prettiest sheen
turns brown, black-brown, black-green.
Once they called this mush fastidious.
Now it’s the woman’s touch, tight
as she flips a grub-infested
compost heap. Breath held, over-dressed
in fleece, gloves, clogs, apron, hat.
It’s garden variety metamorphosis –
plain disgust to petal-perfect daintiness.
Gorham’s prayer poems–“We Are Bold to Say,” “Prayer During a Fast,” “Parting Prayer”–likewise display this charming irreverence. “I confess that I have/sinned against you/by what I have eaten/and by what I have/not left uneaten,” she writes, in a cadence reminiscent of the Al-Chet prayer Jews recite on Yom Kippur (Gorham is Jewish on her father’s side, she notes in “Accommodation”). It’s as if she has taken the Almighty aside and nudged Him in the ribs. “Eternal God, charitable one/you have reluctantly included us/your back-up guest list,/for the birthday of your Jesus Son/who will be two thousand ten/this December if the faithful have it right…” she writes in “Parting Prayer.”
As the title of the collection suggests, there is a potent theme of mothers and daughters going on throughout this collection. “What is a mother but a tooth’s way of producing another tooth?” she writes in “Homesickness,” and in the metaphor we see the almost claustrophobic bond she elaborates on all over these poems. “To my child I became my mother, and her mother, and hers.” ( “Accommodation” )
Part Two of this three-part collection opens with a Jewish proverb as its epigram: “What the daughter does, the mother did.” And then the first poem in this section, “Sixteen,” focuses on a mother and her rebellious daughter, who “conjured the toughest boy of all/to push my love aside.” “On the Birth of a Daughter,” which concludes the collection, ends with the admonition, “When your daughter matures, the tree must be sacrificed./A phoenix will alight there/only when the queen steps down.//You must step down.” And yet how difficult stepping down must be! As the epigraph to the third part advises, “Researchers have found that certain cells escape from a fetus, persisting in the mother’s bloodstream decades after she is pregnant. These cells migrate to wounds in the mother’s body.” Wow.
You could call this “fatalism,” but that sounds too harsh. Still, there is very much the attitude that “the child is father to the man,” or at least that daughters become their mothers. “Immortality,” another baby poem, concludes: “Touch that fantastic little foot. The baby is an implant, a fresh cutting./She will take. She will take you away.”
“Prick and Twinge”–daughter injures herself, requires medical attention and a mother feels guilt through negligence–“Barbeque”–a girl learns to eat with utensils (“Is it progress if a cannibal uses a fork?”)–“Lost”–she loses her mittens (“The brain is a wicker basket”): so many poems about the quotidian events that bond parents and children. And then there is “Passeggiata,” a poem in which the relationship between a college-age girl and her mother has become attenuated, part of the letting-go that never really lets go.
But all of these poems are rooted and related in the endearing detachment with which Gorham regards the world, the fresh metaphors with which she envisions and presents to us the world around her. And so, concluding on another sonnet, this reviewer shows Gorham and doesn’t try any longer to explain:
Pond in Winter
A garden pond rimmed with stone
has frozen over, but under the ice
(like a soap-streaked shower curtain,
or distant light pollution),
a dozen goldfish churn the water
flourishing their Isadora fairy fins.
Above, a cat follows the orangey action,
pretend-yawns, skids, saunters
with sprawled claws. Winter insulates –
with just an inch of oxygen
the fish respire, feed, swim,
while our cat is a frenzy of gesture,
paws drumming: You are going
to die. If not now, in Spring, in Spring.