Chapbook Review: Sarah Certa's Juliet (I)


Sarah Certa Juliet (I) H_NGM_N, 2014 portable document format, free

If you haven’t had a chance to check out H_NGM_N’s digital chapbook series, may I heartily recommend that you do so. The press is publishing 6 chaps per year in free, downloadable pdf format, which is an amazing opportunity to read fresh work regularly.

The most recent release (Dec. 2014) is a new chap by H_NGM_N’s Associate Poetry Editor Sarah Certa, who has a full length collection, NOTHING TO DO WITH ME (University of Hell Press), due out at AWP 2015 in Minneapolis. Juliet (I) offers a truly enjoyable introduction to Certa’s work as a manuscript that takes advantage of the chapbook form with a series of emotionally-dense poems.

The poems inhabit the space between stunning rhythmic momentum and an obsession with its eventual halt—not only of the lines, the sentence, and the poems, but of the speaker. At times, the end stop appears sudden, as in a soldier’s death, but the speaker’s greatest strength as an observer is the ability to layer that harshness with an awareness of other malignant factors building. In fact, the speaker relishes the constant presence of deterioration—of bodies, of relationships, of the appearance of relationships—with the eye of someone who is astonished by the beauty of the entropy and deeply wounded by it. In the first poem of Act I, the speaker lists her thoughts on the first day of spring:

a dozen other heads, a skull stuffed with lilacs, a mouth that won’t stop drooling, a soldier

whose body looks like it’s been turned inside out because God

doesn’t have his own body to play with.

Or something like that. It’s true, I’m starting

to question some things. Like, how many piles

of bones is too many? How many beautiful people

weren’t born today? But still, you’re right, that sun.

This particular combination of delight in the universe and the speaker’s desire for death will remind many of Sexton. Yet Certa has made the subject of depression, and the way it may present death as a constant choice, into wholly her own investigation of the way “[her] bones are laced too tight.” The failing relationship at the center of the manuscript is interesting, yet the relationship of the speaker to her own body and the concept of remaining within it takes on precedence. She repeatedly asserts “this is me” while, without acknowledgement, therapists offer their opinions: “They keep telling me I’m too high-functioning/ for a full-blown diagnosis.” This is the contradiction that takes on the most pain—one for which there is no explanation or release, in which the state of humanity may simply be to pain from awareness of mortality.

The constant revision and re-assertion of the self becomes evident, too, in the poems’ form; Certa’s stichic poems present an initial impression of stability, but the swift variations in line length and abrupt enjambments disallow that possibility. Certa experiments with moments of static—anaphora, end-stopped declarative statements—but all in the service of creating contrast with the driving movement. My favorite feature of these poems is Certa’s musical balance between the long, imaginative, wild sentence and the quick colloquialism. This balance of release and reflection, of boundlessness and restraint, creates the moments of intimacy that reveal most about the speaker’s need to reconcile grief and sincerity; they are as surprising to the reader as to the speaker herself, the revelation suddenly manifest in words. Certa writes:

It’s the thirteenth day of spring and all the snow

is dirtier than it was yesterday. My teeth

are one day older and the sky

has another thousand molecules of cancer moving through it,

but my eyes have been dry,

and that feels really nice, in bed eating Oreos

like a normal person, my feet getting warm as my brain

softens and slips away from itself

like a moon, a sailboat, all the pretty things

we don’t know how to hold

The metaphors that the speaker finds enjoyment in—birds, breath—form a current of desire for unrestricted movement, for a life driven by pleasure in fluidity. The speaker is aware of each of her own pleasure in tasks like braiding and baking as muted, and yet they offer a small hope and a great source of dark humor:

I draw window

to jump out of

but none of them are real

so I have a lot of bruises

from banging into walls.

Against this prognosis of a quick or lingering death, Certa turns back, in the Epilogue, to the Shakespearean heroine and the “happy” dagger. Despite the progression of the spring into a season of full bloom, the poems leave us with two impossibilities: the revision of Juliet’s fate, and of the speaker’s—in this case, bound not by the literary canon but by her own knowledge of futility. It is a conclusion that seems both effortless and deeply challenging in its resistance to a resolution about the value of a life in pain:

Spring is almost over and I

can’t decide if I want to feel important.

***

Kate Partridge received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University, and her poems have appeared in the Colorado Review, Carolina Quarterly, Rhino, Better, Bloom, and Verse Daily. She lives in Anchorage, where she teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage, coordinates the Crosscurrents Reading Series, and serves as a Count Coordinator for VIDA.

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