Review of Sarah Vap’s Winter

Winter {effulgences, devotions} by Sarah Vap (Noemi Press, 2019)

ISBN: 978-1-9348-19-83-8

217 pp.  $ 18.00

Reviewer: Amy Small-McKinney

            Sarah Vap’s book of poetry, Winter {effulgences, devotions}, is first about becoming a mother and motherhood’s insistent devotions, both ritualistic and scrambled. But it is also about the poet’s submersion into an illuminating and agonizing state of permeability, into “invisible danger” and “tenderness so extreme.”

            The book’s cover, a scrawl of partial white letters crossed out obsessively against a black page until only a lone W remains, presages its project—to break open and reorganize “too much information.” Finally, at the bottom of the page, the assembled word, Winter

And on every page, as header and footer, sky and earth, are the words: “Drones are probably killing someone right now.” This repeated phrase is our intractable constant. With their minute and italicized font, a reader might try but fail to ignore them, like the homeless on her street.

This container of destruction is what the poet cannot imagine and must, along with the daily, hourly, moment-to-moment absorptivity of her brain and body since having babies.  Written over twelve years, in light of our current “viruses,” these poems are prescient:

            The love for the babies is a tenderness so extreme that its tentacles—

            it’s a tenderness to insanity, I.

 and:

Love for the babies is actually a cellular-level internalizing
of the world’s dangers. Dangers that are emanating from everywhere
dangers that are surrounding us—right now—

           
clouds of invisible danger, like wifi. Like viruses. Like snowfall.

         The use of repetition, refrain, and dangling end-words replicate the poet’s emotional, physical, and intellectual response to her world. Her lines are her—a bursting fragmented litany.  Poet as poem of fear and devotion.

           The first poem of the book is “Winter.”  Almost every poem thereafter is also entitled “Winter,” and when not, the title contains a winter image, like Snowman or Christmas:

            Snow is falling, a fire is burning in the fireplace, something is baking,

            the family-animal is cozy inside—

            I am unable to sufficiently imagine the.

            Vap ends with an unimaginable “the.” In the next “Winter” poem, the “I” enters, along with other creatures:

            Glut. I.

            The noise in this cabin—my brains exploding from noise—the slams.

            Screeching, laughing, crying. Rain on the roof. Sonar pinging at each

            moment into our brains—

            into the brains of whales—and all the other sea creatures—this

            animal asleep in my arms—

            love made a body—for a complete mind. I

            Here, the poet becomes more than self, more than family-animal. She becomes the other and begins the tortuous and gorgeous journey toward reconciling the complete mind of her babies with her individual mind, her family mind, her global mind, her mind intrinsically intertwined with the minds of everything.  

There is a paradoxical isolation that occurs in being so populated
with things that are emanating from outside of oneself.

As there is a paradoxical isolation that occurs when one is stuffed
with things that are emanating from inside of oneself.

and then the poignant: “I am so much the same as / this fire, I am so much the same as this whale, I am so much the same / as this sonar, I am so much the same as this nation state, I am so much / the same as this bomb I.” 

            Vap is a both poet of amalgamation and an atom smasher, trying “to smash things together so hard that I—what we experience / shapes what we are capable of understanding.”

            She breaks open a particle at lightning speed to create “another kind of coherence.”  “This book is several books, each written into each other, and / destroying each other over time.” In her poem “Snow Man” (And even a snowman is not merely a snowman, but also, as her children call it, “no man.”), Vap tells us: “…the project is re-scale, re-calibrate, / re-orient, and re-mind.” 

            From another angle Vap’s poems are less smash and more “portmanteau,” a large suitcase that she packs and unpacks and repacks as she and her family travel to make their livings or to be with family. And just as “portmanteau” has more than one definition, these poems metaphorically pack and repack meaning, as one word, one thing, and then another word and another thing join and become something else.

            It is true that at times, Vap’s repetitious litanies are child-like, and in fact, she confirms, “I am losing language as my children are gaining theirs” 


            This morning, snow.

            Imagine: everything pouring out. The bullets have just tunneled

            through my brains, so

            memories are pouring out of my brains, longing is pouring out of my

            brains, what I’ve previously thought of as my self is pouring out of my  

            brains, what I’ve learned across the years is pouring out of my brains,    

            all the things I’ve done right and wrong are pouring out of my brains.

            Side by side with obsessions are insistent interruptions of the children, “You have a beautiful face when you watch me poop mama. Thank you,” and the equally insistent destabilizing interruption of feeling unsafe. Vap tells us: “The winter after Trump is elected I can’t stop thinking about my / attacker…I can’t stop thinking that / winter could disappear from earth. I can’t stop thinking about the / vertigo that I am now always experiencing or just about to experience.  / I can’t stop thinking about the vulnerability and fragility of animals / and forests and oceans and people.”

This is the danger: the world could end. What we love could disappear. Who we are could disappear.  And along with “noise: and “slams,” is the poet’s worsening vertigo and the disappearance of her hearing, just as she is “straining to perceive”: “And the pinging from the naval and industrial sonar surrounding this  / peninsula is exploding not just the brains of whales and her sea / creatures—it is also directly entering and exploding the brains of our / family-animal, I.”  And then,  “If I could make a poem that is the same noise as the silence at the end / of a sob—I am bent over, my mouth is open, I can neither inhale nor / exhale—a poem that is the silent suspension at the end of a sob, I— .”

            This is a book about gaining and losing, gaining the family-animal and losing a parent: “My dad is dying of congestive heart failure down the hall. The snow / is falling all around us—”

            At its core is hypervigilance, as when her children are ill and they have no health insurance or the children are ill and they finally have health insurance.  Having or not having it matters; it’s a question of life and death. 

            In addition to her father’s death, there is the loss of a baby, the loss of individuation, the paradoxical blessing inherent in the loss of individuation, body as both container and pitcher, and finally, a “book about holding infinite opposite truths / inside of oneself in order to stay on earth.”

Infinite opposites do not mean abstractions.  Winter is solidly anchored to the quotidian and to the body. Vap often refers to “the sternum”:

The firelight flickers through this tiny baby’s eyelashes, creating
shadows across his face so that his face looks cracked open.

Cracked open at the sternum, and cracked open at the brains,—I.

Something of soul has increased, as my porousness has increased.

Something of me has diminished.


            The sternum, and the rest of the body keep both poet and reader from exploding or floating away, the closings and openings from which pain and aggression and supplication can be held or released: 

I open the front door to watch the snow, to feel the intensity of the
cold. It’s so cold I can’t smell the rotting salmon, the spruce, the fir, the
cedar, or the forest soil—they’ve frozen.

The pressure behind the sternum. The anxiety, I.

Aghast that I could be sleeping, but I am not, I bend over, I give a.

The snowy wind in my eyes—but glory, but self-mercy, but drones,
the state is not wasteful, it uses the entire human. 

            Vap’s speaker is porous and permeable and also releasing: “I am so much more interested when Psalm 22:14 says I am poured out / like water. My bones are scattered. And my heart, like wax, is melted.” 


            She tells us how her children would “run naked” and would find her wherever she was, “and they bent over. They spread their butt cheeks as far apart as they could to / show me something.” Then the poet asks, “Why do we want someone to see inside of us.”  Her book is the answer.

            As her children grow old enough to go to the beach alone, Vap tells them, “it’s a book about long-term grieving / tangled up with the deepest joy and wonder I have ever experienced— / and my own mind’s explosion. Then possible re-composure… I want the book to / end, but I don’t know how.”

            Biblically, each child answers:

            “Ambivalent, Oskar says, means having purchase in both directions… Or a frozen hesitation—”  

            “Mateo suggests the ending of the book feels first like confusion, and / then it just dwindles away… like, growing up.” 

             “Archie responds to my questions by describing his nightmare” and how he dreamed she was frozen in a chair. 

            But Vap is not frozen.  In the book’s epilogue, she tells us, “Above the illuminated half-circle, there is illuminated, also, a wedge of / snow, thickly falling, and then, “My thought is: tenderness.  It is: console. It is: the fire is burning, there is a cup of coffee in front of me, I am having a / thought: // I am so happy. 

            This flash of contentment is vital and hard-earned, but for this reader, “Winter” does not end. As poet fused with speaker, reader fused with poet, until separation from the other became indiscernible. Both deeply personal and deeply revolutionary, “Winter” could go on forever transforming and mutating because we—the poet, her family, readers, our legacies, and our earth—are porous and shifting and listening. As Vap says, “This book is, mostly, outside of me. So many different kinds of books it has been, or could still be, apart from me.” To try to end this review seems as impossible as refusing to listen. At this very moment, as late capitalism with its inherent racism, its mad compulsion to constrain women, and its viral repercussions are changing us, this book—this decoded human experience—is still be asking to be heard.

***

Amy Small-McKinney’s second full-length book of poetry, Walking Toward Cranes (Glass Lyre Press, 2017) won the Kithara Book Prize 2016. Her work appears widely in journals, such as Connotation Press, Construction, American Poetry Review, The Indianapolis Review, Tiferet, Pedestal Magazine, and Baltimore Review.  Her poem “Birthplace” received Special Merits recognition by The Comstock Review for their 2019 Muriel Craft Bailey Poetry Contest. Her poems have also been translated into Romanian and Korean. She resides in Philadelphia where she teaches community poetry workshops and private students.   

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