In the Voice of Sarah J. Sloat

In the Voice of a Minor Saint“Everything that appears possible/ can be turned into something impossible,” writes Sarah J. Sloat in “Curtains,” a poem from her chapbook In the Voice of a Minor Saint, published earlier this year by Tilt Press. This is an apt description of Sloat’s usual modus operandi in these poems. For example, here she is on that touchstone of modern identity, the gasoline-powered automobile:

Pity the swoon towards motion,
the yen for speed.

Pity the billow and sinew of fumes,
muscle that makes the crash spectacular.

God have pity on the whole machine
gas has to carry: lead, flesh and metals
that do not travel light.
(“God Have Pity on the Smell of Gasoline”)

The title poem works much mischief simply by taking a familiar phrase — “minor saint” — literally.

I came at a wee hour
into my miniature existence.

I keep my hair close cropped
that my face might fit in lockets.

My heart is small, like a love
of buttons or black pepper.

“Grassland” is another possibility that Sloat’s facility for imagistic and linguistic prestidigitation renders, if not impossible, at least highly mythic. Both the Biblical Sarah and Lot’s wife seem to be waiting in the wings:

I hold a handkerchief
over my mouth to veil the clover
and bees that tickle my throat,
but the angel
who’s due at my tent
won’t catch me laughing.

A kiss would do it.
One sprinkle of milkwhite salt
and I’ll break like bread at your table.

That was, by the way, one of three poems in this 22-page collection in which honeybees get close and personal, a leitmotif like automobiles and the smell of gasoline whose reoccurrence contributes to the book’s overall strong musicality. These poems are deeply pleasurable to read, and as I read and re-read the PDF that Sloat sent me, I often found myself chanting them out-loud. I was interested to see that the first reviewer in the Read Write Poem-sponsored “virtual book tour,” Joseph Harker, also remarked upon this quality. Another blogger, Nic S., drew attention in her review to the poems’ “elegant luminosity” and their capacity to “consistently delight the reader by asserting bold unexpected connections with complete confidence.”

Regular readers of my Smorgasblog should recognize the author’s name: Sarah Jane Sloat blogs at The Rain in My Purse, one of the most consistently rewarding reads in my blogroll. Almost everything she encounters takes on a tongue-in-cheek mythic dimension. In “The Problem With Everything,” she bemoans “Every day a dull assault of sudden loves./ Instant, lachrymose attachments,” while in “Please Remove My Name,” she describes “a man who will write/ my name on a grain of rice for 5 euros.” But wait — did I say “tongue-in-cheek”? The narrator of “Silent Treatment” imagines a far less quotidian destination for her tongue,

No more
wagging in the shallows, it’s plunged
in a tunnel to the underworld where
they stump in a strange dialect.
Eat your heart out, it might say. Eat
your pilaf, your side vegetable
and the pox upon your crops.
It might say anything, were it not
lounging around a lower hemisphere.
Laid back at some southern spa, mudbathing,
overdosing on motionlessness.

The book’s title is not entirely a tease. The voices in these poems generally betray a liturgical interest in the ruts and rhythms of the vernacular and an anchorite’s quality of attention to time and verticality. The narrator seems religious but not spiritual — much less pious — in poems like “High Heeled”:

I always want more:
more Everest, more starshine,
something in the department of vertical.

That’s why I’m up here.
It’s better than smog,
better than settling.

Since coaching myself to one-up
the utmost, my dreams
only know the amazonian.

In “3 Deep,” she talks of receiving a poem from a pen pal named Luke about cunnilingus and the hydrogen bomb, a conjunction that makes “perfect sense:/ sex and death and sleep —/ the three dear deepnesses.”

I lie down knowing Luke is dredging
atomic oceans with his bare hands;
I can sleep knowing the dark
holds its appointments dear.
The whole ruined world can lie down
and wait for it to be revealed
which strain of pillow talk
will come to smother us.

Book reviewers typically try to show their sophistication by finding at least one quibble with the book under consideration, but try as I might, I can’t find anything to criticize in this collection. Then again, I am not the most sophisticated of critics, aside from my penchant for using ten-dollar words like “quotidian” and “anchorite.” I was amused to see that the reviewer for the Rattle blog, Linebreak editor Ash Bowen, managed to take what would otherwise seem to be an unadulterated compliment — that the book was too short — and infuse it with a learned, critical air:

[T]here’s a hint of Harmonium-era Stevens in the language play of Sloat’s poems. If there is a problem with the chapbook, it is that it’s too small. Sloat’s world needs more walking around room, more opportunities to take a look down some alleys, instead of the straight walk down the street that we get. But such are the limitations of chapbooks.

Whatever, dude. I love this book. I wish I had written this book, were it not for the likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it nearly as much if I had.

I only wish I actually had this book, instead of merely the PDF, which was set up for printing and therefore presents the poems in the wrong order, starting at both ends and proceeding toward the middle. True, I could’ve printed it out, one page at a time on either side of a sheet, then folded and stapled the thing together, but I kept expecting to get a copy imminently. Apparently it’s my fault, though, since when I placed my order with Tilt Press in mid-November I was seduced by the offer at the top of their order page: all five of their 2009-2010 titles for $30. I didn’t read it carefully enough, however, and erroneously assumed that Minor Saint would be among them. When nothing had arrived by December 2, I queried the press, and received this response:

The subscription you purchased is for the 2009-2010 series, not the 2008-2009 series in which Sarah’s chapbook was released (that sale is no longer available). The reason you haven’t received anything is because we are preparing to release the first in the series within a few days.

Oops! The editor went on to offer me a free review copy of the book, however, and I hope to receive that soon. I post this in the magical hope that so doing will make it materialize in the P.O. box tomorrow morning.

UPDATE (12/16): Sure enough, the chapbook was in today’s mail! It’s a beautiful and very sturdy production, designed by Rachel Mallino with cover art by Emmanuel Polanco — well worth the $8.00 retail price.

***

Sloat’s book includes a couple of ghazals, which inspired me to try my hand at one, too. I had some idea that I would write it in the voice of Sarah J. Sloat, but in the end it just sounded like another Dave Bonta poem. Oh, well.

Ghazal of the Unreceived Book

Thirty percent post-consumer recycled bond
& saddle stitching, how I yearn for you.

I have read all your words but in the wrong order,
elegant letters that the typesetter kerned for you.

I finger teabag tags with printed witticisms,
no book’s crisp pages to turn for you.

The feral cat coughing under the floor
& last night’s jumble of dreams might adjourn for you.

The meteor shower invisible above the sleet,
No falling star could I wish upon or even discern for you.

Surely your data deserve the connective thread
of a chordate. You risk dissolution. I’m concerned for you.

The P.O. box grows heavy with seasonal wishes —
well-meant minimal books I can hardly burn for you.

What if you arrived tomorrow, & challenged everything
I thought I knew? Could I unlearn for you?

Like any artwork more than the sum of your parts,
some parts will always elude my long sojourn for you.

13 Comments


  1. Absolutely fantastic review, Dave. I love that it ends with a Bonta poem. Nicely done.

    Reply

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Dave — I appreciate it. I’m looking forward to your own treatment of the book next month. Now that I have the physical book in hand, I’m reading the poems in a completely new light. Funny how that works.

      Reply

  2. You know, I hadn’t even noticed the bees thing until you pointed it out. Thanks for doing so. :) Excellent thoughts you have… it’s good that you could draw such specific parallels to music (esp. leitmotif). And the end of “Grassland” was probably my favorite moment in the entire book, glad you quoted that!

    Re: ghazal — heh, nice. I especially like, “that the typesetter kerned for you.” Oh, the possibilities of rhyme!

    Reply

    1. Thanks. Maybe I should try rhyming more often — I find I don’t react to it nearly as negatively as I used to.

      Reply

  3. Thanks for the review, Dave. I am really glad you enjoyed the chap. I hope you’ll get the real thing soon. I can always send you one if like. And I deeply dig your Ghazal. Very clever – send it to Unsplendid.

    Joseph – I didn’t get the bee thing either until now!

    cheers

    Reply

    1. Hi SarahJ – Glad you liked that! See the update right before the ghazal: publishing this post worked liked, well, a charm — the book was in the next morning’s mail. I think they must’ve held it until they were ready to send out the first chap in my subscription (Barefoot and Listening, by Margaret Bashaar) which came with it. Much as I think you are long overdue for a full-length collection, I also think you really lucked in with your first chapbook publication. It’s really handsome.

      Reply

      1. Ah, I didn’t notice that you’d now gotten it. That’s terrific. I hope it’s even better in person.

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  4. Dave – Thanks for the nice words about Tilt Press. I would like to clarify something, though – we have ALWAYS had the titles of the books listed beneath the subscription sale. ALWAYS. I’m sorry you made a mistake when placing your order – but it was not the fault of the press. I would never list a subscription sale without the listing of books.

    Thanks,
    Rachel Mallino
    Editor, Tilt Press

    Reply

    1. Well, I’m an idiot, then — sorry for implying it might’ve been your fault. I’ve removed all aspersions on Tilt Press from the post. The important thing is that it’s a wonderful book, and people should read it.

      Reply

  5. Super review Dave. But did you have to write a poem too? I’m next, and I don’t think I have a ghazal in me…

    Reply

    1. Oh c’mon David, that so-called ghazal of mine was just an exercise. I’m sure you can come up with something much meatier if you wanted. Then again, you could go in another direction, too. I’m sure Sarah wouldn’t mind if, for example, you made a video out of one of her poems!

      Reply

  6. Whatever, dude. You’ve taken my completely sincere compliment of Sloat’s work and twisted it to mean something far less than what I intended.

    Reply

    1. Oh? Well, fortunately readers can click the link to read your whole review and decide for themselves which one of us is more full of it.

      Reply

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