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Regular readers of Via Negativa might recognize Sarah J. Sloat as the author of a blog I often link to, The Rain in My Purse, and another chapbook which I blogged about in 2009, In the Voice of a Minor Saint. I didn’t think this chapbook was quite as satisfying as that first one, at least in terms of the percentage of poems that blew me away, but it’s still pretty damn good. Her droll wit and sense of the absurd remain intact, and if this slim collection is any evidence, she seems to be getting more rather than less experimental with age, which is a good sign. She has a third chapbook due out shortly from Hyacinth Girl Press.
Sloat excels at poems in which a critical piece of information is missing, but the rest of it hangs together so well, it seems the better for it, like the Venus de Milo without her arms. Sometimes the execution seems a little too off-hand (heh), as in the title poem for this chapbook. But more typically it makes me chuckle or shiver with recognition, as in “My Money is on Fire,” a wry look at that sense of collective guilt inescapable for sensitive participants in a capitalist economy:
Every time I wear green or live
my secret life, no matter what
innocence I’m up to,
I’m sponsoring a disease
souvenirs of the populace.
Wait, what secret life? you want to ask, but the poem goes in another direction. Perhaps Sloat refers to the kind of private visions at the heart of the wonderfully bleak “Toy Boat Toy Boat Toy Boat”:
My mug is rimmed with frost, an analgesic.
I peer over its horizon to see a toy boat
wobble on the Biergarten pond.
The mug’s a sun going down in my mouth. It alps
up like a snowglobe, mountainous with lipstick
ridges. Inside my father bows, shoveling snow.
He looks beyond me, turning to the window,
where my mother stands sucking the life
from an ice cube in her martini.
In “Do Tell,” a dream in which “doubts puckered like peas” throws the narrator off-balance the next morning.
Help me here.
How many mailboxes do you count lining the roadside?
And on whose head does the apple totter?
Things are clearly about to go very, very wrong here. A slightly less dire but still bracing take on domesticity, “Sworn to Observance,” reminded me of my own housecleaning. The dust under the radiator is “busy building a silt / equivalent of desert,” leading evidently to thoughts of the desert mystics in early Christianity, and/or John 8:6:
I sit nearby in my saint suit,
no intention of action.
With a finger sometimes
in the dust I draw a circle
to see how God enters into it.
Another poem, “On the Way to Meet My Daughter’s Teacher,” might or might not be about smoking. It begins:
I was about 15 minutes early
so I figured I’d kill myself a little bit.
Something more constructive
was out of the question.
But hell if I could handle
15 minutes of thinking.
About the whales.
About meeting my daughter’s teacher.
Or perhaps it is the cynicism that kills. One way or another, Sloat is like the anonymous artists in “Dictionary Illustrations,” who “don’t dawdle / among the obvious.” When she hums in the kitchen, it is to channel bees, and when she visits “Frankfurt Cemetery,” she remarks: “Not the past, but the present makes me sad.” We are all implicated, and our imagined refuges can’t save us:
Lately my house stands so still
at the back of my mind
I’m afraid of myself, here
at the bottom of the sky.
(“From the Back of My Mind”)
If you were ever tempted to think that the welter of literary micropresses on the scene these days exist solely to publish fairly minor talents, think again. Sarah J. Sloat is one example of a widely published poet with a sure voice and mature vision who has yet to get an ISBN of her own. Perhaps she is too busy leading a secret life.