Jul 10, 2014

Sorrow Arrow by Emily Kendal Frey (Octopus Books, 2014)

Sorrow Arrow, Emily Kendal Frey's latest book of poems, introduces us to a speaker that's wry and full of swagger, but vulnerable too and fighting for a way to optimally interact with her surroundings. Youth-haunted, love-haunted, body-haunted and death-freaked, she engages the world (and her reader) as if fixed behind a thick pane of glass. As a result, we feel somewhat far away from the poetic voice in this book and to a lesser degree from what's being rendered in the poems. The territories explored in Sorrow Arrow are injured landscapes, hyper-material, and a bit impoverished ("The moon hurting itself on the sky/Waiting one day longer to die") and best dealt with, Frey seems to have concluded, by detaching oneself to varying degrees. In fact, the speaker rarely assigns the pronoun "I" to herself, preferring "you" instead, as if to further distance herself from the milieu of transient experiences that are littered throughout Sorrow Arrow:

People are beautiful

Really stunning: necks, hips, cheek skin, pants

You are trying to walk to the store

You are only thinking about kissing

People are intriguing and boundaried

Tiny ships in paintings

A sandwich without several items

It hurts you to say that

Does it? I'm not so sure. Regardless, an important word in this passage is "boundaried" because it points to one of the fault lines in Sorrow Arrow: the fracture between the tactile and what Rousseau called the "infinite imagination". This incongruity results in poems that feel lathered in void. In this poem (and in others) the speaker's general conception of people is that they are curious objects that just happen to move. But Frey doesn't seem intent on dehumanizing. Rather, she seems captivated and then numbed by their odd materiality:

At the airport bar people are drinking clear drinks

Your hands in cashews

The girl in gray shoes orders into the air

You're in love in your chair

And elsewhere:

Once while camping I found some old people fucking

The woman wore a red swimsuit and her back was spotted

   like a baby fawn

And here:

I took a walk to a nearby mountain and breathed against the
   gates of a reservoir 

 Wait, one more:

A woman with a beautiful fishtail braid is pumping cream
   into her coffee

For Frey, the physical world is a purely mechanical performance ("You're going to do this and then this and also that", "Every time I forget a person my body apologizes", "Your body is a fattening turd", "In the art supplies store you touch the colored pencils") and the manner of her poetry seems designed to mimic this sort of robotic terrestrial activity.

Even on those occasions when it appears the poet flirts with pathos, it's delivered halfheartedly: "We buy so many things, wooden world" or "I really felt I was interested in freedom". In other poems her confessions, while boldly honest, have a way of falling flat because she's done such a excellent job perfecting her aloofness. For example, when she writes "You're so sad you're actually broccoli", one sort of shrugs at the vegetative relativity of it, just as we do when her speaker wonders "If I run over your arm will it feel like a pretzel". While there is a charming absurdity to lines like these, and they even point to some weird application of zen to object-relations theory, they tend to impede the power of lines like "I want a world I can get inside", "I'm blazingly unremarkable", "You've got to get inside language to be free", "Let me be shitty a little longer", "Your self-hatred has lost its precision" or "How did we get so naked", one of the most important questions asked in understanding Sorrow Arrow. Rather than creating new textures, her juxtapositions of imagery and tone deepen the sense of arbitrariness that characterize a lot of Frey's poems.

Obviously, many of the poet's lines are meant to be funny and trust me they are. How can one not laugh after reading "I had to leave the cafe because of sexual tension", "Your identity crisis got on the bus" or "People don't know who they are/(Baseball)". But even inside the laughter there's a psychological darkness behind her kidding and in a furtive way the poet's humor metastasizes inside the reader, nudging one into feeling nostalgic for something we suspect we never had: the poet’s affection. This sense of being ignored by the poems is one reason Sorrow Arrow is so unsettling, even moving, because it calls-out our own dependency on structure and authority. Why would we need to be acknowledged by the poet anyway? That this desire slowly presents itself in the reader speaks to Frey's genius. Sure, one might resent her constant withholding, but it's the same withholding that makes you want to devour everything she writes. Some will find this form of manipulation off-putting, while others will find it refreshingly droll and besides, whatever emotional force her poetry ironically or inadvertently sabotages, her speaker more than makes up for in courage:

What do people do at night

A pair of doves under an overpass

You walk to the corner

You eat a burrito

You conjure a woman and another woman behind her

You swallow and choke down shadows

In your guts is bitten off sunshine

Swollen and infested

It can't last much longer

You stood in the backyard with a bow and arrow

Your father hid from you in the lilac bush

He hid the moon from you

Even the planets laughed

Not only does Frey fortify the routine by making it obtuse ("You walk to the corner/You eat a burrito") she takes something as crude as swallowing and turns it into magic, and her imagination, triggered and aroused, transports her back to childhood, ending the poem with one of the most painful lines in the collection - "Even the planets laughed". Like a pawn of unchosen structures, the speaker is presented as both powerless but noticeably armed as well, with bow and arrow. As if reconciling these two representations, she writes elsewhere in the collection that "I die so I can live/Outside category". This kind of conscious marginalization is an arresting approach to life and accounts for the frostiness of the speaker's voice: this is how we sound when nearing autonomy.

Additionally in her book, the poet refers to nature in ways that make clear she will not be indulging in worn out tropes. And for this, we are thankful. Her treatment of nature is brisk too and at times even scatological: "The sky shitting its soft hope", rivers are "cold and swollen", the sky is both "deafening" and "demanding", birds murder other birds, birds shit on the speaker, the sea "eats its rocks", it rains like a "bitchy teenager", the moon is "hot and fat", in a field elephant shit bakes, hills "burp their purple nipples" and on it goes. After 80 pages of this, one might be exhausted, but not the way mediocrity is tiresome, but the way someone's clarity of vision can be and what's clear is that the human situation, at least in Sorrow Arrow, is a negative one; the poems feel like aversion therapy for someone suffering from joy. 

Alongside the fierce imagery and deadpan declarations, Frey's form and style exacerbate this sense of, well, constant sorrow. Each poem lacks a title, which has two effects: the barren space above each poem frustrates a reader's instinct for gravity and it also removes an artifice often meant to reflect intention. As a result, the reader - to use one of Frey's terms - is always "unmoored". To further this vulnerability is the lack of punctuation, and when coupled with the initial capitalization of each line, creates the disorientating experience of reading those lines as either stacked sovereign clauses or like here, as related parts of a unified expression:

In the Safeway I think things like:

The burning anus of my heart


Life is a battle-strewn battle 


Your marvelous chest pump

On the walk home

My face puffed as a potato

I carry my unaddressed postcards

I pass the good dog

I touch his face

While this poem adheres to a consistent trajectory, many do not in Sorrow Arrow. Most, in fact, feel like a series of jotted down intrusive thoughts. This poem also highlights one of Frey's strengths that shouldn't go unnoticed: her fidelity to the music of language. If you don't read her poems aloud, then you're missing half the pleasure of the book. Above, we're softly concussed by the sound of uh in the words "anus", "marvelous", "pump", "puffed", and "unaddressed" (all of which I annoyingly underlined for you). The poem also sonically turns at the end, emphasizing the oh sound in "home", "potato", and "postcards" (all of which I've obnoxiously un-italized for you). This auditory combination results in the phrase uh-oh, which is brilliant, and makes reading fun.

The poet utilizes music (albeit a quiet sort) throughout Sorrow Arrow and it reveals a meticulous artist whose faith in revision is obvious. While by no means formal in a traditional sense, her lines do have a sort of bunched up metrical cadence, especially in the center of her lines, but for the most part she's proficient at isolating and tickling (did I just use that word?) sound into utterance. This achievement of subtlety - when so much of the book is brutal and frank - not only reflects a poet at the height of her craft, but provides a sneaky way Frey humanizes her entire project. By gently calling attention to the poem's making, she allows the reader a moment to look beyond her relentlessly detached persona on the page and glimpse the poet as simply an artist at work. But sometimes her rhymes are less than subtle and they nakedly land at the end of lines, temporarily exposing her more than she's used to:

Tiny computers are breaking into the clouds

Arrows are raining down

In the line for breakfast I fuck the ground

I get inside the mailbox and bang around

Information equals empathy erosion

The more you know 

Sorrow Arrow is one of the most heartbreaking books I've read in recent memory. The poems seem the result of a poet who's realized that all the work they've put into establishing themselves as a unique creature in nature has only brought them closer to death. It's why the illusory shell of childhood figures so largely in the book and why she references that life-stage as "tiny", why she tells her sister in another poem "I'm sorry for the childhood we had to leave" and in her trademark humor claims "I want to sit facing you and fall backwards off your lap" and "I got so sad I remembered being high in high school".

In the first poem of the book, she writes "at the center of suffering is love" and of course she is right. And near the end of the book she admits that "love makes me permeable/the softest hurricane", a devastating moment of submission for a speaker that otherwise seems intent on using her art to dominate. But isn't sorrow being spooked by the realization that we are designed to attach ourselves to others but all the while designed to decay; to lose everything? 

Our bodies - full of weird holes that beckon to be filled but also designed to expel, our dumb pumping heart and voltage minds, and the resident waste in our gut and elswhere - is always vying to corrupt such life-affirming equipment as sex and intimacy and speech. It's no wonder the poet deletes any romantic pretense when she depicts separated lovers this way: "People are driving long distances to have sex with each other". It's no wonder that the poet says "In bed I stick my hand in and scream" and "In bed is where I realize people are dead". And it is no wonder that when Frey writes "If you're in love you have structure" that she later confesses "I give grief to the same structures on a daily basis". Whether family or lovers or friends, we are mostly defined and nourished by our relationships, and yet those relationships are programmed to expire and always too soon. It's why she writes "We want not to suffer/We suffer for this want". 

Near the end of Sorrow Arrow, the poet writes "Who are we to stand in the path of God" and it's a good question. Frey's book is a fusion of humility and bravado, as seen in the book's final moments, when she writes 

It hurts to be born

God are you there

Are you standing in the shadow of my sorrow


In Sorrow Arrow we meet a speaker responding as honestly as she can to the life unchosen. For the most fundamental thing about us - our existence - we were not consulted. It's why babies are baptized in Christianity, a sort of apology bath, and maybe it's why the speaker "makes a baby and shoot[s] it with a sorrow arrow". Frey is both ruthless and tender and the combination feels true and good.  Sorrow Arrow is one of the most confrontational books of poems I've read this year and easily one of the best. This wasn't an easy position to arrive at and for that I respect the poet even more.     

-John Ebersole


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