Paper, Cotton, Leather, by Jenny Sadre-Orafai. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Press 53. 80 pages. $14.95, paper.
Consider this: happy endings, when they do happen, are usually found near the end of the story. We are left to imagine a world of pure unadulterated bliss following marriage and the trials that led to it. Obviously this trend is being subverted by writers and artists who, increasingly, want to look at the aftermath of marriage. The confrontation of expectations and reality. Learning to negotiate, to reevaluate. This is what Sadre-Orafai is doing, extending this interrogation to the domain of poetry: how do you account for the first three years of marriage?
Certainly not through fairytales. Or at least not the kind we are used to—there are myths here, but they are not idealized, never shielded from despair. From the very first poem on, pain haunts the speaker: “I’ve never made it this far / out in the waves, this far / out in the heart. The hurt / is bearable most days.” The shift—almost imperceptible, phonetically speaking—from “heart” to “hurt” sets the tone—intensely quiet, a subdued façade masking a rawness that struggles to be heard. And heard it will be: the second poem begins with “cars wrecked on purpose and set on fire,” a flare of violence that will course throughout the rest of the collection.
Nothing (no one?) is spared. The speaker scrutinizes, unflinching, the details of her love life and her relationship to someone who has, by all accounts, grown unfamiliar and remote. The difficult questions come up, the ones that escalate so easily into a deflagration: “Like: he makes more money than I. / Like: if this isn’t my thong, whose hips / were thrust into it? Like: explosion.” The speaker even conjures the figure of Frida Kahlo in “The Wounded Deer Speaks,” to express the extent of her anguish, both physical and psychological. Her tone goes from accusing—“I need more convincing that you didn’t mean to / do this”—to pleading—“I was shot nine times only / because I let you.” One needs only recall the tumult of Kahlo’s relationship and marriage to Diego Rivera, along with the agony she endured after her accident, to understand that emotions are constantly shifting, never settling. An “accordion love,” which “expands or exhales, / retracts or recants.”
These are poems of passion in the etymological sense, variations on suffering, with each year bringing its lot of faltering resolutions and regrets. Three years—a most sacred number for many—where death is a constant. The tripartite structure has us looking for progression in the way the speaker explores her psyche. Each part concludes with a mention of an ending: “Premature Obituary”—“Exit Map”—“We Can Be Anything We Couldn’t Be.” Ghosts overrun the collection. The very nature of the anniversaries—paper cotton leather—speaks of transformation, moving from vegetal to animal, each material the result of an industrial process. Yet they still feel arbitrary (why paper for the first year? why cotton?), a formalized vision of the passing of time within marriage, but bearing no real significance: “It’s polite to record what we get each year. / Paper, Cotton, Leather. / The years measure, interpret / these gifts that do nothing but soak space.”
Leather is perhaps the bloodiest one of the bunch. Nonetheless, it is the third year that is suffused with the most hope. The final poem, while imagining the “we”—whom we readers can assume to be referring to the couple—as ghosts, equates that situation with intensity, dynamism: “We can be anything / we couldn’t be before. We’re the percussion / section. We can never die since we are already / dead, since everyone knows we’re prized ghosts.” Death here is not a matter of a soul wasting away. At the term of the meditation, the speaker seems to confront her anxieties about dying by claiming this loudness—the fanfare of violins, pianos and percussions altogether. She won’t be going gentle into that good night.
From “I” and “you” in the opening poem to the chanting accumulation of “we” in the final one, there is another level of interrogation that goes on here, beyond the considerations of sentiment. The speaker is herself never fixed, always blurring the line between what actually happened and what did not, what she remembers and what she has fabricated as memories. She is exploring both the stories that took place and the ones that exist as possibilities, and so we begin to realize that this three-year span punctuated by anniversaries is less an actual cadence for her marriage and more the time markers she uses in her reconstruction of her own personal timeline. In Ancient Greece, there was chromos—calendar or clock time, the one measured by yardsticks recognized by mostly everyone—and there was kairos—experienced time. The first has predictable cycles, the second does not and is entirely tributary of a personal perception of the world. Paper—cotton—leather: these mark kairos by virtue of assigning symbolism to chronos.
In those crisp, taut poems, Sadre-Orafai turns the familiar thematic of love and loss into an effervescent meditation on how each individual mind apprehends the world, on how each heart learns of its own intimate path to whatever it is that compels it to go on, and on.
AK Afferez is a writer, translator, avid traveler, and sporadic blogger with a fondness for aliases (real name: Héloïse). She grew up in Michigan, studied for a bit on the East Coast, and currently lives in France.