It’s the winter of 2020. Despite a life swimming in poetry—despite poems in morning email and poems in backpacks all day, despite poems on “devices,” poems for students, poems at night—I sometimes wonder, What is poetry good for?
This is hardly a terrible question. Poetry is like god: if she exists, she can deal with a little interrogation.
Then I return to reading, to sitting down with a volume, drinking it in, and I learn the world all over again. Sarah Sarai’s second full-length poetry collection, That Strapless Bra in Heaven, performed the magic trick this week. Sarai, whose blog, My 3,000 Loving Arms, notes that she was born in a former speakeasy, has spun a book for those of us who “inhabit a fearful present.” We don’t like this present (of course we don’t), so we require wit and myth along with a cold eye on our political-consumerist reality: a world upside down, skulking outside the law, often worthy of our hate. With the poem “Corpses and Cats,” Sarai reflects on Nazi Germany’s murderous 872-day blockade of Russia’s naval capital. The Siege of Leningrad is best remembered for killing around a million citizens and turning those that survived into cannibals. The poem includes old women who spent their last days protecting the Hermitage treasures, and actors who died while performing onstage. As frequently throughout, the speaker jabs at misogyny—“What does ‘old’ mean except / A man doesn’t want to fuck you”—and compares Stalin to Trump—both are “coward-leaders.” The final couplets offer, well, not an “up” shot, but the only upshot that emerged:
Who knows quite what to say
about that onion deep-fried
in snow. I don’t. Except its people
ate cats and corpses and lived.
This is surely the grimmest piece in the volume, but it is no outlier. In poem after poem, Sarai stares down these days, shirking nothing. (Which is one thing poetry is good for.) Fortunately, the spirit is buoyant, as in “The Reversible Lobotomy of Confusion”:
Articles of a sound constitution
see her into middle age as strong
in her belief we are all cross-dressing.
Who, we? Yes, we. Sarai consistently reminds readers that we are not just spectators in the fearful present, but we are also upside down, outside the law, possibly worthy of hate. One poem follows a Dantean epigraph to begin, “You’re not dead you’re middle-aged / and slogging through forests dense.” In “White People Are on my Mind These Days,” she writes, “We are going to disappear. / I say good riddance though / I’ll miss myself.” Recalling her blog’s biographical note, it seems that she’s writing for those of us who have gathered in the speakeasies of our world. And can’t get out.
Here, the divine is woven in with corpses and middle-aged slogs. Gaea and Helen and Andromeda make appearances, along with Isaiah and Dido and a God who “could hardly contain Her / infinite self.” Jesus Christ shows up in five (out of fifty-five) poems, making the name one of the most frequent words in the text. Mostly Sarai’s wondering about the fellow: “What did Jesus do?” And “Did Jesus Christ love himself?” Or “Does Jesus Christ love moms?” But in “Please Don’t Think I’m Being Disrespectful,” the speaker identifies with him:
The church was hot. I drank holy water.
Just like that I was Jesus at the well.
The story of Jesus at the well (I had to look it up) is of Jesus’ exchange with a Samaritan woman after asking her for a drink. The woman, surprised a Jew is asking a Samaritan for a drink, asks why. He responds (or changes the subject—as usual) by saying that she would be wise to ask him for water, because the water he has to give will become a spring “welling up to eternal life.” Once again—“Just like that”—Sarai’s persona offers a profane glimpse at what is here along with a more or less implicit promise of another, greater plane of existence. (Another thing poetry is good for.) At the end of her white-people poem (I’ve been looking at a lot of these lately, and this one’s a winner) she writes of the “loving goddess / clawing to get out.”
While the sublime is definitely on offer, Sarai stargazes from the gutter, and the ridiculous is always with us. TV and movie references abound. Jesse Pinkman of Breaking Bad gets a line in the first poem, “Wish Me Luck,” when he tells Hank Schroeder, “Mr. White’s so damn lucky.” In “Tippi as Pippi,” the speaker puzzles over the casting of Tippi Hedron in The Birds, speculating on how Hitchcock
… went with Tippi Hedron
who could’ve been
I can see it, Tippi as Pippi, given my given
which I now give you,
that all things are being equal.
This may be the book’s ars poetica. All things “are being equal” throughout, as the poems force a witty, silly, occasionally violent egalitarianism on the utterly disproportionate. In this there is pleasure. One speaker begins “I am goal-oriented like an orgasm.” Another urges Siri (that Siri) to “Admit of / the body, don’t resist it.” A faux “found poem” called “On the Shelving Cart,” is comprised of a list of 26 titles, including:
“Library of Geological Curiosity: Female Orgasm
Challenges to the Richter Scale”
“Proceedings of the Society for Sensual
“Darwinian Arguments for the Quick Grab”
“Theoretical Orgasm: A Position Paper”
“Real Deal Orgasm: Authentications”
“Paradigms of Necessary Ecstasy”
“Tendencies to Colonize the Cunt”
and on until the very last:
“Vag on Vag: We Happy!”
Oh yes, this poetry is queer. Sarai writes like she’s never heard of compulsory heterosexuality—or maybe heard of it once, scoffed and tossed it in the bin with the rest of the garbage in that particular “fearful present.” The work remains queer and full of hope even these days—“We Happy!” In fact, the poem in which she refers to that “fearful present” is a love poem, advice that the “only way two people / can make it work” is by inhabiting it. (About the cliche? Sarai advises “close consideration of ‘work’ ‘make’ ‘it’ and / seven other napkin holders.”)
It would be remiss not to look more closely at “Wish Me Luck,” which opens the volume with an interrogation of serendipity. The poem includes Jesse Pinkman, as mentioned, and lends the book its charmed title in averring that luck is “not briefs longing for / the strapless bra up in heaven.” In the end, luck is more like the River Jordan, that great crossing over place of Hebrew myth where Jesus was baptized. (I’ll count this as a sixth Christ-containing poem.) Here luck gets the all things are being equal treatment as “a passage, part of the daily miracle.” Which is pretty much how I felt coming upon this book. And which is one more thing—I won’t say the most important thing, since Sarai would surely disapprove—poetry is good for.
That Strapless Bra in Heaven, by Sarah Sarai. American Fork, Utah: Kelsay Books, November 2019. 79 pages. $14.00, paper.
Alexis Quinlan is a writer and editor and adjunct teacher of composition and plagiarism (conceptual poetry, actually) at Fordham University in New York. Her poems have appeared in journals including The Paris Review, Rhino, Tinderbox, Juked, and Madison Review. Of the three chapbooks published, an admission, as a warning against the value of our conclusions remains available from the Operating System.