On Dwindling

Robyn Sarah's new collection finds the poet divided against herself
by Stewart Cole

Sarah Art.jpg

ROBYN SARAH'S NAME is attached to many wonderful poems, and “My Shoes Are Killing Me,” the symphonic nine-part title poem of this, her tenth collection, is among the latest. Its first section begins with the poet displaying the musical lucidity that characterizes the book’s (and all her books’) finest moments:

It was the beginning of dwindle.
Even the ink was stingy.
The doctor was mortal.

Some of the stickiness had worn off
the things we had to do.

For a while they clung, like bits
of wet Scotch tape. Some washed away
in rains that came. We let them go.

Rain was falling through my
burnt gazebo. 

It would only be slightly too much to say that I could spend the rest of my allotted space here in praising this passage. Notice, for instance, how the pinching assonance of ‘I’ sounds in the first two lines gives way to the yawning ‘O’s of the third, as if hinging open a portal to the beyond. Notice, too, how those first three lines are not only portentously end-stopped but successively shorter, embodying the encroaching mortality they discuss. And the images: the stingy ink and the mortal doctor, and further down, the wet Scotch tape and the burnt gazebo—all crisp and unexpected, yet rooted in our shared phenomenal world, and thus invitingly communicative. This is a poet who respects her readers enough to grant them the quivers of immediate surprise they desire, while relying on them to notice later the layers of nuance—the philosophical richness of “The doctor was mortal,” for instance (If the healer is dead, are we now unhealable? Is this the post-Nietzschean condition?), or the subtly unifying patterns of line endings (stingy/away/ through my/had to do/let them go/gazebo) that tantalizingly hint at rhyme without actually letting us hear it.

Though it spans eleven pages, taking up a full fifth of the collection, all of “My Shoes Are Killing Me” is masterfully orchestrated, not only within its sections but across them. That luminous opening line, “It was the beginning of dwindle,” becomes one of many leitmotifs—remembered monkey bars, a lost trampoline, the slipping away of summer, etc.—woven through the poem in its pursuit of the meaning of fleetingness. The titular shoes, too, prove an important recurrence, with the sixth section delivering the poem’s origin story:

Auntie Sylvia, back from synagogue,
sank into her favourite chair,
eased her feet out of her pinching Sabbath shoes,
and sighed her last words: Ah, it’s good
to come home. Her heart gave out right there.
The legendary end of Auntie S.,
her memory be blessed. Her card
half filled. Envy her her exit.

Undo your shoes,
before they undo you.

This could so easily be precious, but Sarah, in her best work possessed of one of the purest poetic ears I’ve encountered, urges this potentially prosy anecdote into interesting verse by subtly breathing iambs into it, building to a final exhalation of pentameter: “The legendary end of Auntie S.” From there the passage shrinks into the aptly clipped syntax of the last four lines, culminating in a figuratively richer version of Ice Cube’s immortal imperative to “check yo self before you wreck yo self.”               

That last allusion, while not exactly anachronistic—when “Check Yo Self” came out in 1993, Sarah was six collections in, while I was about to begin tenth grade—is utterly out of place in a review of this book. But I’m using its absurdity to get across the fact that Sarah’s poetry occupies an upper-cultural register in which “ice cube” refers strictly to a small block of frozen water. This is fine, of course, and in fact I find that pop-cultural references in poetry can often function as marketing ploys, surface signals of contemporaneity that enact the kind of hucksterism so many poets purport to critique. (Though one might say the same of such references in reviews.) My issue here lies in my strong intuition that if an ice cube were to appear in My Shoes Are Killing Me, its coldness and propensity to melt would almost certainly serve as a symbol of (what else?) mortality. This collection is absolutely death-obsessed, which given death’s status as one of poetry’s two archetypal subjects is not a problem, as long as Sarah orchestrates perspectives on it as compelling as those I cited above. When she does not, however, the results verge on bathos. How one judges My Shoes Are Killing Me as a whole will largely depend on how one responds to passages like this one, the ending of the prose poem “What Time Is It?”:

Time picks clean the bones of the present, then like a sea catches them up and transforms them, twisting and silvering and eating away the rough edges. 

And we go on creaming the night face. We wake each day and strap the time on our wrists. We have lists of things to do and get. A life of preparation, a life of errands. Laying the table over and over for a feast that never materializes. What time is it? What time is it? It’s time for us to sit down and eat, even without fine linen, even without candles. And no matter if the feast is a chunk of dry bread.      

Even Sarah’s unerring musicality cannot save this. “Time picks clean the bones of the present”? Time is “like a sea … eating away the rough edges”? The human condition is one of “Laying the table over and over for a feast that never materializes”? Everything here except “creaming the night face” frustrates my readerly yearnings. I think of this as “undead” language: rather than do the work of thinking the new, the poet attempts to appeal to universals by resurrecting the shades of once-vibrant figures, but through her necromancy only ends up assuming the reader’s own zombification. In short, I’m troubled by how such exhausted thoughts and words seem to assume that we won’t notice. And unfortunately, a lot in this collection relies on our not noticing. Again, though, whether you’ll agree with me depends on your tolerance for lines like these: “Reason is a thin gruel to base a life on,” “The numbers don’t add up,” “We are without a map,” “Do we all cling to the grandeurs of the past?,” “Sunshine, a twittering of birds—a tender quiet, / the world catching its breath”—and this list could be much longer. One might protest the injustice of plucking lines as I have done, but honestly (and of course I urge you to read for yourself) context does little to enrich such platitudes. Over and over as the collection wears on, Sarah devolves from the specificity and surprise that so enliven the title poem (and most of the book’s first half) into anecdotalism and a kind of tired pontificating: “Maybe the only real story, the great / human story, is a speck / in the continuum of crisis.” Poetry is thought as well as song, and I cannot admire this sort of reflexive pseudo-philosophizing no matter how well versified.

These flaws become chronic in the last third of the book, as whole poems (I count almost two handfuls) seem clichéd at their very conception, including a dreadful “Villanelle on a Line from William Carlos Williams” that takes as its two repeated lines “So close are we to ruin every day!” and “And There but for the grace of God, we say.” I’m all for the repurposing of clichés—an activity that Sarah has undertaken with neat aplomb elsewhere—but here she doesn't muster the inventiveness required to mitigate the repetition enforced by the form; the poem actually includes the sentence, “How long before we taste the bitter pill / ourselves?” I find it mystifying that the same poet who composed the exhilarating lines I cited at the beginning of this review would allow those lines to share a book with a poem like “It Is Not in Great Acts,” the first verse paragraph of which reads:

people don’t want a destiny
they want a little house, means
enough to feed their children
a doctor when they need one
new shoes, little pleasures
people don’t want a mission
they want a little leisure
to go fishing on Sunday
to sit on a park-bench in the sun

sipping coffee and reading the paper

The poem does not go anywhere less banal from there. That it occurs just at the beginning of the book’s last third highlights for me that this is possibly the most front-loaded collection I have ever read, as though the book itself determined to enact the dwindling that so obsesses its speakers. In her fascinating essay “Poetry’s Bottom Line,” from her 2007 prose collection Little Eurekas, Sarah writes:

If a poem is a good poem, I should be able to trust that the poet knows, on some level—can be brought to articulate, if asked—what every word, every punctuation mark, every stanza break, is doing in it; will be able to defend them with poetic reason.

In reading most of the first half to two-thirds of My Shoes Are Killing Me, I perceive a poetic mind at work whose decisions feel concerted, resonant with each poem’s purpose. Reading the rest, however, I find myself amid a clangour of bad choices, or worse—alternate possibilities not even weighed, as though in the latter part of the book this eminent poet has come to trust herself a bit too much, to not take seriously her obligation to defend herself to herself.