Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sarah Sarai's "The Future Is Happy"

If a poet can be cheerful without being nauseating, Sarah Sarai is she. Her optimism is undergirt by a restless intelligence, a hardheadedness about the world, and a willingness to be vulnerable. She hears happiness in a tenor sax and hipness in Count Basie's Band. Music buoys her sufficiently to dance and sing:

There's no foot in the grave, only the dead.
Swing time. Bebop. If you need more, I can't help you.
(from "The Future Is Happy")

Most of her poems, unlike the one I just quoted, are not crowd-pleasers in a poetry reading. They are too dense with cultural, historical and literary references to be understood at one hearing. They are better read and heard in the quiet of one's own room. They are friendly (many of them are dedicated to friends) but not flattering. Sometimes they are too heavy with cultural freight ("In Denzel Washington's Gaze" and "We All Know Things Together"), but at their best their knowingness gives them extended wings. A poem about love, "Flight" moves swiftly from the speaker's white heart to Kilamanjaro to Greek heroes Jason and Aeneas to Lavoisier to Merriam Webster to Prophet Mohammed to the

belief in mountain spirits leading us
to something or someone to curl into.

She can be scathing, as when she criticizes the logic of war in "A Rhetorical Inquiry Into the Moral Certitude of Cause and Effect." She can also be delightfully sensual. "Six, Seven Strawberries" begins with an exclamation of pleasure:

Oh to be a strawberry so smashed on a slice
of buttered bread that insides and outs are
children standing, arms wide and mouths
open in the dancing downpour. Oh to feel
sugar sprinkled. We Swedes may be dumb
like smiles glossy from a nincompoop's
joke but try this and tell me life's bleak[.]

Grappling with life's mysteries, some poems fall back too much on vague abstractions (like "life's mysteries") but Sarah already knows that, and ends the beautiful poem "Unreasonable"--the image of silver nets in the breast is magical--with a sly twist on that tendency:

Tragedy is a shard, pottery, broken
and exhibited for its poignancy.
Life is full, holds water, cracks and
gets repaired. I've gone abstract
(again). What I need is another kiss.

The mind is everywhere seeking the body. They come together as a divinity Sarah names, simply, She. She is corporeal as a buttock but "an idea only is She an/ impulse defying all impulse" ("Incorporeal"). She is the created Creator who elicits from her creatures

the absolutely amazingness
of She Herself forming such
a thing as pine boughs shaken
by burning cold winds when
we're all alone and looking up

Looking up is what this debut book of poems does so naturally. The Future Is Happy is published by BlazeVOX.



Sarah Sarai said...

Incorporeal, the last poem you quoted, is a favorite of mine. Thank you. Thank you for all your insights.

Jee Leong Koh said...

You're welcome. I try to say it as it is.

Sarah Sarai said...

Again I loved this review--and when I posted it on my myspace blog, readers loved it.

I have one small objection, however. Ah. One could think you were saying I'm not a good public performer / reader of my work when nothing could be less true. I'm really strong. At the KGB reading, I was sorta much lauded as sorta outstanding.

Since I struggle to get readings, I just don't want that impression out there. (One friend said: People are a lot less willing to take a chance on someone new who is your age than someone new who is young.)


Jee Leong Koh said...


My review is precisely that: my personal opinion of what I have read and heard. You cannot pick and choose what you like me to say. I review, I don't promote.