Sarah Fletcher’s first chapbook, Kissing Angles, is, true to its name, a diffraction. Love slanted twenty times through a different glass; now the Boy is a matador. Now, a drunken rower sinking back into his own lack of self. Each poem rings with a new kind of violence; the violence of the lover who’s too sure of himself, the Stockholm syndrome of the kidnap victim struggling not to hold herself responsible. The best of these poems feel voyeuristic. The best of these poems hold skinned cows and water.
He says the moon
looks like my white knee floating through the sea’s
dark surface –
“The Matador”, the second poem in the piece, is really where the work begins. It is an exercise in sound and loss, full rhymes tripping over one another like toddlers at a playground after dusk trying to convince themselves that their drunken mother will stumble down to get them soon. The whole poem echoes with this coming loss – this insinuation that the girl, unnamed and wanted only as a symbol, has married too young. When the foreshadowing hits, it knocks the wind out of you gently. This is where the work succeeds, when Fletcher navigates the shadow-paths between need and desire, between disappointment and unrealized desperation.
That being said, there are complications to the pleasure. “Third Date”, a later piece in the work, focuses on a self-conscious Jew rushing into romance with a Gentile woman. As a Jew who’s been in vaguely similar situations, the perspective seems wrong – a construction of a cultural mindset that doesn’t quite exist exploited in ways that aren’t exactly realistic. This is the danger of persona poems, mischaracterization, but somehow it seems more serious when the mischaracterized aspect seems to be the only one that exists. There seems, in “Third Date”, to only be a Jew and Jewish insecurity here, a simplification belied by the stinging critiques of racism and blindness the author does deliver later in “The Belle of New Orleans”.
Fletcher seems to respond more fully to a challenge than simplicity; her poems about the guilt-wracked former lovers of German soldiers are deep and nuanced, echoing with a flickering fragility that makes clear the author’s horror at the atrocities inflicted, both on the soldiers’ victims and on the tortured women who realized, for one reason or another, that they had loved them.
That night he fell down to my feet
and kissed my toes, the shell-less crabs,
and said ‘this is the only blood I’d let
my Liebling shed’. He was a different person, then.
The quick, almost choked non-apology tacked to the end of a brutal man’s moment of grace is raw and wonderful in the light of Fletcher’s gift for telling two stories at once; it’s simultaneously the moment a girl saw a boy across the dance hall and tried too hard to love him and the never-quite-articulated grief of a country who realized too late what they had sacrificed. And guilt and shame seem easier to embrace, almost, than the echo of a wound; Fletcher feels most vividly that which is there, not three or five generations back but present. The Bible-black conviction of a kiss, sex that feels like drowning with rowers who cannot get themselves to shore, alcoholism – this is what feels real.
One of Fletcher’s major gifts in the work is the ability to vary what feels real and what doesn’t, to lift the reader into the mundaneness of aubergines cooked with the stickers on and nervously chipping nail polish off and recast it in the light of a girl who clearly doesn’t quite feel real next to her lovers or without her lovers or, sometimes, in the face of her lovers, larger-than-life men who dominate and swallow her own story.
“A Villanelle with Two Endings” perfectly encompasses this feeling; despite the earlier, easier self-absorption of “Our Daughter”, which takes its story too seriously and so loses its emotion inside of it, “A Villanelle With Two Endings” is a technically tricky, story-dependent piece that flourishes inside itself.
You hold my hand, and hold our child’s too.
He’s turning five. We married in the spring.
(I close my eyes, enter the white-walled room.)
It’s incredibly rare for me to find a piece that utilizes both rhyme and repetition that I can be in the same room with; this one broke my heart. It’s subtle enough to put in the knife without realization. Despite resting in well-used imagery, it plunges into such specificity and newness for critical moments as to sharpen and twist the blade as needed. Although I would wish to hear more of this cloud-like second life than just the announcement of a child saying its father’s name, I feel something here regardless; Fletcher has a talent with regret. Her poetry works when she can give us the boundaries for just what some people will do to pass the night with a matador, a society girl, not alone.