The Evidence, So To Speak, Is Poetry
a review by Eric Unger
Sarah Boyer, “howard”
Sunny Outside Press
2016, 100 pages, softcover, $13
To read Sarah Boyer’s “howard” is to enter a world in which everything is alive, and therefore, everything is compromised, afflicted, dying, or dead. We stumble into an ongoing series of dramas. In other words, the reader is dipped headfirst into a story. Yet for all its narrative trappings, it is a book of poetry. Poetry is lurking in every bedpan and every airplane—in the chicken shit and angels alike. There is a crude winnowing—of syntax, of physical objects, of narrative arc—to chip toward a truth where there may be none. The remaining rubble is arrayed and presented like a barroom two-step across the pages. The dance of language wobbles and wanders, yet holds fast to an abiding center. In this way, the telling of facts becomes an act of poesis, of making. What is left to be made sense of—the evidence, so to speak—is poetry, poetry that takes shape in the lapses of sentiment; in familial and colloquial syntactical breakdowns; in earnest yet unassumingly visceral and psychedelic letters, conversations, and (in)formal addresses.
“howard” is essentially one long poem split into two sections, concluding with a sort of afterword-suite of five small poems. The book begins with a letter addressed to “Doctor and Mrs. X.” Beginning a book with a missive addressed to a doctor and someone whose last name either begins with an X, or, more probably, whose last name has been elided out of an excess of caution, heightens the sense of drama out of the gate. We very soon become aware that the letter-writer “will die soon. / I hope so anyway,” as the difficulty of living with a daily decreasing of breath, since “I first discovered / the lesions three years ago,” has become too much to bear. Or perhaps the marvel of modern medicine has become too much like a seedy game, with patients competing for achievements like collecting rings—whoever has the most at the end . . . still dies, but dies ahead.
For all the heavy themes the book both hints at and explicitly confronts, “howard” manages to maintain a pervasive, if unsettling, lightness. The tenor of the book is a down-home earnestness which fails in beautifully telling ways. Following the amusing and slightly ominous directive, “Dave, no shitty advice,” we enter another letter, “Dear Helen, / Trust you are feeling.” Is this the less than stellar advice we were warned about? Or is the advice sound? In its broken, halting ease, it reads like a small revelation. We might expect a less awkward sentiment or something more succinct and cliché. But to say to someone, “Trust you are feeling,” is profoundly loaded. Wouldn’t the person know if they are feeling or not? Well, perhaps not. We are left hanging, as though a specific feeling must follow. But it doesn’t. There are no easy answers, but there are plenty of uneasy ones, and they arise consistently throughout this bracing work.
howard, Please forgive me
for not attempting more
but every activity is so exhausting
I have decided to do nothing.
Bouts of dedicated resignation sometimes yield to traces of a greater conspiracy at play. As though lifted from a newswire, we hear of “a very devastating raid / through several western counties.” But as soon as it seems like the looming machinations of the greater world might divert our attention from intimate hospital or bedroom scenes, it might begin to dawn on us that such ranging ravages may be nothing more than a shared devastation—the universal crush of human illness. If we can see ourselves not as anonymously deteriorating bodies and spirits but as engaged in a grave battle against malignant forces, we can share in the dim comfort that this aggressive blight has engendered in those afflicted a weighty and stirring, however flagging, esprit de corps. “We remain committed / to suspiration.”
Throughout “howard,” we get brief glimpses into deep family ties. There are fragments of moments of lives that don’t always get memorialized, even though they may be far more telling of a person’s nature and life than any heartfelt biography. “gus is polishing my station wagon with his angel’s shirt.” Is this the shirt of a favorite sports team? Is he already an angel, and it’s his shirt? Is it from a personal, fallen angel he has lost? Names and relations bubble to the surface then drift back into nonrecognition, and to examine family ties means necessarily looking at the different stages of a life. “the kiddies at skee ball / have lost their sense of the way.” An adult conception applied to the thinking/feeling processes of children—as if to say, even as our end grows nearer, we are still but children, trying to find our “sense” of a way forward. Our years of experience still will dislocate us. “we is a toothless body,” a baby body, a body that lacks ferocity and power against forces beyond our control.
do we just got to accept wanting to know no one again
or is it that we can’t see them and they can’t see her
lower the child w/ pink small shoes into her booster seat
we resist but at some point it is good for her
In this world we have entered, not only does every member of the family and the citizenry have a story that hangs on them like a pall, so too does every object. Objects are imbued and viewed with human function and action. “the mustache flicks open his watch.” “stones confess here.” “but the bomber driving the board left Alabama an airplane.” Humans become the objects they hold dominion over. It must be a survival mechanism. To put stock in inanimate objects, because they change less—die less—than we do, is an act of aspirational transcendence. Until we realize that in order to transcend our mortal fate, we must ultimately aspire to death. Can there finally be any other choice? Is this the way to hope?
i did not tell you
not b/c i do not know
but b/c i worry what i want
is perhaps too much to want
it is to be better & this is me trying
In “howard,” everything is alive, and everything is lovable, and everything is dying. The reader enters a terrain where a family is stricken and approaching despondency, yet weirdly full of hope. The forms the book takes are necessary and brimming with a sideways elegance. Plainspoken directives and diatribes of the tribe are the lessons to be heeded in the ever-diminishing light, from our ever-diminishing bodies. As sickness takes hold, we look around to see and feel what we have left. We learn, like a child, how to hold what we see and feel close.
Tell your daughter she is a teakettle
your youngest a bookshelf;
then ask them what it is to be loved
as these things.
Eric Unger is a poet and musician who lives in Chicago. Chapbooks include “Just As Form” (Arrow as Aarow, 2007), “Bastion” (House Press, 2009), “The Phare of Gravelines” (House Press, 2013), and “in, but according to” (Blank Edits, 2016). He plays bass in the band Nest.