August 5, 2009

Review by Ash Bowen

IN THE VOICE OF A MINOR SAINT
by Sarah J. Sloat

Tilt Press
9309 Plashet Lane
Charlotte, North Carolina 28227
2009, 22 pp., $8.00
www.tiltpress.com

For the past five years or so, I have not only read, but actively sought out, poems by Sarah J. Sloat. Her poems are replete with striking language, unique visions, and poetic prowess. Now, at last, 22 of Sloat’s poem are available, collected as In the Voice of a Minor Saint, and the book is cause for celebration.

Sloat’s poems possess an elegant plainness. Her spare, unadorned style seems most aptly described by the cliché “deceptively simple,” but for Sloat, the term fits. Her poems expand with successive reads. The “plots” of the poems are so engaging that the subtle, nuanced language might be missed, but make no mistake: the poems are infused with sonic richness and textures that will show the reader why Sloat’s work is appearing in some of the country’s best journals.

The book’s two ghazals offer the most obvious examples of Sloat’s finely tuned ear:

If the moon comes out bearing nicks and bite marks,
you’ll find me smoothing my skin of its cares tonight.
(“Ghazal with Heavenly Bodies”)
….

Wind flew on a blue bicycle of rain,
took the streets, sidewalks and sun with it.
(“Ghazal of the Bright Body”)

Coupled with the poems’ rich textures is Sloat’s vision of a world where things are slightly askew but always interesting. The poem “High Heeled” offers a wonderfully playful investigation into self-awareness, a theme the book returns to again and again.

I always want more:
more Everest, more starshine,
something in the department of the vertical.

That’s why I’m up here.
It’s better than smog,
better than settling.

Since coaching myself to one-up
the utmost, my dreams
only know the amazonian.

Could you say that again?
At these heights, I hardly
hear you. Sometimes from

my perch on the umpteenth
floor, I feel the pinch
of the finite. You’ll see

others like me, pumped
up, outrageous in altitude.
In the ascendant,

the hitch remains poise,
attaining cliff stillness
and nerve enough not to topple.

For all of its playfulness, nothing can disguise the book’s undercurrent of sadness. Unexpected catastrophes lie in wait around the corner. Just when the people have a handle on things, “conundrums / come out to tango at random.” Parked at gas stations, people hear fat men whistling “like happiness itself” and long to follow but can’t. They have aspirations of wearing mink coats to the breakfast table where they can smoke at leisure but instead have lives where they “never get enough to smoke.” The deck always stacked against them, they get “[a] card … [that] makes everything fall apart” (a phrase and sentiment that shows up more than once in the book).

The standout work, “The Problem with Everything,” is a perfect case-in-point of quotidian disasters come to interrupt the lives of Sloat’s people.

The problem with everything
just barged in to darn the socks
I was going to throw away.

I’m never fast enough.
And soon as they are mended
the seams grin, menacing again.

It’s always the same. Everything so
beautiful, and falling apart . . . .

We can’t help but think, though, that Sloat likes the world falling apart—just a little—because a world falling apart still has its moments of reprieve, where the possibility of being surprised by joy still exists, where a minor saint can cover one eye and “[halve] all disaster.” Even among the gloom, there’s always a hopeful gesture that allows optimism to briefly bubble to the top where “there’s not even a gripe worth having.”

Minus the puns, there’s a hint of Harmonium-era Stevens in the language play of Sloat’s poems. If there is a problem with the chapbook, it is that it’s too small. Sloat’s world needs more walking around room, more opportunities to take a look down some alleys, instead of the straight walk down the street that we get. But such are the limitations of chapbooks. While some poems deliver more than others, all in all, In the Voice of a Minor Saint is a wonderful first outing from a poet whose first full-length collection is far past due.

____________

Ash Bowen’s poetry has appeared in Rattle, Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, Blackbird, and is forthcoming in Nimrod. He co-edits Linebreak (www.linebreak.org).

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