Book Reviews, Features

Kristen Steenbeeke: “‘You want your dream masts to rise’ – Emily Kendal Frey’s Sorrow Arrow

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Sorrow Arrow

Emily Kendal Frey
Octopus Books

EKF: “… as I grow less and less interested in the mind, insofar as making “sense” (at least along any lines of logic) of my experience, the more willing I become to stay in feelings.” (Interview with Nicholas Sturm, Bookslut)

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“Let’s do an interpretive dance and call it Jonathan Franzen” (@EmilyKendalFrey)

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Emily Kendal Frey’s Sorrow Arrow reads as a sentence- and poem-collage, one that upends then rebuilds itself nearly every other phrase. And it’s not just the images that make up the collage—it’s the way that Frey juxtaposes macro and micro: the universe shrinks to a composted watermelon rind, Love is packed into the skin of a tangerine. Frey says (I’m projecting) love is big—wait, no it’s not, it’s insignificant as rotting fruit.

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EKF: “Most writers working prior to the last fifty years had a persona that pretty much came from their work, but now there are all these other sources…” (Interview with Lisa Wells, OmniVerse)

And so a poet is a living person who Instagrams rhododendrons, tweets emotions and jokes, and gives interviews and readings that are accessible in seconds. You want to know everything in the poet’s life that led up to a certain line or poem—at least before you feel you can critique that line or poem—so you follow her on Twitter and read all her available interviews. This review will be a hodgepodge of all the resources I took along with me as I wrote. To present all the facts as I have them.

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Each line of Sorrow Arrow is a magazine cut-out, sometimes unremarkable when regarded as a singular entity. The full poems, though—lines wrapped around each other like a chain-link fence—brew inside you and manifest as an unsettled feeling. Spare and often unconnected images come from all angles. The titleless poems play out as one long-running, multi-scene dream. Each poem sucks you weirdly in. You come to live inside the book. The air is different.

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The Great Ones spent life on their knees
In the cafe next to the lilies
You breathe
The terrible sun begging
Love on a spear
You grow tall in your white t-shirt
A pigeon drags another pigeon to a tree
Eats

(40)

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Love in all its forms pervades Sorrow Arrow, sometimes sweetly but more often voraciously, eating the speaker alive or vice versa. “A pigeon drags another pigeon to a tree … Love on a spear … The terrible sun begging.” This poem mixes the sweet and sinister: love is “the cafe next to the lilies,” but outside, cannibalistic pigeons are roving. Frey makes that clear with her economical word-choice, the frank “bang, bang, bang, bang” rhythm of her lines, and, again, the macro vs. micro splits (the “Great Ones” vs. pigeons; the terrible sun vs. the lilies; Love vs. a spear). Small, concrete images serve to puncture holes in overblown, abstract balloons—like “love,” “sorrow,” “art”—that manifest throughout the book.

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Some people will try to tell you what you mean
A cloud of gnats, for instance
This song I
m singing has ugly words
The movies are right
You know what you saw

(24)

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Frey excels at crassness, bluntness, concision. She’s simple in her language, straightforward and unabashed and genuine in conveying her speaker’s hate and love (and she operates almost exclusively at these spectrum ends—nothing is dull, nothing is hesitant. Everything gives off the illusion of certainness even if you as the reader are being tricked.). One line slaps the face red—the next socks you in the gut.

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Your body is a fattening turd

(66)

The burning anus of my heart

(45)

a field of baking elephant shit

(69)

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Frey’s concision can come across as distant, purposefully vague, or even rude, but you approach this as you do a person who seems like she has something important to say but you’re not sure what: slow down, really listen, and, with some care, fill in the lines. The meaning is more precious when earned.

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Once my sister stopped eating
Small wagon

(69)

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Some say they just don’t “get” these poems. It might be the easy, childlike structure:

You walk to the corner

You eat a burrito

You conjure a woman and another woman behind her

You swallow and choke down shadows

(25)

Frey makes no attempt to complicate or “poeticize” her sentences. This is not Poetry with a capital P. But in doing that—and this is what you’re eventually drawn to—she creates essence rather than meaning. You go to her poems more for an eerie high than you do to find meaning tied up in a neat bow around the wild hair of the poem. These poems have bedhead. They woke up on the wrong side this morning and they don’t care who knows it.

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Bookslut: What is more important to you in a poem: clarity or comprehension?

EKF: What’s the difference? I don’t feel very interested in either. I’m interested in compression and bravery.

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Die with me
I
m blazingly unremarkable

(30)

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T.S. Eliot: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”)

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EKF: “It’s almost like I’m living on behalf of my poems. I’m just a vessel, or a sieve basically, so that all the shit that I’m experiencing has somewhere to go. It’s so fucking freeing actually, to every day synthesize your life that way.” (OmniVerse)

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T.S. Eliot: “The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”)

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EKF: “… I am not the biggest thing. I am small. It’s my job to synthesize the biggest things, you know? Rather than trying to be a writer who traps the world inside and then becomes big themselves.” (OmniVerse)

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You read Sorrow Arrow and become unsure about how to feel, but then for days after in your own writing, your own life, you can’t shake the voice—can’t help but add an extra space in your line breaks, to pause before explaining too much and instead let the white space speak.

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There’s also the wry, weird humor, often incorporating the flat sadness prevalent throughout the book. You imagine a conversation with Frey in the office on a Monday morning:

You: “How are you today, Emily?”
EKF [monotone]: “I feel like an un-sent fax” (19)
You: “Ah, well, look at the time …”
EKF: “What is this time bullshit / I want dilemmas involving god and coastal highways” (21)
You: “Maybe tomorrow.”
EKF: “The first person you loved will die / Their ass will be gone” (22)
You: “OK, well, see you at lunch—”
EKF: “I made up a joke about a didgeridoo / You were the only one / I could have told it to” (78)

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Every poem in the book is its own dream, the lot of them morphing from gleeful and amorous–“I’m so in love, I go to jury duty” (13)–to hopeless and catastrophic–“Bloody teeth rain down / It hurts to be born / God are you there”. (76) These are grim shifts, but in Frey’s company, the journey is at least as colorful as it is long-suffering.

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“Out in the world there’s another world hesitating.” (9) What is this but a description of every dreamscape?

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Im dreaming again

Fancy goldfish

Theyre building a Ferris wheel over a bridge

The economy bursts

A giant eye

A neon apostrophe

Dumplings flowering in boiling water

(75)

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The poems in Sorrow Arrow seem derived from the understanding that life itself could be a dream—a mundane and apocalyptic one, in turns.

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Lets walk through the mall and Ill buy you an Orange Julius

(55)

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Tiny computers are breaking into the clouds

Arrows are raining down

(69)

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Even the book’s repeated images—strawberries, fathers, arrows, rainbows, Greekness, breaking eggs—are recurring dreams themselves.

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Or, have you had one of those nights when you dream of someone you know, but in the dream it’s someone else, like Hillary Clinton, but you know in your dream-mind it’s that person you know?

You, returning with a bag of books

Another you, the green of your eyes watery astral bodies

Another me, less furiously edged

(36)

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An arsenal, our dream spatters

So much of nothing to be everything

(76)

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I dream about you

Youre naked making tablature for our future

(79)

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I wanted to tie the poet and the poem up in a birthday ribbon (the kind where you press your thumb carefully in the middle), but I soon found myself dumb. It would be like detailing a dream for someone: either language won’t do it justice, or—the likelier case—no one wants to hear what your mind’s made up to please itself.

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When I feel like dying, I go to bed

(20)

Kristen Steenbeeke is a fiction writer and poet. Her work has appeared in Pacifica Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Tin House Flash Fiction Fridays; also, one of her stories will be aired on NPR’s Snap Judgment as a radio play. She is the marketing manager at Hugo House, a place for writers in Seattle.