Book Reviews

Review // Sierra Nelson’s I Take Back the Sponge Cake

By Kristen Steenbeeke, Contributing Writer

I grew up on choose-your-own-adventure books, and now that I’m older, it seems poetry has always been a choose-your-own-adventure lying in wait. You know: the wordplay inviting one to interpret the work how they wish, then that interpretation branching off into some other dimly-lit pathway, which branches to another, and sooner or later one ends up out of the forest altogether and at some dark-blue lake, teeming with fish.

This is why Sierra Nelson and Loren Erdrich’s poetry/art collaboration book “I Take Back the Sponge Cake” is so enticing: The poems are like tiny jigsaws in themselves, connected by choose-your-own-adventure snippets, such as “____ the night from day, O dreamers,” with the option to choose “Rest: to repose” or “Wrest: to take by force.” Depending on the reader’s choice of homonym, they are led to another page, another poem, another of Erdrich’s whimsically sad watercolors. The poems are small and concise but chock-full of their own wordplay and tricks. One highlight was “Pseudomorph,” a word which means “a cloud of ink, similar in shape to the creature that emits it, that may serve as a decoy.” Like the ingenuity of the word itself, the poem splits itself into two — one real side and one for the inky decoy — and next to it is one of Erdrich’s drawings of a girl and her own decoy.

A brief aside: At a poetry seminar in Friday Harbor, Sierra led my class on a poetry exercise. We were to draw a picture, show it to the person next to us for a number of seconds, and then take it away. They would then draw it and do the same to the next person, until we had twenty drawings of the same thing, morphed. Mine was a unicorn that slowly became a gila monster with each drawing, like a visual game of telephone. We were then to write a poem about that morphing. While my poem was partially about the photos, there was also a slight disconnect, a variation. This is what Erdrich and Nelson’s collaboration seems like: a slight rift between poem and picture, but with a small string running between, such as the drawing next to “Be Careful With That, It’s Broken,” which depicts a somewhat dismantled body, missing arms, a neck, the outline of a head. And within the poems themselves, there is a twisting of sorts, a feeling of all-is not-quite-right, of a pleasant skewing.

Nelson has always been known around Seattle as one to make poetry new through interactive poetry performance, and “I Take Back the Sponge Cake” is the written version of this kind of performance, inviting the readers not only to experience hers and Erdrich’s work but also to become a part of its fascinatingly twisted world.