Poems by Sarah Rose Nordgren
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
Into the Woods might not have taken home an Oscar, but its recent Disney reboot proves we’re still a culture that values fairy tales. One of my favorite moments from that score comes from the song “Stay With Me,” when the Witch begs her daughter Rapunzel, “Stay with me, the world is dark and wild. Stay a child while you can be a child.” Songwriter Stephen Sondheim says of the number, “It’s about parenting children, which of course is what fairy tales are about.”
But we’re not here to talk about Into the Woods. Because, as much humor and nuance as the show brought to our oldest stories, Sarah Rose Nordgren has come to push their lyrical weirdness even further to bring us a uniquely American fairy tale. In these tales, gender, war, religion, and the American South are some of the subjects that children are coming to grips with. When Ed Ochester calls Nordgren’s poems “part Alice in Wonderland,” he gets it just right — their lines remind us that sometimes the kids are in charge, the adults don’t have all the answers, and the moral doesn’t make sense.
“Kids These Days,” a poem whose title sounds like it just jumped from the mouth of any complaining parent, is perhaps at the crux of these conflicts. One of many poems where Nordgren proves she can span centuries in just a few lines, we cut from a list of our long-lost ancestors directly to the present moment:
At some point today it started raining
very hard and there was no shelter.
We all scattered from the schoolyard
in fifty directions, wearing books on our heads.
There are so many ways to go wrong
that we’ve stopped sorting them.
The globe is on its stand in the dusty room,
not spinning or teaching anyone a lesson.
There must be a good reason that the whole
world seems so anxious on our behalf.
There’s innocence here, and ignorance — which is perhaps the same thing said less generously. There’s a sense that these children, like all others before them, will suffer the consequences of not heeding their elders. Yet the situation here seems increasingly dire. In the modern world, there are even more ways to go wrong. These children stumble through rain on the edge of disaster, waiting to find out what’s causing the hubbub. As Nordgren will ask in a later poem, “what good is an illegible message?”
Under Nordgren’s watchful eye, all the accoutrements of childhood become things to be feared. “The Only House in the Neighborhood” brings dollhouses to a new level of creepiness by pairing images of a seemingly perfect family with a growing, uncomfortable quiet. Sure, “there is a birthday party nearly every day, / no fear of death or failure, no mortgage / to pay, no money at all.” Reality, in these ways, may have vanished, but fantasy breeds a different discord. “The stove doesn’t work. The food is painted / on the refrigerator door.” There’s nothing here to sustain life. So “no matter / if Baby bathes with his clothes on, or Mother… spends a week facedown on the laundry room floor.” The silent horror builds to a surprising finish — a child’s hand toppling an undersized rocking horse — where Nordgren reminds us that we both create and destroy the worlds we inhabit.
Throughout this collection, Nordgren proves herself a technician of craft. We get rhythm and rhyme, narrative sequencing, lyric tension, and various uses of form. But her most successful poems are those that blend technique with visceral reality — that join, as Stuart Dischel praises on the book’s back cover, “the cool surface of craft and the human heat of the heart.” At some points the story gets lost in a beautiful image; at others the poet seems unwilling to go far enough in interrogating her subject. This happens most clearly in poems, like “Instructions for Marriage by Service,” which seem to address race. But parsing gender, family, and lessons passed down, Nordgren’s words wield a stunning power. She states complex truths plainly; she says in “The Wife” of marriage, “Stepping to like a mare… I became more creaturely // with each passing year.”
For all their compression, these poems are like the Witch’s world: deep, dark, and wild. They draw readers to the story’s entrance again and again, promising new beauty each time. “Still Birth,” the book’s second poem, reminds us why it’s worth it in the first place:
The introduction was too long, but
the invisible boy had already traveled
for a year and a day… Though you know
the story, I mean to remind you
he will, eventually, return. Not in body,
no, but every time I tell it he becomes
more real. This is one of the stories
we live in against nature—I was trying
to tell you over the wind. If you learn anything
from living in this house, it will be how
to survive a variety of interruptions.
Our worst tragedies and our greatest joys are the interruptions, the realities of life and the morals of stories. Through a series of wondrous, fantastical images, Nordgren conveys unspeakable emotion. We’re transported back to the first time someone stood over us with the offer of only a story, begging us to listen closely.