reviewed by Clara B. Jones
Sarah Frances Moran
Weasel Press, 2016
Once, a decade or so ago, I was complaining about a boyfriend to a Hindu friend who replied, “Clara, everybody has a story.” Of course, I learned from that experience not to take myself too seriously; however, reading Sarah Frances Moran’s chapbook, Evergreen, convinces me that some stories are more urgent than others. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), An American is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes and a child is victimized every 8 minutes. Feminists and their activist counterparts are keenly aware of the socially-, politically-, and economically-sanctioned differentials between men and women pertaining to power and agency. Though the inequalities of Patriarchy and inequality are inherent to American society, it was not until my late thirties that I consciously realized that many men were not benign figures and that, except for their self-imposed or legally-imposed restraint, most men are capable of dominating me physically. As a result of this insight, I assess any man’s control over his aggressive potential.
Sarah Frances Moran, Founder and Editor of the highly-regarded poetry journal, Yellow Chair Review, has experienced parental narcissism in the extreme. Confronted with a stepfather who is, at once, flawed and impotent, Sarah describes a complex relationship with a man who psychologists might describe as a person lacking empathy or the capacity for “Theory of Mind,” a person unable to view a situation from another person’s perspective. Raised Catholic, Sarah’s relationship with “Bebo” (or, “Dad”) is sufficient to seriously challenge her faith (“ What 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Says”—“They say this god will destroy him who destroys/ god’s temple./ They say this,/ but I don’t believe it.”); yet, despite her trauma, she is resilient enough (like an “evergreen”) to recognize her predicament as a complicated one (“The Child Is Gone”—“I wondered if there was something inside me you needed”) and to understand that her victimizer may be unable to appreciate Beauty (“The Child Is Gone”—“When you hear that songbird/ does it still rip you apart?”). Though some might say that Sarah is too forgiving of the man who sexually abused her, she refuses to allow the perpetrator’s moral and spiritual emptiness to define her own Truth. Furthermore, Sarah is on a path to discovery of wholeness that she invites us to accompany her on.
Evergreen is a beautifully-produced book with a haunting cover photo depicting a pine forest darkened by foreboding weather. The reader is aware from the outset that this is going to be a rough ride of expiation and “working through,” reminding me of other women artists who have used their practice in an attempt to come to terms with pain…psychic and/or physical. The visual artist, Käethe Kollwitz, comes first to mind for her many attempts to purge the distress of losing a beloved grandson in World War II. Indeed, the poet and critic, Harry Burke, reminds us that poets are like visual artists using the blank page upon which to record creative expressions, and Moran, like, Kollwitz, uses her talents to communicate strong feelings as well as their causes, effects, and (partial) resolutions (“Caution: Go Slow”—“I want my own cage/ and my own understanding”). Sarah’s narrative poems reside in the tradition of other “confessional” poets (e.g., Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds) for their deliberate attempts to draw the reader into the writer’s personal experience.
The organization of the book is effective, moving in sequence through the poet’s own stages of grief, in particular, feelings of betrayal, sadness, and anger (“This Evergreen’s Locking Up Everyone Who Ever Laid A Finger On Me”—“These are the cages I keep where I harbor/ all the damaged broken animals of my childhood.”). These sentiments are reinforced by the use of sarcasm, a defense mechanism protecting a wounded ego (“Every I Love You Lied Through Your Teeth”—“You’ll die thinking of me.”). Eventually, Sarah is forced to admit that the perpetrator is human (“The Child Is Gone”—“…pour into my inner sides and find/ what is it you lacked in yourself.”). The victim is not relieving the victimizer of responsibility but realizing that human beings can be, at the same time, evil and worthy of pity. In another stage, perhaps, still driven by anger, the poet stereotypes “Bebo” as in the poem, “Bebo The Broken”—“Very tall with tattoos on his arms/ and a busty Latina on his chest.” However, the reader would do a disservice to Moran by appropriating the description of the perpetrator. The characterization of “Bebo” and his failures, as well as his misdeeds, belongs to Moran, herself, and her stepfather’s characteristics are no laughing matter. The poet’s stereotyped description of her abuser is not an attempt to distance him but an attempt to highlight that he is a man as well as a buffoon.
Ultimately, aided by therapy and a loving partner, Sarah has been able to define and inhabit her own turf. She presents herself as wounded but healthier, wiser and grateful (“Salvation”—“A display/ of scars/ and wicked smiles/ whispered words/ and shouts that shatter fears.”). These beautiful and memorable poems reveal the poet’s journey toward enlightenment, which none of us completes, and they exhibit strong music and interpretive power, recording one woman’s path to a healthy relationship with herself and others. There is something in this chapbook for everyone, hetero-normative, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or gender non-conforming (“An evening with Zoloft”—“It’s cotton candy kicked across the living room/ because I wanted chocolate.”). Reading these poems gave me insight about how to address my own experience with familial sexual abuse and, most important, reminded me of the importance of healthy self-care (see, for example, the poem, “If I Were Jane Gallagher”). Evergreen deserves to be read by anyone who appreciates the poetry of personal experience and should be recognized as an important poetic contribution to gender studies.
Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. As a woman of color, she writes about identity and power. Ofi Literary Magazine, WNC-Woman, Transnational, Bluestem, The Review Review, Mount Island, and 34th Parallel are among the venues her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in, and her collection, Ferguson And Other Satirical Poems About Race, won the 2015 Bitchin’ Kitsch Chapbook Competition. In the 1970s, Clara studied with Adrienne Rich and has studied recently with the poets Meghan Sterling and Eric Steineger.