THE BABIES by SABRINA ORAH MARKSTEFFI DREWS reviews
The Babies by Sabrina Orah Mark
(Saturnalia Books, 2004)
[Review first printed in TRAFFIC, Editor Elizabeth Treadwell, 2006]
Consider peeping through some new key hole. Look for a street carnival. The young foreign taxidermist. A laboratory with only one animal. The bearded ornithologist. A lonesome place called “Butcher’s Lake.” The hunter and the sawdust girl. A little robot and a little accordion. With a little luck, you’ve landed smack in the middle of Sabrina Orah Mark’s stunning collection of prose poems, The Babies. It is against such backdrops and amidst such company that we begin to eavesdrop on extraordinary citizens and creatures clinging to the underbelly of a war-torn landscape.
In the opening poem, “Day,” the speaker and a carnie verify certain historical facts before consummating their relationship: “The world is, in spite of everything, very over,” and “the dish has run away from the spoon.” The momentary lovers part ways, and new stories unfold in an equally whimsical and ominous fashion. In each of the book’s six sections, we confront a reality in which the uncertain almost always rivals the inevitable. On page five the speaker explains, “Whether or not it was the trumpeter, or the brass, or the brass against a certain naked foot. Whether or not you are what’s left to be solved of the drowned, I rented a room beside Butcher’s Lake. Mostly sadness.” Recounting earthly events in beautiful and bizarre detail, Mark successfully fuses the magical with the material world to create a new sort of mythical truth. Another early poem, “The Dumb Show,” reveals human experience in history as a bumbling, burlesque act. We learn that “because the gods believe they ought, like buried corsets, to make the best of a bad bargain, they have begun to show their flesh a little,” and so we acquire a divine explanation for the chaotic history unraveling before us.
Mark’s imagination is absolutely electric, and yet the surreal dimension she creates does not belie the urgency of emotional truth achieved throughout the book. Armed with razor sharp diction and often frenzied pacing, her language runs through us like a shudder: “We marionette. We only story. We terrible to soil, and come gather. We trouble up the yard, what’s a mother? how much longer?” The graceful shifts from courageous declarations and commands to pleading questions, combined with lively syntax, seduce the reader and propel each new layer of narrative. The speaker simultaneously takes on the voice of a future child, a distant elder and the body in flesh standing before us; each page draws the reader further away from a fixed sense of time and chronology.
Inside this kaleidoscope of relationships, characters come and go, as do animals, enemies, talk of love and the danger that inhabits this world. It’s tempting to consider each poem a separate snapshot of activity, but such a static notion betrays the character transformations and narrative connections that surface throughout the book. One thread of truth becomes painfully clear: nothing is allowed to remain benign in this world. First, there’s a “black mustache growing slowly but unmercifully on [the taxidermist’s] left shoulder” and a little robot with “its black bangs already growing over its eyes.” “Then the terrible music of all those babies I once seemed to be suddenly having, marching, like soldiers, in rows. Then their round wet bellies coming towards me.” There is no escaping the sense of approaching tragedy and previous disaster: “In the burnt attic we are all a little dead. Bewilder shouting about her nightgown, and through the window you can see the rest of us walking around with our shoes and stockings in our hands.”
Every character grows accustomed to projecting fear and nonchalance in the same breath, often possessing the sort of chilling calm and childlike precision one might expect from someone recovering from unspeakable traumas, numb:
Hello. They call me Zillah.
I fell in love on the night train to Warsaw. Every human
situation strikes me as a terrific joke. I am a torn off
blouse in that red river. Ha ha holocaust. I can’t
Mark returns again and again to scenes and psychological states which at first appear unreachable but inhabit us in no time. The result is a fierce examination of a “vintage darkling, metropolis”—one that unmistakably evokes the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the survivors faced with an unpredictable future.
Searching for intimacy in a time of imminent darkness, the characters align themselves with one another out of desperation and compassion and often end up somewhere in the space between. The striking images of “In The Origami Fields” not only demonstrate such interpersonal bonds but also reveal how Mark’s occasional departures from prose block sections into lineated verse represent a natural and necessary strategy in the book:
where I fold and unfold my left arm into November, my hair into my sister,
where the black-gloved woman plays my heart like a crumpled violin,
where I stand creased and lusting for paper, where I have no more dead lovers
than you, where beautiful girls are always asked for directions,
where I keep myself real, flirting with the ventriloquists,
where my father holds me like a paper doll, where doors can be torn down
swiftly, where neither one of us is a miracle,
I understand only this:
It is lonely in a place that can burn so fast.
Throughout The Babies we follow a lyricist whose occasionally cryptic narration can just as quickly unfold into startling moments of clarity.
The story is born and re-born, and each new life that is introduced brings another question, but the answers always leave us wide-eyed and wanting. Although many of the entries that precede it find their strength in the process of inquiry and interrogation, the fifth section, entitled “The Walter B. Interviews,” is overtly dedicated to the Q & A format. When asked by the interviewer to describe “The Exhibition,” the man replies:
Like the bulbs, we were dipped into milk and hung. We swayed
and we shed, gently. Later that evening the collector led us into
the undressing room where, to the others’ delight, I posed like
a small piece of muscle.
Each character’s struggle with language—to translate experience into words in this erratic, haunting environment—proves crucial to their survival: “I want to point its fear at you, or worse, among the devastated walls of this cheap metropolis, barter away everything you’ve ever called me: burnt string, broken ladder, violent one, until I am unrecognizable. Even to myself.” For the speaker and the characters, The Babies is as much a journey through unexpected tragedies and toward an outer, unknown destination of humanity as it is a retreat farther and farther into themselves, into one another and the history they share.
Steffi Drewes lives in Oakland, CA. She directed and performed her collaborative text project, "A Single Piece of Any Color," in The Poets' Theater Jamboree 2005 hosted by Small Press Traffic in San Francisco. Her poems have appeared in Beeswax Magazine.