Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines
Julie Carr
Coffee House Press, 2010
Review by Daniela Olszewska

In her latest book, Julie Carr uses poetic forms to mimic the making and breaking of human forms. Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines is a work that interests itself both in the ways in which death and decay (or, rather, decay and then death) and the (pro)creative processes can engender moments of language. This third book by Carr is one of the winners of the 2009 National Poetry Series; judge Eileen Myles blurbs that the text is “a masterfully sutured journey, painfully useful.” Another way of phrasing this might be beautifully and uncomfortably truthful.

Sarah records the slow, terrible splintering of the narrator’s mother, Sarah, into the jumbled-up, wordless realms of Alzheimer’s disease. Carr uses fragmented, non-linear narratives to reflect the fragmented, non-linear consciousness(es) of someone suffering from the degenerative disease. She wields the tools uniquely (or, rather, especially) available to poets—fragmentation and line breaks and abstractions—in order to render the Alzheimer’s experience palpable to the uninitiated reader. Readers are forced to consider the overlap between poetics and disease and how one might inform (or, rather, feed off of) the other.

This book presents an excruciating account of a woman who “gave up her spirit but couldn’t get out.” Caged in a body rapidly losing hold on its own grasp of language, Sarah must look to her daughter to share her memories for her. Her daughter expresses a mixture of ambition and anxiety over this task—she declares that she is “ready to cannibalize my own past,” but worries that “this must mean I’ve no love for myself or for narrative.” The narrator is in a double-bind: she must simultaneously embrace and go in fear of abstractions if she is to give an honest account of her and her family’s experiences.

In addition to coping with the decline of her mother, the grief-hearted narrator is hyper-conscious of being trapped in a body of her own. While Sarah is declining, the narrator must go about the business of being pregnant with, giving birth to, and looking after her own children. She must “replace tension with/attention—but to what?” The narrator is incubating the next link to the genetic circle-chain that fixes her “… as kin toward word. Guarding and regarding that which will round or will rend me.” These pregnancies force the narrator to attempt to use language to distance herself from her own cage of a body. The narrator muses “the body’s a hole through which other bodies move.” However, this distancing serves to bind the narrator even more tightly to her body and (forgive the phrase) circle of life and death her body is a part of.

While the opening poem insists that “It would be absurd to imagine the absent person in the margins of the book,” this book actually demands that we do just that—readers are not supposed to replace the people with the poetics, but they are supposed to marvel at the beauty of the way the people and poetics take part in the creation and destruction of one another in a cycle in which “the end of honey is one’s mother’s death and is one’s mother.”

© Daniela Olszewska, 2011