“I know and have always known my body was mine.”
(from the poem “The Difference.”)
Sarah Frances Moran’s Evergreen (Weasel Press, 2016) brings us a speaker whose vulnerability and strength resembles the beauty and transience of the tall Evergreen. Its branches may be chopped, its needles may burn—but the trunk, the soul, is strong. A girl can climb it, dangle her legs over the edge, and look out over the world.
Appropriately, in the collection’s first few poems, the Evergreen is a jailer for everyone who has hurt the speaker. Trees are such common place objects in our lives, always watching us move through our day, this makes sense to us. Moran’s Evergreen feels personal. Whether an abusive step father or a caregiver who looked in the other direction is caged here, the Evergreen holds the keys. The people who caused harm to the speaker cannot, will not, be rescued. In “This Evergreen’s Locking Up Everyone Who Ever Laid a Finger on Me,” the language is surreal and gothic:
“These are the cages I keep where I harbor
all the damaged broken animals of my childhood.
If you reside among them it’s only because
you harbor abhorrence that can do nothing
but trickle through the blood stream of the root
of the tree you’d wish to cut down…”
Moran separates the sections of the second poem into cages much like humans who can compartmentalize pain—in order to function, to get through our day. In the first section, Cage 1, Moran writes:
“If you ever dreamed of being a patriarch, you failed.
You planted a tree
then doused it in gasoline and attempted to burn it.”
The idea of a tree acting as turnkey to our cages of people who have misused us is gorgeous and fairy-tale like. The tree is protector and punisher—especially since many people are never punished for their crimes. In Moran’s cages, the pain is kept sectioned off while the speaker of these poems heals and moved forward.
But this book does not limit itself to a compartmentalized kaleidoscope of suffering; as the reader navigates Evergreen’s gritty, dark, and beautiful terrain, they will find that Moran’s poems are multilayered. In the poem “Battle,” the reader not only deciphers an argument about “battling” one’s inner demons, but also a description of the writing process itself. In “Battle,” Moran writes:
“They don’t care about that stifled genius
or about how you’ve received 52 rejections letters to date.
What they do care about,
is the meat of you.
What’s deep down in your guts?
What makes them churn and what makes them ache?
…You redraft yourself, every day
for this battle.”
This poem uncovers the speaker’s vulnerabilities with lines like “Why do you sit at the bottom of the tub and just cry sometimes?” but also how writers need to reach deep inside of themselves to ask, How do I write this pain? How do I confess about this thing that happened to me and twist it into art? How often do I cross out and start over— the words, my feelings, plunging a magnifying glass into the past and a knife into my heart again?
Moran has experience as a stellar spoken-word artist and it is thrilling to read “Battle” almost like an audience member at a performance. One can hear her voice create a moment to moment truth. We recognize the speaker’s manifesto of “get up anyway,” find the strength somewhere, and write the poems. We are ready to launch our own battle cry.
For example, take “Mama Makowski,” a poem about the speaker’s mother getting day-drunk and trying to compare herself to the poet Charles Bukowski—that icon of male bravado that continues to cling to its status in the literary canon. In this poem, the speaker asserts that her father is still alive, and that she hates a part of him but there is:
“…the longing for something not there.
We fantasize about holding their hands and
looking up at them with adulation…”
a piggy back ride
a stroll through the park…”
Moran shares that with her mother— an experience of fathers consumed by their own violence and drinking. Moran illustrates that what really makes a man is one who will hold a small hand, protect those he loves. The speaker commiserates with her mother over their “broken childhoods.” By this poem, positioned later in the book, Moran’s speaker is already reflective: she knows she was given the short end of the father straw and she still overcomes pain, chooses to honor her mother through cooking her recipes.
This speaker looks to the future. What will she, the speaker, leave behind? In the two poems “Frances’s Fingers” and “The First Time I made a Tortilla,” there is a joy in one’s roots, the peace in knowing who we are and where we came from:
“All the bolls of cotton you picked
and endless days in the sun
where your brown skin soaked up ray after ray..
Look at my hands and know the work they’ve done too.
…I got more than my middle name from you.”
Moran pays homage to an ancestor who picked cotton in Texas. The sun beating down on her skin, fingers arthritic by the end of her life, the speaker communes with this woman in these lines and helps her feel centered, blasts Johnny Cash on the way out of town, feels akin with this ghost. Likewise, in “The First Time I Made Tortillas,” Moran writes,
“As I knead the dough
the strength of all of my ancestors flow through into my fingertips
and I feel the struggles of feeding and caring for a multitude of children
my desire for perfection’s depth
is further than this rolling pin.
I simply want to honor my mother with this task
Say to her that the beauty of this creating will not die with her…”
Moran’s words vibrate and pull at us long after we close the book. We look down at our own bodies: what did we inherit? With all of these poems, there is an overcoming of anguish. Flushed-out secrets explode from the tallest tree, find the warming sun, and the music, and always the words that seem to come down to or come back to “I rely on you,” “I rely on you, “I rely on you.” This repetition is a magical litany: the words make themselves come true. We know what it means to find the ability to trust again, and to survive. Evergreen is legacy.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” just came out from Grey Book Press. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. She also has poetry reviews at The Rumpus and Horseless Press. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.