Bear the Grief : Get Up and Try Again
In All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), Sarah Chavez’s narrator unlocks missives to a dead beloved, named Carole. These poems are so full in rich detail and experience, it can sometimes be difficult to remember, as a reader, that they should not be read as non-fiction.
In an interview with Les Femmes Folles, Chavez has acknowledged some biographical overlaps between her own lived experience and that of her narrator in this collection. At another point, Chavez noted, “There really was a Carole, she really died, and I do mourn her. I also grew up in Fresno in a working class environment. [However,] these poems, are more concerned with expressing an emotional truth and the details that best serve that emotional truth…”
We are increasingly aware, as contemporary readers, of the importance of not assuming that poetry based in biography is non-fiction; if we honor All Day, Talking by reading it as art, and not as confession or reportage, we gain: the work is an elegiac page-turner. As the narrator mourns Carole, she also mourns herself. Our loved ones are our mirrors.
These poem-letter-monologues spike with heartbreak, anger, and humor: we play spectator to their hardcore honesty and relish the narrative stream of consciousness. If Carole is a ghost, she is alive on every page of this collection. We read the words as in a poem movie. The text sparkles with cinematic flare, the characters walk through scenes with fluidity whether hanging out at a bus stop, cleaning up dead beetles, or eating Twinkies. We hitch a ride with the narrator, ourselves visiting ghosts, witness the narrator’s shivering loneliness in buying a coffee:
“…the woman behind the counter,
she fucking looks like you. Tall,
round breasted, long stringy hair, skin
white, shining from the heat
off the espresso machine,
What can I get you hun, she says.
She calls me “hun.” You
would never call anyone that…
You hated false familiarity
that veneer of sweetness…I
miss you so much it’s like I swallowed
This recreated action in the poem is so detailed, so signature of each page—they are every tiny action in the world and the narrator is just trying to hold it together. The narrator wants to tell many people to fuck off: those who slighted her, those who remind her of Carole. Yet she does not. She buys her coffee, her finger grazing the finger of the waitress who looked like Carole, almost cries. She goes to work. She gets a haircut. Through her days, she functions, because her lips are always moving, always talking to Carole, re-connecting, rebuilding.
The skinny format of these poems presents themselves like letters, or a grocery list. Of course, they are like a list. The narrator catalogues Carole. The bare bones of the words and mood are present: we want to, no we need to remember it all, like possessions lost in a fire. Make a list while everything is still fresh in your mind. There is no need for flowery language: these poems are crisp.
“Dear Carole, I finally did it
I cut it all off into a trendy bob
that fades up from the back. You told me
not to, said you loved my hair long.
Well you’re not here anymore.”
And then this two line poem on its own page:
“Dear Carole, Just a quick note
These mini poems check mark off moments with Carole: a conversation about getting a haircut or not—the C flat comment comes off, potentially, as a private joke. We don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t matter. We witness these intimate moments, feel the bond between Carole and the narrator, reflect on our own bonds. As the narrator informs us, these poems are about “Nothing./ Anything. Everything, really.” Every phrase, bad joke, like, or dislike is catalogued. When Carole is gone, she still smokes, walks around, drives a Cadillac down the sun-blazed street.
We tick off Carole’s likes and dislikes with the narrator throwing in our own as well, thinking what will we remember when someone we love is gone? What will be the hardest memory to mourn?
Some letters and images have a vulnerable symbolism. Items symbolizing loss: hair, teeth, a dog, and a ring. Using commonplace objects further our feeling of loss for the narrator and for Carole herself. Every day descriptions also illustrate that perhaps we stay in similar routines with various people. When that person is gone, we suddenly don’t know what to do with ourselves. In the poem referenced above, the narrator gets the haircut she wanted, maybe having mixed emotions about it. When the narrator goes to the dentist to get her wisdom teeth pulled, she is alone. She gets drunk the night before as a coping mechanism to “dull her brain.” The narrator tells Carole about it:
“I want to yell at him: Don’t you know better
than to take from people who have nothing
but these relics, these baubles?
But he’s got my still slab of tongue in his hand
and the noise that comes from the back
of my throat is just choking, as if a person
could even choke an absence.”
The reader feels her isolation: having to complete stressful activities alone, not having that ride home from a loved one. The narrator mourns the loss of Carole through teeth getting pulled, wanting to yell at everyone who does not seem to understand. How could they? We are all alone in our grief, or it feels that way.
Through the mentioning of the dog, “Shadow,” we experience a new kind of loss: regret. Chavez writes that the narrator sees a dog that looked like Shadow, who was sad to being with- (It was as if the universe had been playing mix-em ups with spare dog parts.) The narrator expresses:
we’d never brought him home.
If we’d never met him, never been licked
by his fat pink tongue, been warmed
by the heat of his solid body on the couch
watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer,
we’d never have known the desiccated
emptiness of every night
after the night we found
his bed vacant ad the back door
yawning in the stasis of moonlight.
It doesn’t matter how loud or late
into the night you call someone’s name,
if they are gone, they are gone.”
The loss of the dog reflects the narrator’s pain in losing Carole. She does not know what happened to Shadow: if he ran away because he was tired of living with them in their “filthy mobile home,” or if he was stolen by a “crack head.” It is the not knowing that exacerbates the pain of the loss. The mind plays tricks, questions if there was love present at all. The narrator regrets the dog and also, never saying thank you to Carole, once, when she splurged on pizza for them, when money was tight. Whether big or small, loss is loss.
These poems are not without humor. Despite the fact that the narrator admits that she cries at Folger commercials or goes weeks without touching another human being, we also laugh at the particular details that create a whole human. When we laugh, we forget pain momentarily.
An impressively descriptive poem begins with “Dear Carole, Today I’m wearing that ring…/ you stole for me at the art fair…”
It is in this poem that we travel with Carole and the narrator to the art fair, laugh as the narrator describes the “hot hippie without a bra” that Carole would roll her eyes at. It is poignant. When the narrator talks to the hippie vendor and covets a large red and black swirled ring: the hippie says: the ring wants to be a ring. I never take from the Earth without permission. The narrator feels nervous, says “Cool,” and walks away. A few minutes later, at a cross walk, Carole presses something into the palm of the narrator’s hand. It is the ring. Carole then says:
“The stone told me to take it. It said it wanted you to wear it.”
We cannot help but smile.
Pages later when we learn that the ring breaks, we feel a heaviness in our chest.
These poems rise and fall with the everyday rush of a river current. Even the mundane, the humorous episodes, the losses these women experienced together, all of it— we feel with gusto.
Chavez’s very last line of the collection is something we already know (we empathize with all of these poems), yet this last line comforts us. We simply recognize: “Always the talking is to you.”
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” is forthcoming from Grey Book Press this summer. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Freezeray, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.