Sarah Bartlett, Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out, Subito, 2016
In her debut collection, Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out, Sarah Bartlett broadcasts imperatives and declaratives across her poems until they converge in pressurized antiphony.
The imperatives are uninhibited directives relating to the malleability of structures—from relationships to bodies to the earth.
The declaratives manifest as ephemeral truths that pass by like rare road signs whose afterimages dissolve into mythology.
They become sister-registers, a literary truth (declarative) and dare (imperative). [Insert flashing billboard with alternating phrases: "Take me"—"Give me"—"Full of"—"Everything"]. Let the imperatives and declaratives wash over you until they become the new familiar, an exercise in structural mythology. Or resist: try to hold on to "every background" or "mental calendar" you have ever known.
In these ways, Bartlett's poems are exploratory, but they do not subscribe to conventions associated with the meditative mode; the speaker's inwardness does not come across as indulgent. Readers have the chance to be a part of the world Bartlett is creating—planted or rooted, full or cradled—and in taking part, the reader's sense of security is shattered by the speaker's underlying threat.
In an early poem called "I sit in the swing and begin my trajectory," Bartlett writes:
Even though "the swing" is an everyday childhood object, the stakes are high when followed by the elevated diction of "trajectory" and "parenthetical." And then there's the phrase, "What kind of person," which is simultaneously accusatory and self-deprecating. The even lines creep forward until we arrive at the metaphor, which coolly sets up the second half of the poem. The reader becomes part of the speaker's landscape, even as it surreally "cracks open" in the next line.
One of the most dynamic features of the collection is the ever-changing physical landscape. The speaker is planted in fields and forests amongst flowers and thickets. She appears in a back room under lights and in a casino playing penny slots. At several ethereal junctures, Bartlett's ground is up rather than down, made up of dreams and memories, storms and icicles.
Bartlett destroys and reassembles the world from the ground up. In the second section, "De Animation," the poem "Our Nuclear Payload is Fully Loaded," begins:
and later in the poem:
Bartlett immediately thrusts us into violence with the speaker's admission. With only two to five words per line, the form is mimetic of "leash." The four-line sentence seems to circle around itself, and ending on a one-word line further punctuates the speaker's desire to separate from her stuckness. The speaker asserts her own fallibility within these constraints, and the "murder" of the landscape is a way to free one's self from the world, if only for a moment.
Bartlett's poems undercut their own poetry. Through informal, irreverent language (as in "Freud Blah Blah Blah" or "Art is an arm but a shitty hugger" or "Pets are stupid"), the speaker's truths seem not so truth-y. When words like "blah" or "stupid" or "shitty" are used in succession, it lends levity to poems that are otherwise subject to necessary gravity. The physical book becomes that much more humble.
Like other books that dramatize survival on both personal and ecological scales, Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out emphasizes that the human is unformed, as is the world. Along with her predecessors, Bartlett confronts our responsibility to the world beyond the inked page. As Lyn Hejinian, in her book The Language of Inquiry, puts it: "Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen." I think Bartlett sees 'things as they happen,' then makes them anew in her book, therefore putting herself (and us) in complicity with them. Though, in "Hallelujah Chorus," Bartlett reminds us: "This is why I build on paper / where nothing is real." [AF]