Sabrina Orah Mark, The Babies
Saturnalia Books, 2004
notes destroyer/seducer Walter B. in The Babies, "mimics
disease." B's sentiment might be applied directly to Sabrina Orah
Mark's debut: the poet's deliberate turn from restrictive stanzas, meter,
and other regulatory poetic devices, in favor of prose poems, an interview
sequence, and the ledger-as-lyric, further facilitates her meddling of
temporal, linguistic, and logical orders. In fact, it is the absence of
traditional structures—itself a keen organizational strategy—that
allows Orah Mark to fully engage the erratic, the frenzied, the dark and
often absurd nature of human behavior.
To enter Orah Mark's The Babies
is to enter the freak show, fairground, or laboratory. On examination
tables and in five-cent booths, Orah Mark tests the capacity to convey
accurately and honestly innermost psychological and emotional states.
More interesting than odd scenarios, however, is Orah Mark's innovative
treatment of inherited versions of history and speech. Throughout The
Babies, language falls, stumbles, and crosses wires. Lovers reply
with utter certainty to both articulated and unarticulated questions ("Vintage
darkling, metropolis? I asked. But you said no / without sugar, you
said arms," "The Proposal"). The poems, in fact, gain power
by seeming miscommunication and misunderstanding: "the ornithologist,
according to the papers, spoke in a mischievous language ... The / ornithologist,
according to Mama, knew exactly how he / made her feel. ‘Like a
mildly foxed apricot!'" ("The Song"). Orah Mark's undermining
of sources ("papers," "mischievous" language, and
the mother's wild expression) recurs throughout, as do episodes of self-interrogation.
This struggle to pinpoint experience and to precisely articulate individual
perception frames The Babies' obsessive subject.
Although invested in the ability both to
reveal and conceal meaning, Orah Mark's poems call into question the setting
down of detail as an act of preservation, whether the subject is public
or private. Weirdly daring, The Babies underscores the degree
to which communication happens almost in spite of our best (or worst)
intentions: "And he looked / at me tenderly and said the dish
has run away from the / spoon. And I said yes, it was bound to
happen. That night, / in his orange pickup truck, we made love for
the last / time..." ("Day"). As is often the case, the
above lines are charged to capacity with various codes of meaning; communication
comes via sexual union and facial expression, as well as through the primary
language of nursery rhyme. Such modes, however, aren't nearly as marked
with finality as the image Orah Mark uses to exit the poem: "Somewhere
else," she concludes, "a tree was burning." Here, action
and image have the ultimate expressive authority. Repeatedly, the poems'
final moments serve as definitive counterpoints to the surreal or illogical:
"It is lonely in a place that can burn so fast," writes Orah
Mark with affecting clarity ("In the Origami Fields"); "No,
we agreed, the thing was not a war. A war is / when you cannot hear the
animals" ("The Experiments Lasted through the Winter").
Much can be heard in The Babies:
"thick birds dragging / their eggs across the asphalt" ("The
Eggs"); laments inspired by physical markers of difference such as
birthmarks or raised letters on the wrist; the notes of a dying woman's
mandolin. Humans, according to The Babies, are meant for sound,
for singing. One of Orah Mark's many gifts is that her songs are simultaneously
familiar in their emotive register, while original in psychological arrangement.
Turned inside-out, reversed, played backward and forwards, civilized order
is continually disrupted. Bathtubs are tossed out windows; mattresses
are traded for miniature boxcars; nonsensical lyrics foreshadow extinction.
In place of poetic epiphany and absolute closure, Orah Mark infuses in
The Babies the world's disorder—its chords are those of
disruption, confusion, uncertainty. The vividness with which Orah Mark
processes such chaos is exacting; however amplified, its pitch almost
always feels authentic.