Sara Peters recounts an event most of us have become all too familiar with: “last night, three girls at a bus stop/ beat an old man to death with black umbrellas.”
Sara Peters’s 1996 combines the familiarity and weirdness of being a child who does not entirely understand what’s going on around her but has an idea. The scenarios are typical of adult literature about childhood: animal cruelty, sexual exploration, and violent imaginations. Peters handles the subject with clarity and restraint. 1996’s poems are largely uncomplicated lyrics about the disturbing and disturbingly ordinary parts of the narrator’s childhood.
Sara Peters has several poems about growing up in religious rural communities and families, including one about participating in an anti-abortion demonstration on the side of the road at age six. Peters writes in “Abortion”: “I hated it; I expect everyone secretly did.” Their demonstration on the side of the road is only a performance of faith, a chore that no one really enjoys, endured because that is what the religious righteous do on the weekend. Peters parallels this six-year-old’s conscription in the demonstration with other older teenaged narrators playing lesbian with the babysitter and going to a thirty-four-year-old woman’s cabin to drink beer. The book reads like a bildungsroman, the narrator sniffing out eroticism in a conservative rural family.
“Rehearsal” updates a classical nymph/satyr scenario. The narrator and her sister go to a river in the woods and talk about sunbathing without any clothes on, imagining that there are boys or men lurking in the woods behind them. They propel their fantasy to its violent and chilling conclusion. The sister screams the way she would if they were to be assaulted there and then bashes a bag of oranges against the rocks. Here Peters demonstrates the imagination’s power to take us into darker realms. When our imaginations get away from us they sometimes lead us to perversion or what Edgar Allen Poe called the Imp of the Perverse, an irresistible impulse to do evil things. Another of Peters’s poems echoes Poe’s “Ulalume.” In “My Soul and I, We Were Insensitive,” the narrator goes to the beach with her soul who resembles the companion of Poe’s narrator. Peters’s soul “fold[s] its useless wings lest they be singed,” and Poe’s psyche “let[s] sink her/ Wings until they trailed in the dust.” The poem follows on the heels of “The Sword Dance.” The narrator, a child practicing a ritual Gaelic dance involving jigging over crossed swords, is jealous of a boy whom the instructor favours and imagines the boy being given an apple and then “dragged to the woodshed and strangled.” Peters’s bent for cruelty is sharp and her narrators, young as they are, have Poe’s imagination for terrible acts.
Peters refers to a number of rituals and myths in the book. There is the story of an alleged witch or demon possession and there is the modernized rape of the water nymph imagined in “Rehearsal.” There are more ordinary traditions, too, such as a wedding in the woods, the Gaelic sword dance mentioned earlier, and a poem called “Spring Rites,” which features Chisholm’s annual lobster boil for the homeless. It ends by picking its way through the scattered lobster claws and snoozing guests. Chisholm, master of ceremonies, lives in some kind of shack that needs the plastic taken off the windows each spring and plays his accordion to officiate over an April Fools’ Day party. Peters is carefully realist when she writes things like “although we were rural/ we were never deep enough in to mistake/ the humming of wires overhead,” and she never strays too far into the realm of the unlikely. Real violence is confined to headlines and historical stories rather than the characters’ real lives. The sword dance—according to Peters a celebration of the death of one’s enemy—is something taught to local children, and trysts in the woods are cut short by curfew.
1996 is an exceptional debut, concise and sometimes chillingly creepy, except that it doesn’t take many chances. It doesn’t really risk misinterpretation, something that even conservatively lyric poetry can do when it loosens its own restrictions. Leah Horlick wants to place Peters among “Canada’s bravest vanguard of women writers.” Aside from the bravery it takes to put your own name on something in public, Peters’s book seems safe. With lines like “last night, three girls at a bus stop/ beat an old man to death with black umbrellas,” 1996 gives us a dark side of rural life, but it’s only as edgy as the subject matter.