v_SaraPeters

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.

6 Comments

paorta

What do you mean when you say that Peters doesn’t take many chances, Jason? I don’t think it’s enough to claim that her poetry is “safe” after demonstrating the many ways it seems to be inventive. Are you saying that her poetry is too concrete for you, when you say that it doesn’t loosen its restrictions? Is there not enough oblique imagery? Do you want it to break apart? Do you think that its style is too similar to other poets? Do you think that her voice is unique but that the delivery reminds you of other work? Does poetry have to move forward? Can poetry move forward? Can you separate form from content? Are those really as separate as you casually indicate?

The line you quoted from “Spring Rites” seems ambiguous in meaning, in a way that suggests the poem is “loosening its restrictions.” The PRISM review, in fact, singled out that poem as containing “moments of disorientation.” They also mention how, in another poem, Peters “transforms a substitute teacher’s missing finger into a foaming can of beer.” Is that safe? I honestly don’t know, because I don’t know what you mean.

I’m not familiar with Peters’s work—I’ll be picking her up now—but nothing in this review, except the last paragraph, would seem to indicate to me that she’s “safe.” Wouldn’t it be safer for her to cleverly obscure what she is letting bleed onto the page? And do you really think it doesn’t cost very much to attach your name to something in public?

-André

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Jason Freure

Thanks for the questions, André. I can’t answer all of them, if only because I haven’t answered them to myself, but here are my thoughts.

I very much liked 1996, so I wanted the bulk of my review to be positive. Rather than act as the final word, I hoped my final paragraph would interrogate some of the other discussions that have going on about 1996 that I’ve read.

I think the PRISM review called it brave because of the subject matter, and it’s subject matter that I like to read: “youth, squalour, and violence.” I’d accept your premise: I don’t think it’s brave because I find it fairly linear (I don’t say concrete because even non-linear or experimental poetry can refer to the senses). To be fair, I’m not sure what brave poetry would look like, but I can say that I would expect some kind of novelty, probably an unpopular kind and probably one that would put me off, at least at first. Peters’ subject matter may not dominate contemporary Canadian poetry but it’s well-represented in poetry, literature and other media generally (internationally, historically). Her form and style are established and reliable ways of writing poetry. Ambiguity is part of that way of writing. The delivery certainly reminds me of a lot of other work and the subject matter while to my taste is not enough to vindicate calling it brave.

I shouldn’t diminish the responsibility and risks that come with putting your name on something public, though. It can be amazing how people react to things others find entirely banal, like criticizing anti-abortionist rallies in a poem.

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paorta

Linear is good word. Better than concrete.

It does seem to me that Peters’s subject matter would seem to be one that is well represented internationally and historically, but not as well represented in Canada. I feel like that might be an issue of popularity, of “popular” taste, and it seems to me that the easiest (least brave) path for Peters to have taken would be to write safe, popular poetry about her dog dying of old age or what she imagines it might be like to be fifty, or something. Or about what it’s like to bite into an orange.

Peters’s work seems to be the kind of work I would gravitate towards too, and I understand that it’s not “novel.” But I’m not sure that matters. Have Bolaño or Acker become less “brave” over time? Personally, I don’t think so. (Of course, they’re both dead, so I’m no longer sure in their case bravery is an issue.) Maybe if their work grabbed the popular imagination, the sentimental public, and spawned hundreds of Paulo Coelhos who aped their style, but I’m not sure that’s possible, and I wonder if even then—though their imitators wouldn’t be brave, at least if they weren’t honest.

I can think of writers who believe they write “shocking” material, work that just reveals how sheltered their lives have been, how uninteresting or conventional (or how much Palahaniuk they’ve read or whatever), and in those cases, yes, the subject matter might be the only thing that seems “brave” about their writing, although probably for those kinds of writers it would be braver to write honestly about their own lives. But it doesn’t seem like Peters is that kind of writer? Or it seems to me that you have a higher opinion of her writing than that.

“Brave” means a lot to you, yes? And maybe something different to PRISM. And I think something different to me. At least three kinds of brave. It seems like you’re looking for a kind of poetry messiah (nothing wrong with that), and I wonder if it’s fair to dock Peters work for not being brave in that way.

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Jason Freure

You’re right, it’s unfair for me dock to Peters for not revolutionalizing everything about poetry in her debut collection. It’s a great book. I just read Bardia Sinaee’s review of 1996 in the latest issue of Arc and walked away feeling like I’d hardly read 1996. Mea culpa. But to stick to the subject of bravery and “shocking” literature, shock value is how I interpreted PRISM’s version of bravery, whether they meant it or not. Sinaee’s review would support a “brave” appellation, I think, as he suggests the narrator of some of the poems, at the very least “Rehearsal,” is talking about some kind of sexual violence by omission against a backdrop of very detailed and informative set-ups. As my review suggests, I was focusing more on violence that is imagined or peripheral to lived experience (like someone getting beat up at the bus stop by teenagers — who hasn’t heard that story second hand?).

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paorta

I’ll have to check out Sinaee’s review—it sounds great.

I’ve never heard second-hand stories of old men getting beaten to death at bus stops, but then I lead a very sheltered existence. I’ll take your word for it. Anyway, it feels like I didn’t hit the mark with this caption, and I apologise if I offended.

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strych9

I was being a little bit glib about the bus stop thing, but in smaller cities like where I grew up or (probably) anywhere in Nova Scotia, it seems like everybody hears stories like that second hand.

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