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That Strapless Bra in Heaven

April 16, 2020

IMG_3858 (2)On March 3, 2020, when I first read the epigraphs at the beginning of Sarah Sarai’s volume of poetry entitled That Strapless Bra in Heaven, I was amused by the one from Ellen Bass: “wouldn’t it be enough to be just fat or just old and dying?” Now I am amused in a darker way. I’m in the carpe diem period of isolation; this morning I put blue dye on the gray parts of my hair because there’s no time like the present to become a blue-haired old lady. (As a side benefit, fellow Firefly fans, it gave me hands of blue.)

When I review a volume of poetry I usually start with my favorite poem or the favorite bits from several poems. With this volume, it’s hard to get past how great the title drop is in the first few lines of the first poem, “Wish me Luck.” Here are a few of those first lines:

I replaced phone to cradle,
knowing it was just
something to say,

That luck’s more than
preparation meeting opportunity
wooing a congressman
saving up for a sex change.

It’s not hard fact in collaboration
with ambiguity,

not briefs longing for
the strapless bra up in heaven.
It’s a result,

What Jesse Pinkman
Told Hank Schrader.
Mr. White’s so damn lucky.

I love the reference to Breaking Bad, the irony of calling the man who is so desperate to make money to support his family and fund his cancer treatment that he turns to making meth “so damn lucky.” It reminds me of a moment this winter when one of the young adults who grew up with my kids came in to interview me about being a writing center director and at the end of the interview she said “well, you’re just living the dream, aren’t you?” This, to a person who was working full-time days for part-time pay and feeling unappreciated. Now, of course, things are different. I feel extraordinarily lucky that because I do so much for so little pay, my job will probably continue as long as the college stays open. So yeah, I like turning over the idea that luck is a matter of perspective.

There are so many good lines in this volume. Here is a sample:
“This poem asked me to let out its seams.”
“What if Lot’s wife and Eurydice/honor the contract?”
“Love so slippery needs handles.”
“What does ‘old’ mean except/A man doesn’t want to fuck you.”

And so many good stanzas. I particularly like this one, from “This Way and That”:
“God got down on Her
omni-aching knees
now and then to spy on
William Blake
and could hardly contain Her
infinite self, waiting for
the artist to become Heaven and
those paintings to be flashed to
the good and bad alike as proof of”

In another musing about the nature of God, from “Keeping it Holy,” we hear:
“That year, Christmas fell on Saturday,
the Sabbath, when stores close
so whomever-cannot-be-named
may sit back and do nothing
at which divinity excels…”

The humor of some of these poems reminds me of lines from another feminist poet, Sandra Lindow–the ending lines from a poem entitled “Marilyn Hacker,” for instance:
“Once at a feminist writers’ and so on,
I, needing more coffee, wondered
How do I ask Marilyn Hacker to move?
The woman was buttonholed in front
of the urn. I asked, How do you
ask Marilyn Hacker to move? She is
small and attentive and Marilyn Hacker.
My query disinteresting made her grin.”
Maybe I enjoyed this so much because when I first came to Kenyon I met Marilyn Hacker and she is physically small and fairly unassuming despite being a well-known poet and someone who has lived a very interesting life (including being married for a while to the science fiction writer Samuel Delany). She’s about as famous as you can get without being, you know, recognizable.

Here’s another stanza that made me laugh:
“For The Exorcist I just went along with
a loose assemblage, friends of friends.
That’s what you do with movies,
you see them, though it’s opening
day and you are blithe as a donut on
an oblong tray at Winchell’s.
If the Vatican set up a table in
the theater lobby like Seventh Day
Adventists in the subways I’d have
signed up for a catechism class on
the spot. That was some scary shit.”

My cat Tristan kept lying on my left hand as I was trying to type, so I took a photo of his participation in the creation of this post: IMG_3856

The whimsy of the poem entitled “One Day a Year You Can Take Something Home from the Met” is hard to resist. It’s one of my favorites from the volume, so you must read it in its entirety. That’s really the only way to appreciate the delight of the title idea and the slight mocking tone to all the regional insider details that might give someone a tiny bit of a sense of ownership over a famous museum open to the entire world (at least in the time Before Covid-19):
You have to have been born one block from
the Long Island Sound.
The museum’s insurance company requires proof
Louie’s was serving clam chowder that night.
Your parents’ bed would have had
to be, of course, your first mattress
and when you think back,
sixty years later, it is essential
you wonder, Where the hell
were my sisters?
Two crones and a gypsy
must tell of three fires burning in
black heaven, and a pack of
physicians are to dip nibs
in blood and sign-off on
Connecticut’s faint-hearted
swooning. This is tricky.
Fridays, in Connecticut, a swoon
is hard to distinguish from a pass out.
Vodka goes down real easy
across the Sound.

My other favorite poem is more serious and seems much more topical right now. The poem is spoken by someone silly and shallow:
Thank the Cashier
Etiquette must, if it is to be of more than trifling use, include ethics as well as manners.—Emily Post

Easy enough to thank the cashier so I do.
I am rather fabulous,
you may have noticed, well-bred,
not flaunty of assets.
Crass is not a word you’ll use
to describe me, not behind
my back nor in front of it.

I dip my fat red
strawberry toes in the sweat
of the cashier’s brow
as if it were fondue.
You don’t? Let’s forgo guilt.

If you ask me, someone got it
wrong or was mistranslated by
some arriviste scholar
with holes in her socks.

The poor may be around
but they are not always with us.
They can’t afford the rent.
My place, like zeroes in
an equation, must be held
like my hand by someone
at the club as I weather
heartache and storm
in my brother’s yacht.

If he has sailed to the islands
his heated gazebo must do.

My reaction to this poem, now that April’s here, is that it works as an epitaph for people from New York City who died in the first wave of virus in what might be the last era of capitalism, even though it was written before 2019, when That Strapless Bra in Heaven was published.

If you’re also in a carpe diem mood or ready to reassess what you think about luck, the nature of God, or what it means to be famous or frightened or the owner of anything, this is a good volume of poems to read right now.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. lemming permalink
    April 17, 2020 8:33 am

    Has, “One Day a Year” appeared somewhere else? It’s familiar in a good way. Oh, how I have longed for good, solid, thick clam chowder in all of this chaos – assembled from scratch, simmering away in a big pot for hours…

    People who are rude to cashiers etc. in these days baffle me.

    • April 17, 2020 2:41 pm

      Like most of the poems in this volume, “One Day a Year” has appeared elsewhere. I found it online here:
      Yes, people who are rude to “essential workers” are baffling, but the poem is also about those who are polite but condescending.

  2. April 17, 2020 7:51 pm

    Sweet kitty! Your blue hair sounds awesome and this book sounds like a winner.

    • April 19, 2020 2:26 pm

      The book and the hair are both fun. I’ve never tried hair color before because my hair is dark brown, but the gray streaks (I have two, one at each temple like the bride of Frankenstein) provide me with something to play with while no one can see me; the blue isn’t vivid enough to show up in video calls.

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