November 13, 2008

Book Review: Forgetting the Salt

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Sarah Jefferis’s collection, Forgetting the Salt, is filled with full-bodied, no-nonsense poems, some of which read slow and detailed, full of causality and precision, and others which rush the reader through as if on a “water slide” of images and sounds. The stories and characters, and specifically the way in which the information about them unfurls throughout the collection, are so compelling, they should be left to discovery of the reader. Clues about the speaker’s mother’s Laundromat, her discovery of various facets of her sexuality and of the “grief on the hip bone / of fear” which has been present in her life, are dropped throughout the collection.
One of the most compelling lines, one which needed to be read over and over and was delectable every time, was “Lie with me, 1983, between quarters and Tide / on yellow linoleum.” In this, and many other lines, Jefferis displays mastery of diction; this collection gives the reader three times, the pleasure of the word linoleum, which fills the mouth and the mind with a quadra-syllabic specificity of image and sound. This image contributes to the overall scene setting that makes this collection’s narrative so easy, and necessary, to follow. Not only specific references to dates and times, pop-culture references to Holly Hobbie and Easy Bake ovens, but sounds, smells and tastes that capture the Virginia of the author’s childhood. The poem, “Forgetting the Salt,” after which the collection is named, gives the reader a tangible example of nostalgia and separation from the past: “Virginia peanuts, the kind you can hock / from the roadside. / I haven’t cracked a shell in ten years. I am forgetting the salt.”
At times she employs ambiguity and duality of meaning to convey the duplicitous characters in her past. Frequent use of father (male parent) and father (priest) in the first two sections of the collection help portray the confusing and chaotic, perhaps cruel relationship the speaker has to religion and family.
In lines that deal with the theme of sexuality in general, too, the author exploits ambiguous word play. In combination with literal, syntactically simple sentences that ground them, these interpretable phrases create poignant expressions of the author’s experiences and sentiments, as in “Birthday Poem for My Mother,” in listing those things she’d give her mother, she says, “I’d give you a straight girl / who comes home for the holidays, / cross and sausage in hand.”
The collection, among its many other themes and motifs, deals, as perhaps all female writers must deal, with femininity and what that means. Jefferis explores this not only through the female characters in her life, but by those tragic, valiant, ever-present renderings of women in myth and legend; Persephone, Pocahontas, Penelope, Cleopatra, Juliet, Ophelia and the connections they have to all women, if only by cultural association.
Every poem, and indeed the whole collection, brings the reader through to an end that is the only option after the rest of the poem. But, perhaps, that is to be expected, as she says, “I was an expert at exits. I can give you any kind of ending. / It’s the entrances I can’t do / the beginnings of me I don’t know how to name.”