by Scott Owens
by Sara Claytor
Big Table, 2011, 32 pages, $12
Sara Claytor is simply a joy to read, although her poems are neither simple nor naively always joyful. Rather, Claytor’s work consistently demonstrates that she knows what makes poetry a pleasure to read. One of the most enjoyable characteristics of a good book of poetry is a strong and clear sense of place that involves the capturing of idiosyncratic language, regional details of landscape, material, manners, and means, as well as characteristic tensions, issues, and concerns.
Nearly all of these elements of a deeply engaging sense of place are illustrated with just 9 lines from “Julia’s Soul Food,” the first poem in her new collection, Memory Bones:
You childs have to pray, praise, pardon.
the white mother taught me
a Southern woman needs stability,
depends on men, the family King Lears.
My black mother Julia
taught me when the ground turns,
trees cast no shadows,
all young childs be
a gift from God.
The use of the Southern Black idiom in dialogue; the subtly suggested issues of racism, tradition, women’s roles, and religion; and the tensions inherent in the contrast of the white patriarchy’s demands for propriety and the more forgiving nature of Southern Black spirituality born from generations of enforced failure and frustration, all establish a sure and authentic sense of time and place. This sense of place is further established in subsequent poems through greater physical detail, as in these lines from “Motor Moseying:”
. . . We’d ride down
main thoroughfares, turn on badly paved country roads
which turned into red dirt roads where sad, tin-roof shacks
punctuated farmlands with fields of dried cotton stems,
leaning gray barns, horse lots, hog pens, henhouses,
thin-ribbed dogs barking beside woodpiles.
As important as a strong sense of place is for providing the reader with a firm footing from which to experience a book of poems, perhaps an even better book will have just as strong a sense of gender and voice. While the opening poem makes it clear that one of the thematic concerns of the book will be the “place” of women, subsequent poems trace the speaker’s attempts at defining that place for herself. Poems like “Fractured Film Negative” and “All That Jazz at the Empire Theatre” demonstrate the speaker’s earliest frustrations with how girls and women are viewed. “Youth’s Dumb Dreams” illustrates the limited range of options that result from such views:
. . . Janie and I would
giggle of what’s to come. We would become actresses
with lots of lovers, smoking Viceroys in emerald holders.
. . . . . . . . . .
Meanwhile, Anne Louise tagged along,
first to get her driver’s license,
never jealous of our dreams, she had hers.
Her mother taught her well.
Learn to arrange roses in crystal vases; cashmere is chic.
You can love a rich man as easy as a poor man.
And “Saturday Night Yesterday” reveals that even years later those learned limitations are not easily dispensed with.
Only in the final third of the book does the reader begin to feel that the speaker has wrested control of her own life and identity from the tyranny of culture and the phantoms of her past. In “Tricked,” we hear her resistance developing as she says
rubbing my knees
with your free hand
like I’d sit patiently
an obedient pet
in my yellow-orange kitchen
Then, in “Artistic Conceptions 1 & 2,” we feel the speaker’s self-actualization achieved through creativity and expressed in this remarkable contrast of artistic and biological creation:
my doctor unfolds the placenta
crimsons, lapis blues
swirling through his fingers
like wet jewels
And finally, in “little girl on the street,” we understand the speaker’s desire to use what she has learned through this process of self-actualization to help others as well as the mature acceptance of her own limitations and the subsequent ability to protect herself. Here she encounters a former student of hers who has run away from home:
she presses my arms
a faint smell of beer, cigarettes
I want to take her home
. . . . . . . . . .
moving away my husband whispers
You can’t save them all.
I look over my shoulder
she wiggles a jig at the curb
blonde ponytail fluttering
like frizzy feathers
yells an obscenity at
a passing car
. . . . . . . . . .
her high-pitched voice
lifting like a bit of
carried by the wind
This strong sense of place and gender makes Memory Bones unmistakably, uniquely, impressively, and transcendently the story of a Southern woman raised in the rural South of the 40s and 50s with all the appeal and universal relevance such a designation should entail. From childbirth to different relationships to a high school reunion to killing a dog on a Mississippi highway, these poems have everything a reader needs to make them meaningful and memorable.