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Monday, 10 March 2008

Guest Review: McLoughlin On Sato


Nigel McLoughlin reviews
Badlands
by Aleah Sato

Aleah Sato's (pictured) debut collection pulsates with all-pervasive darkness and the uncanny. The book itself is divided into two parts: Girls Vanishing and Illumine and at 53 poems it reads as a lot more substantial than it looks – largely due to the wide page format holding two columns of poetry per page in many cases.

The reader is never allowed to settle in this collection: the viewpoint changes from character to character, poem to poem, and it builds up to a compendium of female voices, each of whom speak to us of some dark element that paternalistic society demands they repress. There is a razor-like edginess to much of the poetry in this book. There is a sense of the unheimlich in the poems, because the characters are the dark sides of wives and mothers, subverting the whole notion of home-making and the homely, and which unsettle the reader with their honesty. There is a wide spread of character tackled: Eve, witches, mothers who are horrified by the process of birth, women who are repulsed by their own offspring. There is the wife who has been bought by her husband for six traps, and who now contemplates his murder. The domestic is subverted all through the collection, nothing is comfortable, and nothing is allowed to settle.

She pulls the blade from behind
the knotting and touches it. The moose head
smiles. They wait
for the hunter to retire.

("the longest winter" p.53)

The poems often balance on the point at which that which has been repressed comes to the surface and the consequences of that return. These women are feral, hard and often monstrous.

Dog fight women
who snarl and bite all the rest of the bitches
off the prime rib

("Peep Show" p.42)

She is made of tears
and afterbirth
and snow.
She sleeps near the door of every home
and waits for the wilting.

("Evil Mother" p.17)

There are a number of cross connections within the collection – the age 22 seems to be significant in a number of poems, images of blood, bleeding, menstruation, monstrous births and afterbirth, and 'bags of blood' recur throughout the poems with great regularity and help add to the general feel of menace, threat, monstrosity and the uncanny. The characters Sato creates connive, refuse to nurture, and refuse to act the part men demand of them, preferring the part of Lilith, the tempter, or the witch. They take joy and pride in playing out these roles.

The baddest of the bad
know me
girl du jour
leaving her trail of
deep azure

("medea and me" p.35)

The collection is not all doom and seriousness; there are some nice comic touches. The humour is black (or bloody in some cases) as you might expect, but it does much to lift the collection out of its seriousness while still keeping the threat.

on the radio
nothing but Partridge Family
at the hardware store
the only color of paint left
chartreuse

("when things go from bad to worse" p.50)

On the downside, there are some poems which just don't cut it, when the language falls flat; one or two could have been left out of the book with no detriment to the collection.

You've traded in the seventh
attempt
for a cheap shot at my
pride.

Go for broke!

Have at it…

("What a sham" p.59)

Her line breaks are puzzling in places and one is unsure as to why the line is broken at that point (after 'of' or 'my' in examples above and various others). The effect is largely to weaken both lines.

I think the eye of a good, strong editor has been sorely missed. That said, I'm not going to let a minor few gripes colour my perception of the book too much. It's largely successful, for a first collection it's quite achieved, especially these days when many first collections are dominated by self-obsession with the poet's own 'interesting' life. It's nice to see a new poet speak from positions outside their own experience and attempt to re-imagine him or herself in and as 'the other'. I think Sato deserves to be taken up by a larger press, and I'm sure she'd benefit from the third-party editorial process such a press would be capable of providing.


Nigel McLoughlin is an Irish poet, anthologist, and university lecturer currently based in the UK. His most recent collection, Dissonances (2007), was reviewed at Eyewear.
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