If you open your hands to hold Homebodies, a chapbook of poems by Sarah J. Sloat, you find much about the book itself that makes the act feel personal, private. You’re holding paper and ribbon (the chapbook is bound by hand), looking at the cover art, a house drawn on notebook paper, beneath handmade raindrops falling, appearing to tear the page. So before you’ve even started reading, the coziness, warmth, intimacy—and alright, fragility—the hands of the domestic sphere have touched you.
Then, with your own hands, you open it. And things really get interesting.
If you’re looking for the angel in the house, you won’t find her. What you’ll find instead is a domestic world filled with familiar objects—and their inner, surprising life of griefs, desires, and dangers. You’ll also find an enchanting richness of sight and sound. Homebodies, is a densely-crafted set of poems that transforms the objects of home in ways that consider home as body, soul, and self. The inside/outside relationships that we take for granted are redefined and re-animated here by a fierce lyric energy.
From the very start of the book, the poems dazzle and distort familiar things, challenging a conventional sense of their scale, and their containment within the home. In the opening poem,
[t]he kettle erects its ephemeral city
hivelike and impossibly high
in Cliffside stairs over the ocean
it piles up and vanishes
in the climb and the dive
and the climb and the dive
like a repentant suicide
the wail must rise before there’s water
Home is no longer an inside place, a place of safety and containment: now within it grows an “ephemeral city,” “Cliffside stairs over the ocean.” The repetition of “i” sounds performs the steam’s escape out of old notions of home: “hivelike and impossibly high,” it “piles up and vanishes,” and the repetition of lines “in the climb and the dive” enacts that ongoing movement out of here. It’s the grief of the steam that sets the chapbook going, its quest for liberation a “repentant suicide.” The next poem addresses the whisk:
do you spin in your sleep, dervish
with your freakish hair
your splintering whip
The music captivates as the poem offers a sonic unfolding of the sounds in the word “whisk” itself: the soft i’s of “whisk,” “dervish” and “freakish”; “whisk’s” “s” and “i” and “wh” stretched into a “splintering whip.” And here, again, comes the desire for escape, as the speaker asks the whisk
Do you itch to spring with circling birds
Free your hail and hornets
when the eggs open, skylike
Just like that, the kettle and the whisk are no longer cozy items intimate with comfort food. They are wails and hornets, they are “suicides” who “itch to spring.” Complicating the domestic world is bold work these poems are not afraid to do.
As much as I love the transformations of these household items, I am drawn to what happens to the woman in the house as she enters into relationships with them, and navigates the world of inside and outside, home and away. Some of these relationships seem to suggest dysfunction, emptiness. In “Scullery,” the mop is exposed as the “dismal instrument” through which “the smut’s not lost, just sloshed about.” “What does the wife imagine?” asks the speaker: “Has she no eye for senselessness?” She’s freed the mop from its closet, but it was better off there, as the reader learns its fate in pounding monosyllables: “When the job’s done, the unkempt/head is found face down in the tub.”
Some moments promise the woman, not the object, transformation. In “Tea Leaves,” the speaker addresses Darjeeling:
make of me steam
in fluid pilgrimage
This is a hard plea filled with long vowels; there’s a need in this poem for the tea to become a “lake” in which to “lie down.” Other poems suggest what kinds of pressures might create this need. In “Etiquette,” the speaker at first resists the demands of her hostess, her talk that “died of boredom” and her “stinking bad wine.” She tries to find a place inside to spend her time, by “building a city in my throat,” but
[m]y hostess cramped the room, passing
out snacks, upsetting the wharf I was
at work on. I got to unrolling a pier
into the water when my cigarette snagged
on a plank and set the city on fire.
Stanching the flames with my sleeve,
I tried to play casual, waving
And smiling. But the hostess came
hovering closer and clapped up a draft.
And since the flames were rising,
and the bile, too, was rising, and clams
from the hot sea came rising,
and though her taste in music was torture,
my hostess was clapping her hands
in a command to dance.
The inner world the speaker has built looks like an outer one, a city; and the outer world is the world of a home, the “inside” of a hostess and her snacks. The domestic realm’s pressures threaten the existence of the personal city, and a playful, surreal poem about a bad party turns notions of private and public inside out.
There’s so much more to say about these poems, about the way they expose how our culture writes itself into familiar home activities, like play (see the “Monopoly” poem) and sleep (“Ambien”), and eating and drinking (“Wine Cellar”). The chapbook’s sequence is careful and effective: often poems pair up, linked by a house’s geography, as in “Faucet Song” and “Bad Toothbrushes,” or temporally, the way the night sky enters into “Quite at Home” and “Ambien.” And there is attention to dense sound and fresh imagery: the toothbrushes “droop/ like old horses going to glue,/ sad-sacked, manes chock full of pasture”; the Princess Phone is a “sea creature sunk in a cave,/ all sore suction cups/ and tangled ganglia,” and it’s “stricken with eavesdropsy.” I admire the range of this book, the convincing shifts from playful metaphor to cosmic resonance—and its focus, how it all happens in such a familiar, and dangerous, place. “Pull the knife through the loaf and the house explodes,” warns the speaker in “Ghazal with Broken Birds.” After you read Homebodies,, you’ll believe her, and you’ll see these poems doing both the mundane and combustive work of home. I’m amazed and a little afraid to hold them in my hands.