Lots of orphans and oceans in Sara Peters’s 1996, lots of sisters and a tone or sense of things impending: things happen to or almost onto people in this collection, and these things which happen in here are never cheery. Love doesn’t walk through a swinging door whispering anyone’s name. Instead, there are hauntings, self-immolating boys, baby sisters whispering about pregnant sisters when they think no one else is listening. “My soul and I, we were sensitive,” she writes to begin the poem of the same title:
And our project was to process
So we pitched a tent near the ocean, at night,
In a field of chilled violets and lavender.
My soul nicknamed me Radical Embodiment.
Together, we scrambled down cliffs to the inlet,
Grabbing the same
Handfuls of poison oak,
Then we’d wade into the water,
Smoking, and later
We built a fire,
And did pagan twirls around it.
Doing this, I cringed,
Yet my soul pretended
Violent indifference, just
Folding its useless wings lest they be singed.
Structural info: 1996 is divided up into six sections (“In My Dreams I Am a Moral Child,” “Two Days Before the Wedding,” “Everyone’s a Serious Seventeen,” “I Hated it; I Expect Everyone Secretly Did,” “You Love This Orphan, Many People Do,” and “I Am Walking Through Water,”), each of which has five poems. If there’s some bright and obvious reason the collection’s titled 1996, I’m missing it. It seems fair to assume the I of the book is consistent, and roughly autobiographical: if there’s a progression in the book, a movement-as-a-whole, I’d argue that it’s about this I examining and wrestling with her past not in some nostalgic way, but akin to how one may test the ph of soil in spring: this I is attempting to understand her self, her life as it’s been made by the events that’ve happened around or within or through it.
“I went to this party, I stared at a man in orange glasses,” begins “Red Cloth,” the third section’s first poem, and note the casual voice Peters often uses: the majority of these poems start with such easy day-to-day entry points (“From the beginning / you should know I’m embellishing” “It’s April in Halifax and the homeless people are coming out / to Chisholm’s annual lobster boil.”). The trick, of course, is that such entries end up lulling the reader into a faith that the world on paper (which, as a side note: 1996 is published by Anansi, a Canadian publisher, and good lord this is a beautiful object, lush+thick paper, perfect everything) will get no more or less outrageous than, say, “Next door woman walks her son each morning” (which begins “In June”). And yet, here’s the tail end of “Red Cloth”:
I am not sure why I’m convinced
That expressing contempt is my life’s work—
And I should’ve been back at that party
Building my own complex salad,
using unimpeachably local mushrooms (grown
On my body), not here, watching these waves
Throw the same length of chain at the shore.
And why do I crave not the shaved
And lotioned surface of his or any
Body, but only the tangy,
Throbbing interior? Wet wheels spinning, wet looms weaving,
One red tissue after another
Torn by my reach?
This might be the poem that best encapsulates 1996: the idea that the body (this female speaker’s body, anyway) can itself provide sustenance (and maybe flavor), and this melancholy doubt regarding her life’s work (read it again: does that sound like someone who’s excited to express contempt on the daily?), and the admission that what she (and, perhaps, the reader as well) hungers for and craves will, by her attempting to touch it, be destroyed. These are dark tasks throughout, yet Peters is not cowed by such work, not backing into timidity in their face. The poems are multivalent challenges, over and over. Here’s “Hair”:
In this second of terror the child
sees herself as hair and sees her hair
as it is seen: unwashed for one year,
unbrushed for two, and now her scalp itches
to the tangled roots of each eye.
She knows her every bone
has been whittled to an arrow that points to her hair,
and every eye she meets becomes
a butcher’s hook from which she hangs.
What would the dresser find, if he cut in?
A doorless house—a table set for none.
Again, the obsessions or fixations are largely similar: there’s a divergence of mental and physical existence, this odd almost shame or I don’t know what it’d be called (critique-of-self, most generally and obviously, but it’s more than that, isn’t it?), and then this odd development, the implication or hint or idea that the physical selves we are are radically inferior or insufficient. But note the absolute lack of judgment: Peters is mapping the work, tracking the interior toiling, offering it merely as fact, evidence, an aspect of what happens due to the fact that we’re just as much breathing as dreaming machines.
1996 ends up being a shockingly coherent, cohesive book. I’ll here admit to having felt not lost at points, but unsure if there was something to which all the poetry was adding, or approaching, but reader let me here assure you that this is not one of those debut collections which feel like a happenstance assortment; 1996‘s last poem, “The Last Time I Slept in This Bed,” begins “I was involved in the serious business / of ripping apart my own body” and burns wildly from there. If you’re anything like me, you’re desperately sick of collections in which the speaker’s self is the lone fulcrum on which the whole collection turns, poetry which feels ultimately not personal but insulated, so self-obsessed the thing ends up feeling like being trapped in the elevator of someone’s mind for days, waiting for a door to open. Sara Peters’s 1996 is the opposite of such a thing: her book’s speaker’s trying not to just celebrate or ‘consider’ or absently noodle about her life and self, she’s trying to actively push at those things, to understand how it is she’s come to live like this, how living has come to be like this. It’s a powerful, confident collection, a hell of a start to what a close reader’s got to hope is a long and productive career.