Subtle Magic: Starfish by Sara Goodman

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I like books, of course, in a predictable, past’s prologue, more-likely-than-not kind of way—and people, too—and cats. So when it comes to people who also favor books and cats, well—there are some givens concerning fondness, including the affably ambivalent speaker in Sara Goodman’s poetic-hybrid debut, Starfish.

Nota bene, concerning books: “I hopped on the Blue line to pick up Beowulf.” Yes, you’re right: she had me at the capitalized alliteration of Blue and Beowulf, the perfect prosodic specificity of a single poetic line. “Skimmed the sci fi section, ‘a prose city, a labyrinth, / a vast construct.’” Yes, you’re right: I liked that sibilance, too, her language lightly surfing the spines of books, then sliding toward one of the day’s many small—but in the right light, luminous— encounters: “The cashier was from Rochester, NY. / She said ‘Ah you’re from NY?’ after typing in my number / and thanked me for coming out / and buying books during the Polar Vortex.” And yes, you’re right: I grinned brightly as the speaker replied: “What else do you expect me to do?”

Nota bene, concerning cats: “Sometimes I practice subtle magic on Thomas. / I can make him completely still by focusing.” I’m not going to deny I too practice subtle magic on my cats, though I would not have thought to call it that, would not have thought to name it. “I speak to him, / then release. // He shakes his coat, left ear twitches.” I would not have thought to zero in so close on such a simple moment—to assign it meaning and then to linger there, to wait. “The spell is broken.” For the cat, maybe. But for the reader, the spell has just been cast.

As a person with an admitted penchant for liking, I sometimes tilt the question from why? to when? Is it possible, I wonder, to pinpoint precisely when a fondness for something—be it book, person, cat—begins? Or, more precisely still: when a certain undeniable affection has seized and will not release me—when I can no longer take it or leave it but am bound by an irrepressible liking to stay?

Here’s that moment for me in Starfish:

_____How a thing, a person-thing, like me,
even got here at all

and Thomas too

_______is beyond me.

Someone had to escape Nazis first, leave Europe
and move to the Bronx.

Someone like my great grandmother, Clotilde, who
hated the shitty Bronx

where people spit in the street and swear, sewage wafting
into apartment kitchens

and Thomas in a Chicago alley-way nearly frozen in the snow,
frenetic and hungry,

now safe on Richmond Street.

Generations later, Jewish and alive, Siamese and alive

and together.

It’s the speaker’s origin story, superbly stitched from everyday lyricism—the language we keep hanging around the house and sometimes remember can sing. This language brushes against the profane with “shitty,” skirts the edges of Academe with “frenetic,” but mostly it’s clear and direct, a patterned apron of proper nouns—real names, real places—cinched at the reader’s waist with two parallel lines of ribbon: a Jewish woman and her Siamese cat, “alive // and together” in the frozen Chicago winter—alive and together forever inside the frozen present of this book she has made.

“I love books like this!” I pronounce to my spouse, beaming. The book rests on the platter of my palm. “It’s porous and ruminative, with that unfolding-in-the-moment quality I found so appealing in the Black Mountain Poets. There’s a hint of Charles Olson here, a dash of Robert Duncan, some Hilda Morley, too—I might even call it contemporary projective verse. The visual elements—the use of space, the length of lines—change to match the speaker’s moods. There’s a subtle magic for you! And I love the way she goes flâneusing about that freezing city, the way she’s suddenly reading a poem by Auden, and we’re reading it, too, right along with her—his poem inside her poem…”

I can interpret Angie’s expression without her ever saying a word. “You’re right. Save it for the review,” I nod—and so I do. I write this down. And that’s where you come in, Dear Reader.

Allow me to introduce, officially, our affably ambivalent flâneuse —Baudelaire’s nineteenth century city-walker recast as new millennium/millennial, female and queer. (To quote Goodman: That new new.) Her speaker tells us on the first page:

“I only partially loved her, / the other part // couldn’t wait for the night to be over.” (I think: Who hasn’t been there?)

Or: “Ordering shitty pizza and regretting it?” (I think: Yup.)

Or: “And what about delay? // Sound meeting us always later // love coming later, processed / and embedded. // Except you, a continual force // you, who got in when I was young. (I think: Angie! My one great love!)

On the next page, not expecting the next linked insight to fall like a snowflake, after a pause and swirl of many other words: “No one gets in now.” (I think: Maybe that’s true for me, too—but I don’t want to test the theory.)

So what if you aren’t interested in cats? Will you still be enthralled by the way the speaker’s days unfurl in glimpses, by the way she lets you in to every compelling mundanity, transformed by the diction and the syntax into ritual? You tell me:

At a certain time of night, Thomas gets that itch
to go outside and roam and so I open the blinds and
make room for him to see what’s happening
outside. I open the door a crack, let the crisp air
in. He moans, tail swinging back and forth
and I feel the itch, too—contagious.
We yawn, and I find an old mixtape and play
songs with soft melodies and scratchy guitar riffs.
The apartment fills with possibility.

This is witchy business, don’t you think, the way she conjures it? She has me here, in Miami, still reaching for a sweater.

Cue the anaphora:

At a certain time of night, I want to go out
but the polar air keeps me locked inside
and I read Murakami. I read epic poetry,
some theory, and wonder how Lucy is
surviving the winter. All the women I have known
and none of them stay too long.

So what if you aren’t interested in books? I don’t think I can help you there—but maybe Goodman can:

She’s different. The first girl from the Midwest I’ve ever known. Minnesota, to be specific. Her mother is from the Philippines and her father, first generation Welsh. She carries crystals and moonstones in her pocket. She places one in my hand. I think it’s a gift but find out later I am wrong when she asks for it back.

(I think: Who hasn’t been there?)

She doesn’t read books.

They’re all salient details about Lee, but the fact that she doesn’t read books is a shocker, so it gets its own line, stanza, haunted white space—this lone fact suspended, floating.

Later, the speaker reveals:

I met her right after Pixel died. She was torn up. That was her cat.

Wherever she went, she could speak to cats.

(I think: More subtle magic.)

And just like that, Lee’s back in my good graces. In fact, maybe she never left. This is the loveliness of roaming around in someone else’s life, flâneusing as it were—all the satisfying jolts of recognition—and the surprises, too: what we haven’t lived, what we don’t recall: reading as an act of initiation.

I like that the speaker’s queer, as I am. I like also that the speaker’s queer in many ways that differentiate her queerness from mine. (Sharing a category isn’t the same as sharing a soul. Checklists overlook this all the time. I like this book because it couldn’t be less rote, less predictable. I like this book because there is nothing even remotely checklist-y about it.)

I don’t know anything about Watch Dogs or Tinder or Game of Thrones, but they’re all present and accounted for in Starfish. I’ve never been to “Meditation w/ Weirdos,” but now I want to go. I’m curious.

But this—this I know so well—the synesthetic rush, the word-storms coming on strong at bedtime like Technicolor blizzards:

Sometimes we spend all afternoon in silence. At night, words gush out, a tsunami of memory and color, all thick texture-like and thrown around my skull like a finely crafted net. I float there, sifting through chunks.

I’ve never been to a “barcade,” I’ve never played “Pacman,” I’ve never had my heart broken this way:

She dumped me like I was a roach
to be flattened and flicked
into the toilet.

She dumped me
and it makes me sound like I’m 16.

But it feels the same.

Which brings me back again to why: why do we like something, anything? I guess one reason is the way the familiar reassures us, reduces that stranger in a strange land sensation we have moving through the world. Little lights of consolation switching on as I read:

Instantly I thought she was beautiful

I’m on a quesadilla kick so I make us some

Waiting by the phone isn’t a thing anymore.
Since the cell phone.

That moment where you think, I’ve thought this, too—but blurrier. I never even put that thought into words!

I suppose it’s just as accurate to say we like something, anything, because it unfolds us in a wondrous strangeness, someone else’s truth as close and palpable as the starfish in a touch tank. (Nota bene: My favorite part of any aquarium.)

(In a dream I was four years old but
They hired me for 50 grand
a year.

Then they fired me.
I was four years old, so…)

I laugh out loud. I like the funny and the absurd authenticity of the dream. I note there are a lot of dreams recounted in this book. I like when people tell me their dreams.

A part of me just wants to type the whole book for you, so you can travel with Goodman’s speaker through a cold Chicago winter into the inevitable yet still surprising spring, into the discovery that spring is actually “The ground sinking down,” the “Same old world. // Wet mud / to sleet // and snow // back to mud.”

I like that for a little while—a season, if you will—I’m living inside this book with the speaker and her cat, her books and friends, the lovers who come and go, the weather, the city of Chicago which she describes “as a vast motherfucker.” I like that description especially.

I like the subtle magic here—how every observation/insight has a partner observation/insight (sometimes more than one) as the lyric and narrative moments skitter along the ice. I mentioned before how the look of the pages changes—density, porosity, white space of the snow-blanketed road, crowded subway cars. You can trace the meta-commentary on space, too, if you like:

First: “So this is the shape of my life right now.” Then, a few pages later: “I gotta say / the shape of the day / is interesting in how / it gets mirrored / by Thomas.” Then, a few pages after that: “You were a shape in the window.” And later still, near the closing: “The shape of my life has changed again.”

“It’s such deft full-circling,” I tell Angie. “She’s not making a big deal of it, not calling attention to the frame of shapes/shape-shifting, but it’s there like invisible brackets: an external season has come and gone, an internal season has come and gone, so the book ends. Even the ‘magic’ has changed. In the end, she writes, ‘A different kind of magick,’ and it literally is because the ‘magic’ with a ‘c’ now has a ‘k,” too. I love visual and semantic resonances like that!”

I can interpret Angie’s expression without her ever saying a word. “You’re right. Save it for the review,” I nod, and so I do. I write this down. I write this all down. This book is a map, Dear Reader. And you are here.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →