I’ve been a sex worker for most of my adult life. I’m sitting in my cheap desk chair taking long sips of my ‘Tangerine Positivity’ organic tea with Katie Marya’s debut book of poetry Sugar Work. The sunset I’m looking at out of my window is a combination of the waning orange sun refracting off dark, rain filled clouds. This is the time of day I can hold the complexity of daily suffering best. I’ve always thought being a sex worker was an experience beyond linear explanation. It is fiercely binary while also being a slate pile of mystery. Marya’s book kind of IS sex work. And as I’m sitting here wondering how in the world to summarize something so foundationally wild and byzantine the best I can do is to say that Marya brings the inherent oppositionality of sex work, and being the daughter of a sex worker, to the page through strong and recurrent themes of the sacred and profane, and poignant if not haunting reflections of her mother as a kind of mirror of her own shadow self. Marya buttresses these master themes through lesser invocations of god, sex, a fractured self, and secrets and memory, all within the greater context of families, home, and origin of the self.
The Poet W.H. Auden is quoted as having said, “poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” Most people can probably relate to the difficulty in articulating the complexity of ambivalence, particularly as it relates to familial relationships. Marya’s work is a slow burn; both sweet and salty, that picks up speed and ferocity as it unfolds. The poems start out quiet and become evermore surprising, engrossing, and eventually all encompassing.
From the titular poem “Sugar Work:”
The cake edges the counter
royal and layered
orange cream fondant
or slit with a knife
or peeled off exactly
white sugar circles
like a saints corona
What all of us know about white sugar (really, any sugar) is that it is “bad” for you, but it tastes good in the moment. It’s a transitory experience where pleasure can often come at a cost, perhaps in the form of pangs of guilt or later punishment by exercise bike. It mirrors the polarity and excess of sex, or even life and death itself. It is an ambivalent relationship with a mother and father. At this juncture, the relationship the text reveals is from the rose-colored glasses of a child, and the various ways in which disappointment has manifested in her life from childhood to adulthood. The deliberately consistent use of the words “child-child” and “adult-child” are reminiscent of a term frequently used in Al-Anon meetings; “adult-children of alcoholics.” The word “cocaine,” another white powder, is also used again and again, in reference to the speaker’s father’s struggle with addiction; and functions almost as an invocation of him, instead of the word addiction, that is too taboo to name.
From “Father Sends Adult Daughter Recurrent Text Message:”
I want this story to be over:
The one in which the father is gone –
…when I learn of my father’s death
I will be thousands of miles away from his body;
…the other option means
No self, and the adult-child owes something
To the self because it carried the adult-child
…the adult-child needs
A Cocaine-free zone to protect these images.
In “Why I Look Just Like My Mother” Marya writes, “I learned to step on cactus thorns and never feel them.” There’s a loss in these words, a loss of innocence.
The way Marya explores the mother-daughter relationship with readers is tender and precious, oftentimes serving as evidence of a child who both experienced too much too young and was inducted into a kind of sacred knowledge at the same time.
Marya brings into the text a myriad of selves: The self that loved her mother and father, the self that was disappointed by them, the self that wonders if they’re bad people, the self that ultimately exalts or rebukes them in so much of this poetry. The poem “Object Lessons” is unique in how explicitly it declares ambivalence rather than relying on the mythological mother. Marya writes,
in a dream
there are lights on me
I’m a lounge singer
no a teacher
no just someone in a dark room.
In many of Marya’s poems, we see the mother more as myth, as legend, or like an all-powerful deity. But in the above lines the speaker becomes unreliable herself. Was mom really a saint? Marya offers glimpses of her destructive behavior, and this invites the reader to question this daughter’s memory.
In “Excerpt from the Gold Club Trial: Daughter” the speaker describes her exotic dancer mother as,
walking in on all those men
trying to be a diplomat
trying to hold some professionalism in the club
walking in a light prism
walking in a thief
a master woman in our time of need.
And maybe that’s just it—it’s not about whether her mother was bad or good, a saint or a sinner—it’s that she was who she was: a single mother relying on exotic dancing in Atlanta for income to support children on her own in the’90’s. The book seeks to hold both, the sacred and the profane, the dirty and the immaculate. Marya pushes the reader to understand we need not think in polarities through the kaleidoscope of sex work.
A favorite poem of mine in this collection is “The Quiet Divorce” about a human-sized rabbit that comes over for some white bean stew. Rejection and loss, home and family of origin, emerge as themes when Marya writes,
This is how it was
until one day it wasn’t and I can’t remember when
the rabbit stopped coming. Or how the dust withdrew.
The first thing that came to my mind was the rabbits scene in David Lynch’s 2006 film Inland Empire, where three anthropomorphic rabbits talk to each other in a living room, and seem to exist in some kind of television show alternate reality with a laugh track and all. With its white bean stew cooking for one year and the giant human-sized rabbit that comes to visit the speaker’s house, this is perhaps both the fantasy land of a wishful child, abandoned by her father, and the confession of the same grief-stricken child desperately trying to ground herself. It is in fact very much a poem of an alternate reality a la Twin Peaks, and it stands out because it feels experimental in ways the book’s other poems are not. It is the only poem where the poet uses allegory to represent parents, and it melds with the other poems beautifully. It’s like this experience, this rejection or abandonment, is too profane to name outright, which invites an existentialist reading of many of the poems, especially this one. The rabbit represents absurdity or the pointlessness of the speaker’s suffering at the hands of her parents.
With Marya’s penultimate poem in the book, “Distant Mother,” we can see how the mother figure, and the varied losses she writes about, have deeply impacted her:
I still long to hear her say katie elizabeth – my name
from her sharp smoker’s mouth – a whole world.
Marya asks to be spared from this grief, and the book closes by reaffirming its nature as confession:
Let me crotchet the sky into our skin
and confess grief to the sun.