I’m sure I’m not alone in believing the most wonderful place to be is between mountains and ocean, with both within reach. The poems in Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s latest collection Dear Outsiders (2023, University of Akron Press) reside exactly there, and they deliver on the promise of their setting. Dear Outsiders, a collection of prose poems, is the newest in the Akron Series in Poetry and rightfully takes its place among a prestigious list of predecessors. The poems are otherworldly and set the reader off-kilter with their shifting, strange imagery. The book is divided into two parts. The first takes place in a tourist seaside town, the realm of the speaker’s mother; the second, in the mountains, the homeland of the father. But the two parts connect in so many ways—the poems of both sections drip with familial love, deep connection with nature, and a blending of landscape/animal/human into one Ovid-like world.
The family that occupies these poems consists of the speaker, a sibling that is always a “we” with the speaker in a way that creates a chorus of two, a mother, and a father. The poems are from the limited viewpoint of a child, and the speaker has a child’s loose relationship to the literal image, and this is lovely in its strangeness. The parents provide a safe and happy foundation, but there is danger lurking at the edges, in small comments throughout the text. For example, in the poem “No Wake Zone”
. . . Other parents tell us, no running. We see
our falls—our heads opening up and the gulf rushing out.
And in the poem “Levels of Force” which takes place during a storm in the mountains:
All the lamps we’ve had we’ve hugged too hard. At night, the shadow
is our mother’s waist and hips and skirt. The world will take back the
water and wind if we can get our rooms just right. . .
This book takes places at the edges: of water, of language, and mainly, of reality. Many of the poems deal with the family or the “we” siblings interacting with what is at the edge of family: the others. In the first half of the book, the ocean half, there is tension between locals, as represented by the speaker’s family, and the tourists. The locals are a closed world, and they peer through a window into the lives of the others. This tension plays out in the poem “Tragedy Lesson” in which the speaker details the pointlessness of warning tourists of danger and also seems to want to softly increase the danger:
Describe drown. We don’t say it too loud when it happens. It’s not for
the hotel people, people who pay for symmetrical shells. They walk
out so far that they can’t tell which place is theirs on the way back.
We’re sure there’s nothing that could keep them away anyway. Not
the burns. Not even if we told all the jellies to wait outside their do
not disturb doors . . .
The second half of the book, the mountain half, also divides the world into family and other, hinting at the loss of an idyllic nuclear family. The parents still provide a strong and united front, but there are glimpses of their loss, as in “Lessons for Waywards”
. . . It was our father who said we are only meant to remember
as much as we can. And now we are saying we won’t remember the
lessons or the front yards or what time when our mother was pulled,
her hair big, an ocean in an ocean and how loud everything got when
our father died for good too.
But in a later poem “Factors Influencing Life” we have this description:
. . . There was that time
when our mother and father drowned, and we hid every letter of their
names . . .
So are the parents dead? While the poet hints at the loss of a parent, each parent is also a landscape and home, and the mother-home, the ocean, has been lost to the speaker. In the poem “At Our Lessons We’re Given a Map” the speaker states, “Home has been constellated. Flung. Do you know where you are?” The parents appear in poems after “Lessons for Waywards” and “Factors Influencing Life” but the feeling of loss is infused in various images throughout the second half of the book: the children wear shoes that belonged to their mother, they have to learn to walk and be differently in the mountains because they come from the sea, they search themselves for salt and sand without finding them, they look for seagulls and sea glass in the mountains, songs the mother taught them can’t be sung “since we lost her.” Whether the parent or the landscape is the true referent matters little in the blended surreal nature of these poems. The loss is a real one, and the speaker has to manage it.
As expected with landscape being so intricately connected with the family, nature is a major force in the book, especially water, which is omnipresent. Even in the mountains, there are streams, rain, and fountains in almost every poem. Water is carried, diverted, left out, feared, and courted. Animals are everywhere—stingrays and sea stars and wild horses and hogs. Bears tear down fences, and dolphins enter houses to birth their young. Home is “a snake with pulled teeth.” Neighborhood children are cats:
. . . We hear their babies crying through the house walls. We put
out milk before we understand what we aren’t feeding. There are rivers
of milk between their ribs.
The “we” speaker is transformed into “crabs breaking the pot” and the entire family is transformed in “An Emotional Memory”
. . . We’ve
become even more animal. We use our snouts to carry the berry
buckets, to find our way back.
Many of the poems in this collection shift the nature of reality. Humans become animals become human. The landscape is a character. We’re in a world like Ovid’s where transformation is not only possible but perhaps the point of being. The house has ribs. Bears seep into rooms if you’re not careful. Owls crease. The sunrise has shoulders and can be locked out. The water is a gown to bowing egrets, who are the children speakers. The speaker asks how a human can have a mouth and so can water. The mother’s body can be seen in a map of the oceans. Elsewhere, in “Double-Face Mirror” she’s root:
. . . We get down in the bath and say this water
has got to be the star and this root must be our mother, the good net.
Her hair watching us, singing every song she knows.
And in the poem “Half a Parade” the landscape becomes animal:
. . . The ocean’s an
animal head on a wall, and we can’t see the body. We think it must be
inside the wall and that it walks out at night when we sleep. What’s a
Is the animal head, meaning the ocean, meaning the mother, dead or alive? And if the mother is nature and the force of the world’s water, can she die? The speaker has found a way to create a world that behaves how she wants.