Sabrina Orah Mark, The Babies

Saturnalia Books, 2004

[Review Guidelines]

"Form," notes destroyer/seducer Walter B. in The Babies, "mimics disease." B's sentiment might be applied directly to Sabrina Orah Mark's debut: the poet's deliberate turn from restrictive stanzas, meter, and other regulatory poetic devices, in favor of prose poems, an interview sequence, and the ledger-as-lyric, further facilitates her meddling of temporal, linguistic, and logical orders. In fact, it is the absence of traditional structures—itself a keen organizational strategy—that allows Orah Mark to fully engage the erratic, the frenzied, the dark and often absurd nature of human behavior.
      To enter Orah Mark's The Babies is to enter the freak show, fairground, or laboratory. On examination tables and in five-cent booths, Orah Mark tests the capacity to convey accurately and honestly innermost psychological and emotional states. More interesting than odd scenarios, however, is Orah Mark's innovative treatment of inherited versions of history and speech. Throughout The Babies, language falls, stumbles, and crosses wires. Lovers reply with utter certainty to both articulated and unarticulated questions ("Vintage darkling, metropolis? I asked. But you said no / without sugar, you said arms," "The Proposal"). The poems, in fact, gain power by seeming miscommunication and misunderstanding: "the ornithologist, according to the papers, spoke in a mischievous language ... The / ornithologist, according to Mama, knew exactly how he / made her feel. ‘Like a mildly foxed apricot!'" ("The Song"). Orah Mark's undermining of sources ("papers," "mischievous" language, and the mother's wild expression) recurs throughout, as do episodes of self-interrogation. This struggle to pinpoint experience and to precisely articulate individual perception frames The Babies' obsessive subject.
      Although invested in the ability both to reveal and conceal meaning, Orah Mark's poems call into question the setting down of detail as an act of preservation, whether the subject is public or private. Weirdly daring, The Babies underscores the degree to which communication happens almost in spite of our best (or worst) intentions: "And he looked / at me tenderly and said the dish has run away from the / spoon. And I said yes, it was bound to happen. That night, / in his orange pickup truck, we made love for the last / time..." ("Day"). As is often the case, the above lines are charged to capacity with various codes of meaning; communication comes via sexual union and facial expression, as well as through the primary language of nursery rhyme. Such modes, however, aren't nearly as marked with finality as the image Orah Mark uses to exit the poem: "Somewhere else," she concludes, "a tree was burning." Here, action and image have the ultimate expressive authority. Repeatedly, the poems' final moments serve as definitive counterpoints to the surreal or illogical: "It is lonely in a place that can burn so fast," writes Orah Mark with affecting clarity ("In the Origami Fields"); "No, we agreed, the thing was not a war. A war is / when you cannot hear the animals" ("The Experiments Lasted through the Winter").
      Much can be heard in The Babies: "thick birds dragging / their eggs across the asphalt" ("The Eggs"); laments inspired by physical markers of difference such as birthmarks or raised letters on the wrist; the notes of a dying woman's mandolin. Humans, according to The Babies, are meant for sound, for singing. One of Orah Mark's many gifts is that her songs are simultaneously familiar in their emotive register, while original in psychological arrangement. Turned inside-out, reversed, played backward and forwards, civilized order is continually disrupted. Bathtubs are tossed out windows; mattresses are traded for miniature boxcars; nonsensical lyrics foreshadow extinction. In place of poetic epiphany and absolute closure, Orah Mark infuses in The Babies the world's disorder—its chords are those of disruption, confusion, uncertainty. The vividness with which Orah Mark processes such chaos is exacting; however amplified, its pitch almost always feels authentic.