Sabrina Orah Mark’s prose poems are brief tales, tart, the narrative equivalent of lemon sours. Funny disasters; funny disasters—the emphasis swivels, as in Buster Keaton’s movies, but now in an age of unbounded anxiety. A Markian tale is almost a genre to itself: pungently inventive, precipitous, dead on, quick, bordering on cute, bespeaking constant pain, piquantly detailed, streaked with silliness, and grinding, even if pitted by gaps. Crammed with dialogue, the incidents are at once violently compressed (narrative blood spots) and runaway. Some of the poems end flatly, a few are a sentence too long—but most are unsurpassably self-possessed. At once mysterious and blatant, lyrical and harsh, this book is a marvel of antithetical qualities. In the small, its theme is the lack of relation between the sexes (Lacan: il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel). In the large, it is universal alienation. Alienation galore: “‘Something here,’ [Beatrice] explained to Walter B., waving her arms around her head, then around his, then around the world as she understood it, ‘is very, very wrong’” (“The Stethoscope”). Beatrice and Walter B. are the principals—she so drastically not one who creates beatitude, and he so, ach!, stiffly formal. Now and again, the couple is visited by a sketchy cast—the Collector, the Healer, and the Unlikelies—and receives letters from the Oldest Animal, a fulsome correspondent whom I take to be Mark’s excuse for Joycean word-folds: “Those are the wyrds of the bibble.” Woman and man: who dreamed up this farce? Ponders this the syntax (which is sometimes this way jostled). The surface situations vary wildly, but the characters’ irrelation remains constant. Repetition is a rhetorical component of the poems as well. A wooden, pseudo-naive, perverse iteration marks a crisis of the “impossibled.” You get the treacherous feel of it in “The Saddest Gown in the World”: 

“One day,” said Walter B., “I will make for you a sewing of all the figs I never gave about you.” And one day Walter B. would. He would sew all the figs together. It would not be easy, but he would do it. If he could promise Beatrice anything he could promise her this. He would make for Beatrice a perfect sewing of all the figs he never gave about her. She could wear it, thought Walter B., like a gown. And everyone would applaud. You find here the poet’s intoxication with speech, a smart rap of idioms. And you see that Walter B. is faithful to Beatrice in his fashion—for which she, in hers, is grateful. (They deserve one another.) In surviving Walter B.’s abuse, the Unlikelies’ abuse, the world’s abuse, all without bitterness, Beatrice, never very bright, acquires a ludicrous dignity. Why has Mark locked her series into the mutual stranglehold of her hero and heroine, caricaturing thought (his) and feeling (hers) while excluding the thrills of capaciousness? A model if not an explanation lies in the title, which evokes the Kabbalistic term tzimtzum, meaning God’s contraction of space so that a finite world could exist. But in Mark’s collection, constriction rules with a vengeance—tzimtzum x tzimtzum. To keep the reader engaged, even so, Mark taxes herself to be constantly and outrageously arresting, brutally witty, multitudinous in narrow quarters, changing fables and one-off skits like a teenager restlessly looking for the right outfit to wear to school, though school is closed. She is jaw-droppingly successful at meeting this challenge. However painful her theme, the energy of her series is a sharp joy, its language is quite simply delicious, and its vignettes are piercing and droll: “Walter B. wiping Beatrice’s tears away with a thick slice of bread.”

 

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