Imagine you’ve just moved into a new home. Choose a home the details of which invite isolation: your farmhouse, your walk-up in a city peopled with speakers of a tongue not your own. Now further imagine the previous residents of this space, persons about whom you know nothing save the vestigial traces left behind by their prior presence: the wallpaper that may or not have been their choice, their vaguest, most atomized ghost of a scent. And now imagine that these previous residents are still receiving letters at the address that is now your own: handwritten letters, antiquated as all handwritten letters now seem, that arrive with no return address, just as you have no address to which you can forward them. And imagine, finally, that after saving these letters for months (although in hope of what, you do not know) you decide to open them, and read them, and in so deciding you invite yourself into an intimacy of which you are no true part but are immediately aware.
I suggest the preceding exercise as a treatment for the mind and the heart, which suffer a similar disturbance upon entering Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies, a collection of poems that make of the structures of familiarity something uncanny, home that is not home:
One green flower pasted to a burnt up overcoat mysteries the mottled gowns hung from the shower rod, freaks the daffodilies out, lucky girls get in the house. Easy to lose time, I gather my dolls, stare at my hands as you rake the thistledown like such silk, and by color I assemble them so that Bones will be the last one in, most beautiful in her cut out curtains, and underneath she is talking.
No playing “brides” in the house, only in the yard. If Everyone removes her redskin dress she will ruin it for the others, and then what? Sit in the corner so that everything is touching. One day will be less mechanical and leave you.
We marionette. We only story. We terrible to soil, and come gather. We trouble up the yard, what’s a mother? how much longer?
The prose poems of The Babies unfold over six sections, the fifth of which goes not by number but as “The Walter B. Interviews” and does indeed reproduce the structure you might guess, though to effect no less eerie than the more traditionally prosodic sections: “Can you describe for me The Gesundheithaus? / From where I was sitting, if I moved my head two inches to either side, I could see the babies. Had they just once gathered around me, as they gathered around Walter B. night after night, like teeth . . . “
What each of these sections share can be found in microcosmic measure in “Heimlichkeiten” itself: a fraught and unclear domestic tableau, a propensity for nouns to possess verbs at the level of both grammar and active meaning, an assertion of dialogue in acts of description that refuses to differentiate between the two, a classic surrealism that consistently sidesteps the self-declaring precocity of surrealism’s worst. Mark is especially bold, and especially effective, in her recapitulation of surrealist techniques; in her “The Lie,” the speaker climbs inside the wooden foot of a character named Brunibar: When he asks the speaker what she sees, Mark writes “‘Tents!’ I shout, through the black socket.” But she then lingers not on the manifest illogic of the moment, but moves quickly and confidently to the speaker’s emotional concerns: “How can I tell Brunibar the truth without hurting him?”
It’s this consistent whisper, this emotional urgency made all the more acute for its hush, that allows Mark to draw so liberally from materials and methods burdened with the freight of overuse. The Babies is clearly a war book, and the recursive cornices of 20th century European war and the literary edifices built around it create the landscape of the poems, to whatever extent poems so weirdly personal have a literal landscape. There is Warsaw and Berlin, an “Ossip Zoo” and a “Walter B.,” a recurring mustache and a preponderance of blouses, a Gerta and an Asa, inspectors and experimenters and soldiers. Breton and Celan and Kafka, or at least their shades, would find themselves more than welcome. And it’s important to acknowledge the multiple and obvious ways in which this could have gone terribly wrong, because to describe The Babies in these terms runs the risk of making it seem as if Mark is merely ladling up the accumulated fog of European martial modernity and spreading that mist amongst the shattered subjects of her own choosing. But it’s equally important to note that Mark is more than aware of these affinities, and is justifiably confident enough to derive force from their considerable energies without her own poetry disappearing within them.
That balance depends, again, on the poet’s ability to maintain intimacy. The voice of The Babies is consistently one of diminishment—a town closed, a song softly sung, a quiet knock at the door, animals you cannot hear—and to apprehend the book fully, the reader must commit to a kind of reading akin to the listening required by a whisper. Part of relative silence is a matter of expected words made absent; this absence also implies a trust, a knowledge or faith that the reader (who may or may not be the intimate to whom the whisperer means to speak) can extract from the assemblage enough to move from one “letter” or broken dialogue to another. When this works most effectively, the recognizable lends structural support to the unfamiliar, and the strange casts some of its unlight on the seen. Consider “The Proposal”:
Vintage darkling, metropolis? I asked. But you said no
without sugar, you said arms. I said please. I was bent
at the knee and scripting. You said fix it. Sky
turning from broomstick to bone, you said angel, I said yes,
quiet as a hill going up, I said yes. A hunger. Or to get to
of it, I said plate of oranges with pepper on top, you said
nothing. I said rustle, with a bad case of Doll’s Eye, I said—
you said nothing, I dusted it off. I was glad to be inside it for
you said stop, you said dandelion more. I spun around, a corset
throat farewell, I asked, a latch?
Note how “Vintage darkling, metropolis?” works here: the “darkling” invokes a “darling” that then occupies the space of personal address marked by “metropolis” and the whole query immediately comes to resemble a specific grammar of intimacy. Meant to meet the needs of attribution of responsibility, fragments of common language like “I said yes” and “you said nothing” and “you said stop” anchor the poem in this grammar, so that the command to “dandelion more” communicates a type of frustration and longing implicit in the exchange. In this vein, the plaintiveness and sly aggression of “a latch?” tell us more about the tenor of the speaker and subject’s relationship than could a poem composed of less strange stuff.
Marks maintains the delicacy this balance requires successfully throughout The Babies, and ironically, the moments of imbalance prove all the more conspicuous. In “The Black Umbrella” Mark begins with
If love is a girl named Obscure asleep in her black umbrella, then God is among us, and I will happily perform for you my tin-roof tricks
and this reads more like a conspicuous effort to write Something Mysterious. These rare lapses are useful, though, because they suggest the true difficulty of mystery, that it be easeful and alarming all at once. Later in the same poem, Mark writes
He said, would you like to see my pocket knife, it’s like a little war.
And you think yes, how obvious, and then marvel at how something so obviously correct can also conceal such a terrible wrongness, a kind of cavalier terror. And this is the tone The Babies manages to capture and preserve. The literary eavesdropping here, the way in which Mark forces us to depend on what we do know and recognize only to transform and subvert that knowledge, also forces us to reconsider what can be known about any exchange, or any state as elusive yet undeniable as the one this book both memorializes and mimics. Like the blouses to which Mark repeatedly refers, blouses opened and buttoned again, sometimes loose and sometimes confining, these poems remain tatter and patch and scrap, but also become whole.