Mother Desert by Jo Sarzotti
(Graywolf Press: 2012)
Reviewed by Rachel Richardson
In Jo Sarzotti’s first book of poems, Mother Desert, we are taken into a strange landscape—one inhabited by horses, lions, and elephants, and composed of ice, desert, sea, and bone. These shifting and hard-to-pinpoint locations track the efforts of a mind in the act of comprehending loss.
The most durable place of all, in Sarzotti’s speaker’s view, is the horizon: the edges and ends of things and the great unknown sea beyond. The poems, therefore, are often in motion, traveling to the farthest points of land north or west. They skirt borders, and enter and reenter states of loss and leaving. It feels a particularly solitary state: other characters mostly appear only when conjured from memory and, even then, their presence is ghostly, already understood to be gone, or going. Sarzotti also reinvents kindred figures out of history, mythology, and literature—Marilyn Monroe, Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia, the painter Emil Nolde, Flaubert, King Lear’s daughter Cordelia. These characters function as parallels for her speaker, compatriots in spirit and sympathies if not in flesh.
Mother Desert is a book, ultimately, about being a grown daughter and yet a motherless child. The loss of a mother is palpable in this collection, shot through almost every poem. Sarzotti has Cordelia say, paraphrasing Shakespeare, at the end of the poem “Cordelia Takes a Powder,” “If only there’d been a mother./ If only I could heave my heart into my mouth.”
In these often terse, mysterious poems—as if it is a struggle to speak at all—Sarzotti builds her themes primarily through the act of echoing between poems, rather than of building rich, multilayered images or scenes within individual pieces. Images recur from poem to poem throughout the book, making them feel totemic. In particular, the horses and elephants roam through these pages, accruing power as they go. In “Elephant,” the first mention of the creature, Sarzotti begins,
God of mud & wallow, it can blight a field,
Comfort the dying,
Destroy a marketplace. Its rage is motherless,
Nurtured by no one,
Fed by chain and dust.
The poem ends with the elephant’s elevation to a symbol and key for all of human experience:
Its skin a map of the world grown old in human
Ruin. Its body,
Eye, ear, tail, knee, trunk, a blinded mirror.
Our beliefs about the animals are more central to Sarzotti’s interest than are the creatures themselves. Animals become not just the guides toward understanding, but those who deliver us, physically and spiritually, to new landscapes. And they must, because there is no home to which we can return. In the poem “Iceland,” she laments that “For horned and hornless creatures/ There is no pasture.” And in “Funeral Dove,” she shows the need for escape even more explicitly. The poem ends this way:
At the service, I cannot hear myself,
Read my poem in a borrowed voice,
Take communion, though I’ve not confessed.
Touch your closed coffin. Green winter
Streams limousine windows,
Tattooed hands release a dove at graveside.
You sit on my pony bareback, your feet
Near the ground. I sit in front,
Fingers in wiry mane, holding on.
Though much of the book is concerned with the manner of getting somewhere, Sarzotti’s speaker often finds herself at the end of a road, or spiraling back to old memories. “Death was a kind of earth I walked on,/ Rolled in, dug up, tasted,” she says in “Sentimental Education.” There is no easy or direct route anywhere, as we see from titles such as “Fail Road, Indiana,” “Infinite Spur,” and “False Ford.” Even the lyric movement within the poems mirrors this tortuous path. Sarzotti moves by sideways association and leaps, rather than forward narration. In the best poems, this technique provides surprise and freshness, an eye-opening effect akin to being a stranger in a strange land. In concert with the terseness of some of her images, however, the effect can at times also be one of disorientation and impermeability for the reader.
But this is a book that needs to be read in its entirety. In journeying with Sarzotti we come to understand that, over time, sorrow does change—even shrink—and wonder at the world does not abate. Though she asserts, forcefully and grimly, that “The dead do not eat grass, nor/ Do they return,” at the end of “The Origin of Salt,” so too does Sarzotti say “…I am all/ Made of glass…/ A ghost in the directions/ Back—swift and I am there.” What’s gone, then, is perhaps not fully lost.
In the final poem of the book, “Fairy Queen,” the speaker calls her story one inscribed in runes, and muses, “How does it go?” The question feels apt: this book is mysterious, distant, partly submerged, yet hauntingly familiar and, ultimately, revelatory.
Jo Sarzotti teaches literature at the Juilliard School. Her poetry has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Denver Quarterly, North American Review, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.
Rachel Richardson is the author of Copperhead (Carnegie Mellon, 2011), a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, and a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow. She has taught creative writing in several men’s prisons as well as universities around the country, and is currently the Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.