eading Sarah C. Harwell’s debut collection of poems Sit Down Traveler is a bit like rummaging through a forgotten box taken down from a shelf. The box contains old photographs. There is a family trip to an apple orchard, a night out with friends at a country western bar, and a glimpse of flowers placed at a memorial. Except these are not your pictures, not your family and friends. They belong to a stranger, but despite this disconnect there is something about them that compels you to keep looking at them. That the photos document someone else’s life is irrelevant. There is a quality to them that makes them seem familiar. That intimacy exists for one reason: the eye of the photographer. Unseen, yet ubiquitous, the person who took the snapshots knew exactly what moment to capture to reveal what is hidden inside the persons who exist within the confines of the pictures.
There are other pictures in the box as well. Not family photos, but something more mystical and arcane: tarot cards, specifically the Major Arcana. These images of heavenly bodies, magicians, and popes, among other symbolic figures, strewn among the photographs, offer a counterpoint to the homeyness of the photos. So who is the photographer? The same person who reads the tarot (however skeptically)? It seems so. The dual nature of Harwell’s collection, moving between the poles of the quotidian and the cosmic, is expressed in the contrast between the poems about love (filial and romantic) and death, and those concerned with predicting the future (unsuccessfully). Harwell’s poems are transcendent, a term I use rarely and then mostly ironically. However, here I use the word as it is intended, with reverence for how Harwell manages to give her speakers the quality of those who see the world for its possibilities (where Dickinson dwelled), where “[d]irt is a wide unruly room.” In “Observing the Grand Union,” the speaker observes a boy, on his first day at work at a grocery store, who sees a disaffected girl eating sushi in the parking lot. She sparks a longing in him, and he
careens carts through the nearly empty parking lot when he notices her sullen glow and inside him a thin breaking, an inkling of what he’s made of— Oh to touch her black, tangled hair, the angles of her hunched body ... his hands lift to stroke the skin of air, the carts roll backward into the empty, fluttering, stamped-on night, the whimpering, taciturn, filled-out night, rattling clanking ... one hundred carts headed for the boy’s parked beater.
The boy is smitten and distracted, the girl indifferent at best. But her mood changes:
At the sound the girl startles, remembering the first time she stared into the sun, how her best friend dared her to, how she wanted to go blind.
Behind her detached demeanor lurks a self-destructive bent. The contrast between the boy, inspired by the girl’s presence, and the girl, who wants not to see the world she inhabits, implies the imperfection of our infatuations. She is a sardonic siren, and the boy responds to her despite her flaws. The girl’s dark interior is no impediment to the boy’s desire. Ultimately only his longing is important, and his longing does not depend on the girl’s being a plausible lure. The purity of his desire transcends her dourness.
Harwell writes about relationships, their inherent losses and attendant dark moments, with an unflinching eye. At the end of “Dead,” the speaker sends her daughter off to sleep despite the fact that the speaker’s “body seizes when she leaves to go / where I am not.” In “Constant Sorrow,” the speaker observes the sad, complicated lives of a group of friends in a bar, while the day before another friend’s son was killed on his way home from a night of bowling with his friends. There is an utter lack of sentimentality in these poems. Instead, Harwell infuses her poems with compassion and an acceptance of a world that is less cruel than obstinate in its inevitable destructions.
The long poem “The Major Arcana,” which appears in sections intermittently throughout the book (scattered like cards, almost), features a psychic phone operator whose cryptic readings create the context from which the other poems take their gravitas. The Arcana interludes offer an interesting counterpoint to the direct and emotionally resonant poems about death and relationships. The subject matter is the same, but the speaker addresses her topics somewhat obliquely (and at times the speaker is omniscient, reporting rather than participating). “Major Arcana: Your Future” opens the collection. The speaker is a former psychic telephone operator who ignores her potential clients to heed the call of her lover:
A woman called me nightly to ask me the future of the next day: No one will love me, the elevator’s held up by a thread, people are evil, I’m filled with a tangled dread. I was answering the call of the other, his hands laced in mine.
The precarious elevator recurs throughout the Arcana poems, a sort of Sword of Damocles that hangs over the poet’s and, ultimately, the reader’s head. And the lover is at times the cause of the speaker’s distress as well as a consoling presence. Harwell’s sense of relationships is summed up in the lines, “Our life was built on ruins on top of ruins / as the sun set off an unfamiliar cliff.” All things are built upon the failures of what came before. Harwell accepts this as a basic premise, but without a shred of self-pity. In fact, while compassionate toward her subjects, she turns her unflinching eye to their faults as well (including her speakers’). The poem concludes with the curious appearance of a dog eating bones. Not chewing. Eating:
The dog didn’t choke. Stupid dog. What fool would predict dogs don’t choke on bones? The dog barked across the valley, the bones in his throat, sharp and dangerous, like lies that hadn’t been told.
The dog, as a symbol of the relationship, does what it is driven to do despite the potential consequences. Those consequences are not immediate. The dog does not choke. But the bones stay lodged in its throat, and it seems inevitable that they will eventually do their damage. In “Major Arcana: The Lovers,” Harwell makes a prediction that also summarizes what the reader has encountered in previous poems:
Are you following the stories? There’s a woman and a man and one will betray the other, depending on the day, I am the woman and the man. Don’t forget the children.
I promise death is still far away, a bruise that hasn’t yet appeared.
The psychic phone operator may or may not be a charlatan, but there is no doubt she is trying to make sense of the senselessness around her. And in doing so she attempts to offer comfort to the reader: “Close your eyes, you’ll stop crying.”
In all of the poems, Harwell reveals through scrupulous descriptions how harrowing it is to be human: “With cooling glass on tables, chairs and floors, / the danger’s everywhere, we drift away, a herd of antelope, / no, buffalo, a gang of grunting appetite, wrinkling fast.”
“Cast a cold eye / On life, on death.” These famous words of advice from “Under Ben Bulben,” and carved in Yeats’s tombstone, imply the necessity of distance from one’s subject matter, something Yeats managed to accomplish in his transitional role as the post-Romantic/pre-Modern poet extraordinaire. In Harwell’s poems, life and death and sex and heartbreak and tenderness are rendered with a sense of intimacy, but it is as if Harwell can hear Yeats whispering his advice from beyond the grave. She takes a close look at her subjects but never without the necessary emotional distance to allow her to examine them carefully (poet as photographer). She does not shy away from but rather embraces the hard facts. That she does so with a sense of compassion should not negate what Yeats wrote. Hers is the compassion that comes from seeing what only the “cold eye” can take in.
In the Arcana poems, Harwell concentrates on mining the raw stuff of emotions, the ore that, once refined into the linguistic equivalent of crystals, focuses the deeper emotional experiences of being human. Not the crystals of New Age charlatanism. Despite the pervasive presence of the tarot in the book, the poems are more concerned with uncertainty than knowledge, and her psychic phone operator is aware of her limitations and at times painfully self-effacing about her inability to predict the future: “Every day I speak to the world / and the world doesn’t listen. / My large mouth working its nonsense, / a mumble of feeling.” In this way, she echoes or perhaps predicts a similar uncertainty appearing in her other speakers.
In “To the Flower Buyers” a speaker encounters her own grief as she passes flowers that have been placed at the memorial on Syracuse University’s campus for the victims of Pan Am flight 103. She senses that the flowers are not aware of their own demise: “The flowers don’t know they’re dead, / nodding and chatting propped against a concrete wall.” And later she confesses “Grief is hidden inside of me, curled around a thing someone once owned.” At the end, the speaker capitulates and acknowledges the flowers gain an awareness of their condition on the religiously fraught “third day” when “they suspect” that they are dead. Harwell’s speaker must pass an obvious reminder of loss, as she says, “every day on my way to manage the practical world.” And having to do so forces her to come to terms with her own mortality, almost as if she conflates herself with the flowers. Is she dead, figuratively speaking? Is the “thing someone once owned” a lost child? The questions remain unanswered, but they linger long after the reader moves on.
But death and flowers soon reappear. In “Attending a Spring Funeral with a Mortal Love,” she speaks to her lover, with her for the rites of her family member: “Love’s like a beating: / we knuckle under; we give / and turn to flowers.” These lines end the poem, which details, in five sections, the events of the day. At first, the speaker is taken aback by her own grief: “He has a beautiful face in death, when I kiss his brow / framed by satin, the tears come surprised, he looks better dead.” And later in the strophe: “We’ve all been done to until we’re done.” In Section II, the speaker cannot help comparing herself to the widow as she says to her lover, “I miss you already, your hand a fleshy ghost.” And in Section IV, the scene shifts to a post-funeral meal at a local diner where, after the lover asks the speaker to cremate him when he dies (“Burn me, you begged”), “the sun pours in through plate-glass windows, / all the forks, knives, sugar cubes, begin to shine.” Not quite an epiphany, but the ordinary objects take on a sheen that seems at least life-affirming, even transcendent in its way.
“The Apple Orchard” is about a friend’s daughter who is dying of cancer. The speaker is on her way back from a trip to an apple orchard with the dying girl and the dying girl’s mother. The speaker stutters at the beginning, as she struggles to find her way in the moment:
At a four-way stop the minivan guns it,—the girl’s hair blowing out of the van, black tufts fall on my windshield, no, those are crow feathers, trash, the van too fast, flashing, I follow it past the volleying crows and broken-off telephone poles— our daughters are driving but no, mine’s at home texting, yours is in Texas, far away
The speaker, a passenger in the car that follows the minivan, thinks at first that she sees the (dying) girl’s hair on the car’s windshield, and then, in an attempt to distance herself from that possibility, transforms the hair to crow feathers, then trash, the images devolving from human to animal to inanimate. And the dying girl is in “Texas, far away, getting the treatment that will but won’t / cure her.” But immediately the reader discovers this not to be true:
it’s too late, your daughter’s dying strapped tight to her seat as you drive past people you’ve known all her life, driving until the city’s behind us the stark country hills of upstate New York deepening the blue of the too white sky.
The speaker is finally able to come to terms with the reality of the scene:
There’s the apple orchard, you take a hard right,holding her tight like that bag of fresh picked apples, her body more cancer than body, breathing slow, chewing slow and you feed her this pulp, as you push through her lips, wiping her mouth when pulp dribbles out, appeasing the core of unappeasable growth—
The image of the mother feeding her daughter as a mother bird would a nestling is heartbreaking yet remarkably unsentimental. The “unappeasable growth” seems to refer to the cancer that lives only to obliterate its host. And in this way, the dying girl becomes the core, which echoes the core of the apple she’s being fed. Harwell’s artistry is at its best in this moment. The tenderness of the scene does nothing to deflate its horror, but that horror is made bearable by the speaker’s obvious compassion.
“The Apple Orchard” ends with “how fast we can drive in our cars, how far.” We are back in the car, driving fast. But to what end? What distance is there to travel? Harwell’s statement implies these questions and answers them. There is no point in driving fast or far away, given the girl’s fate. But I come away from this poem with a sense of hope. Certainly not because of the inevitable consequence of the girl’s cancer, but in spite of it. I would prefer that such things were not a part of the world, but Harwell allows me to understand that not only does this moment exist; it is what matters most and deserves my attention no matter how much I may want to look (or drive) away.
In the last poem of the collection, “Major Arcana: World,” the telephone psychic is resigned to her failure:
The telephone psychic hung up the phone, went to bed, pulled the covers over her head. The house was too quiet tonight, her baby all grown, her love long gone.
She is alone, without her daughter or her lover, and unable to know the future:
She knew this: when she threw the cards she couldn’t see the future.
Instead, she brings the reader back to the first poem:
All she saw were dogs. Dogs barking, dogs snarling, howling, dogs making love in the streets, dogs eating bones they shouldn’t eat, dogs who loved the man who gave them the bones, and wandered near cliffs and didn’t care what they were called or when they fell.
In the first poem, the bones in the dog’s throat are “like lies that hadn’t been told,” and now the dog manifests in a pack of dogs, “eating bones they shouldn’t eat,” that is, choking on lies, indifferent to their fates. This may seem like a harsh way to end a book that is so obstinate in its desire to shed light on our darkest fears, but these are the dogs of love, fearless in their desires, and resigned to their fates.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, and raised in many other places, Sarah C. Harwell has worked as a waitress, librarian, telephone psychic, astrologer, tarot reader, New Age book buyer, and natural language programmer. She holds a BA from the University of Toronto and an MLS and MFA from Syracuse University. She is the Associate Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Syracuse University. She lives in Syracuse, New York, with her daughter, Hannah, and their cat, Joseph.
Christopher Kennedy is the author of Ennui Prophet (BOA Editions, Ltd.), Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death (BOA Editions, Ltd.), which received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award in 2007, Trouble with the Machine (Low Fidelity Press), and Nietzsche’s Horse (Mitki/Mitki Press). His work has appeared in many print and online journals and magazines, including New York Tyrant, Ninth Letter, 5-Trope, The Threepenny Review, Slope, Mississippi Review, Ploughshares, and McSweeney’s. In 2011 he was awarded an NEA Fellowship for Poetry. A founding editor of the literary journal 3rd Bed, he is an associate professor of English at Syracuse University, where he directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing.