Let's Not Live on Earth
By Sarah Blake
Wesleyan University Press. 116 pp. $15.95
Reviewed by Frank Wilson
In "I Thought It Was a Good Idea to Walk to CVS With My Son on a Ninety-Degree Day," a poem near the start of local poet Sarah Blake's latest collection, the speaker complains to her husband over the phone that she "can't get the stroller / over the broken cement of someone's driveway." Then she notices someone "sitting in the yard / within earshot."
She wants to apologize. "But it's too late. I'm a bitch at the end of a three-mile walk after my / insurance almost / denied coverage for my anxiety medication. / I think my anxiety isn't mine at all. I think it's communal."
There is, indeed, a lot of anxiety on display here, both personal and communal. In "For Max," the speaker says, "There are a lot of reasons for people to point a gun at me I guess … Because that's our country right now …."
This sort of thing could get depressing, but Blake leavens it with the kind of jauntiness that brings to mind Jacques Brel's "Le Moribond," a toe-tapping song about a man who's going to die.
So the long sequence of poems titled "Monsters" has less in common with horror flicks than with Halloween masquerade: "I'm scared," you say. / "Nice to meet you, Scared. I'm a monster."
But it soon becomes clear that the jauntiness is a ploy to keep the underlying, almost overwhelming, uneasiness under control:
Sometimes monsters are a danger to
Your dead self
Your spirit floating around
Trying to get somewhere
Maybe your child's dream
Because who do love more
So it is not at all surprising to come upon, about halfway through, "How We Might Survive": "You might call it escapism but this is / how life works, trying to pull / us free, creating the break that we might / split ourselves. If we need to. … You are separate from the world."
This is followed by a poem about conditions on a neutron star — "At the museum, I stand on a scale that tells me how much I'd weigh on / a neutron star. (Trillions of pounds.)"
And then we encounter "The Starship," a 50-page sequence that concludes the volume, and that is the culmination of all that has gone before.
"What if you saw a starship?" the speaker begins. "If you went to a window and there she was."
"Well you do see her."
Her husband takes off. Her neighbor, whose wife has left him, stops by, and they start sleeping together. She starts talking to the starship, which "talks back more than you'd like."
She lies on a blanket in her backyard and stares at the starship. "In a moment of clarity, / you figure out why the ship has come, / why the ship is empty. It's for you. It's for / everyone. It's an evacuation of your planet, / but she won't take you unwillingly."
No sooner does she decide to go than her husband comes home. He says he wants to go with her, but he's scared, and decides not to. She goes by herself, but her neighbor has taken an earlier flight and is there already. "He takes you to the room / he's saved for you, beside his, and / makes a joke about being neighbors / everywhere. His enthusiasm is the first / thing that's made you doubt yourself."
The starship departs but stops at other planets to pick up other passengers. When it arrives at its destination, an announcement is made that the people of Earth, having been the first on, will also be the first off. The inhabitants of this new planet turn out to be humans from the future. The place seems a progressive's paradise: "They explain that crime / is not tolerated, and that racism, sexism, / and other prejudices are criminal." Small wonder the speaker's lover "works in surveillance. / It's a big industry."
The speaker and her lover marry. The speaker gives birth to their daughter. Together, they decide to take a trip on a submarine. But the speaker hesitates on boarding. "And when you realize what you're feeling / is fear, you realize that your journey on the starship / was a trauma." Eventually, holding her daughter's hand, she "can feel this new world's potential … it needed / one unpredictable being."
The foregoing only hints at the richness of this volume. What Blake has accomplished here is quite extraordinary: a fusion of lyric and narrative laced with a heady blend of pop culture — monsters, zombies — and science fiction. And it all has bearing on the issues of the day, without ever preaching, just laying out the possibilities and, even more, the worrisome ambiguities.