The Associated Press just reported that so far during the year 2012, more soldiers have committed suicide than have been killed in combat. I can’t think of anything more depressing than that. Reading this fact reminded me of a poem by Laura Read we published in the Fall 2010 issue of New Ohio Review:
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How to Be Sad
You’ll be heavier in the mornings, waterlogged.
Don’t try to put on anything from the upside down
clean clothes basket. Just wear yesterday’s pants.
There’s no need to bring in the paper. Or sweep
the dead bees from the windowseat. When
the doctor asks for your pain number, stick
with 2—it’s best to leave everything as it was.
Wish again that you could live in that prefab
house you tour at the fair. It doesn’t matter
what it’s made of. You love the vacuum stripes
in the carpet, which is taupe, always difficult
to describe. There’s a plasma television,
a microfiber sectional, and in the kitchen plastic
steaks on each plate at the table, covered in fake
hollandaise sauce. After you eat, you’ll still
have dinner for tomorrow, and you can just
go to bed where there’s a book already chosen
for you on the woman’s side. Apparently, you like
romance. And if you’re not tired, the fair’s always
there. You love the ferris wheel, the funnel cakes,
and especially the goldfish man, but you never
thought you’d win one of those bags with the small
fish swimming inside it, his life hanging
in the balance of your hands. And there’s no
bowl back at the house. So you’ll have to stay up
all night holding him, in case he panics.
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Only after reading the whole poem did I become fully conscious of those unsettling line breaks – the phrases seem to turn away abruptly and scoot to the other side, like fish seeking egress from their bowl. Or bag. This poem is utterly convincing in its rhetorically instructional description of a woman so overwhelmed with despondency she can’t muster the energy or motivation to do anything, make food, change into clean clothes (they’re clean, she managed that, but only to dump them, as if she’d collapsed before the Herculean prospect of putting them away); she can’t make any decisions, decide how much pain she’s in, even choose what kind of person she is, which book she might like. “Apparently, you like / romance.” The forced cheeriness of the fantasy is devastating: “And if you’re not tired, the fair’s always there.” It brings to mind that awful Petula Clark song, “Downtown.” When you’re alone, and life is making you lonely, you can always go… Downtown! The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares, and go DOWNtown! I first heard this song as a child of six or seven, and I remember thinking how odd grownups were, if bright lights and traffic sounds could make them forget their misery. In Laura Read’s poem, the prefab house is appealing for its orderly, controlled, vacuum-striped and stable environment. The idea that even a small fish might have to rely on the speaker for anything is terrifying to her, so naturally she deflects her imminent panic onto the fish. A delightfully depressing poem.
When I typed this poem to post it – I always type the poems rather than go hunting for the original Word document we must have received in the New Ohio Review office years ago, partly because I hate to bother Damien Cowger, my already overworked Managing Editor, partly because good poems are fun to type up – I had my own little moment of panic. What could I say about Laura Read’s work? Our contributor’s note from Fall 2010 says she teaches at Spokane Falls Community College, and has work forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review and Floating Bridge Review, but surely that must be outdated, and I hadn’t enough time left to try to contact her and get an update. So I saddled up the ol’ search engine and discovered to my delight that she won the 2011 Donald Hall Prize of the AWP Award Series in Poetry for her book Instructions for my Mother’s Funeral (coming out this fall from Univ. of Pittsburgh Press), selected by Dorianne Laux. I’m so glad to learn this! I look forward to reading more of her work.
And to seeing you, dear Reader, next Sunday. (JAR)