Arsenic Lobster poetry journal Issue Thirty-five
Summer 2014
Poems in Which You Die
by Sarah Carson

BatCat Press (2014)
ISBN: 978-0-9843678-7-0

Read Sarah’s poems in Arsenic Lobster
Issue Twenty-four Winter 2010, Issue Twenty-four Winter 2010

At its most basic level, Sarah Carson’s Poems in Which You Die is a collection of 48 prose poems describing a breakup. But Carson doesn’t simply provide the reader with the easy balm of a Phil Collins song, say; instead she raises the stakes by casting the relationship alternately as a plane crash (“After the crash landing it was hard to tell what was weird and what was not”), an act of terror (“Life hasn’t been easy since the bomb we thought we hadn’t made exploded”), an interrogation (“I went home and played back the tapes of the interrogation, your voice an echo”), a bank job (“After I Robbed the Bank in the Seedy Part of Town”), and so many other wonderful variations on doomed love. And it is important to note that not all of the episodes are expressly tragic. In “The New Planet After You Left,” for instance, the beloved becomes the benevolent albeit absent leader of his own planet, and in “What the Aliens Hear” he is the sole object of scientific study: “They have … entire colleges dedicated to what you mean.” There is little room for sappy sentiment in this collection, but that does not mean that legitimate pain is eschewed either.

These poems relish a kind of hyper violence that tends towards the comic or the macabre. For example, in many poems the ex is literally torn apart or discovered in pieces like the fossil of a dinosaur. In “Then a Kneecap” the speaker says, “I thought about maybe waiting for more parts of you to turn up, but putting you back together entirely didn’t seem like a viable option.” And, of course, sometimes it refracts back upon the speaker: “Even after you ripped off my left leg, I was concerned you might think I was angry with you” (“Maybe You Did”). Carson’s technique is to juxtapose the heightened, public drama she gets from something like a plane crash or a bank heist with the smaller, private drama of the failed relationship as a way, I think, of building empathy with the reader. Often the hardest part of a breakup is the fact it never seems as tragic or important to others as it does to you, so an appeal to shared experience might fail whereas Carson’s jarring variations succeed in externalizing the tragedy and maybe in that way reaching the reader more powerfully.

Like many of us, the speaker engages in a disappointing—as they all are—rebound relationship, but this relationship is with god, who can be found mucking out flooded basements and rolling his eyes at the speaker’s intractable and insatiable obsession with the ex-boyfriend. In “What You Have in Common with God” the speaker says, “[A]nd when I tried to cry, he rolled his eyes and turned on the news.” Later on in the night she

asked him if he’d use his superpowers to send me back to last winter where I could lay awake again listening to the sound of your incoming text messages … He didn’t talk to me for the rest of the night, and all I could think about was how much he looked like you.

In this state, even god looks like the lover, rather than the other way around. This inability to move on, of course, is an essential part of the break-up narrative, but it’s Carson’s playfulness that gives new life to what would otherwise be lifeless. In one of the best poems in the collection, people’s heads mysteriously and spontaneously begin to blow up around town. As her boyfriend tries to make a break for it, the speaker blocks his way and before he can get past her, their heads explode: “the walls were already covered in pieces of skin, left brain … . It would take years for the doctors to decide if it was you or me” (“Some People’s Heads in Town Started to Explode”). As gruesome an image as this is, the important part is that their bodies will be mixed together, splattered on a wall—no one being able to tell where one ends and the other begins, which is yet another grimly funny take on a common sentiment in love songs. This is the poet’s gift—to take these very common sentiments and recharge them with her dark humor and vivid, movie-thriller type situations.

From the moment I read the first poem, I was wondering how Carson was going to end the book because I wasn’t sure she could heighten the situation any further. It was clear she was going to have to come up with something different. The final poem begins, “I loved you better when the bugs had eaten you” (“Epilogue”). This seemed in keeping with the rest of the collection. The last line, however, does something interesting:

In the future, we will bump into each other at a convenience store outside the city. We will argue over which of us remembers the other less, that is, of course, if either remembers the other at all.

On the one hand, the sheer reasonableness of the line sets it off and maybe gives it more weight by contrast. On the other hand, to have a kind of contest about “who remembers the other less” is strange and wonderful and complex; however, I fear the very last part of the line might damage it. To say “if either remembers the other at all” may be disingenuous in a collection that is free of that shortcoming—or maybe it’s the truest thing that can be said—after all the comedy and high tragedy, in the end it might not amount to much more than two strangers passing in some out of the way convenience store.
Review by Carlo Matos, Guest Reviewer
Carlo has published poems in many online and print journals, but what he’s really about is fighting and writing. Fighting and writing!