Arsenic Lobster poetry journal
Issue Twenty-one
Winter 2009
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Review
Sarah Luczaj, An Urgent Request
January 2009, 31 pp
ISBN: 1893670368


The Big Think recently published their video interview with former Poet Laureate Rita Dove. One of the questions they posed to Dove was: "What is your advice to an aspiring young poet in today's world?" Dove replied: "I wish someone had told me that my stories are really mine to tell. In other words, anything that I think is important or that has moved me has the ability to move somebody else."

Reading Sarah Luczaj's first poetry collection—An Urgent Request— I felt held in the thrall of a master storyteller, someone who firmly believes in the importance of her own stories and their ability to move someone else. And move they do. Halfway through the collection, I impulsively fished a notebook and pen from my purse and started to write a poem of my own. Whenever that happens, I know the poet I'm reading is inspiring me, usually on levels I can only intuit.

Around the same time, I read an essay in Stephen Dunn's Walking Light titled "Sincerity and Artifice". Dunn asserts that the two "should be companions." He wants: "to feel in a poem...a deep sincerity of purpose, the artifice almost invisible." He goes on to say that "...the stories which survived...were the best stories...told by the best conjurers and tellers. People who put the best words in the best order and gave them a music."

Dunn easily might have been trying to articulate what Luczaj does so well. Her poems come across as heartfelt and sincere, but not slavish to the truth. They possess a sense of play that seems to have been discovered on the page, in the making, whether in the predominant, free-verse form she favors, or the occasional villanelle ("Child Song").

Speaking of musical forms, it could be construed from some of Luczaj's lines that she's had some training. Regardless, it's certainly true that she enjoys a command of rhythm which, when married to a restrained lyricism, manages to harness high emotion into taut form. Fortunately, and true to the book's title, that sense of being something "composed" comes across without losing some of the rawness which made the poem want to be written in the first place.

Beyond her finely-tuned ear, Luczaj is strong on themes of self-knowledge/discovery and community/family. One of my favorite poems in the collection, "Oh My Girl", can be read on two levels: as addressed to the speaker's child, or to a childlike version of the speaker's self: my girl with a too heavy rucksack, waving at me from the future / sucking my breasts in the past...oh my girl with the endless water / looking for a bank to knock against / looking for a boat to carry / oh my girl, wondering what's wrong with you that the world isn't right. The poem imparts heavy doses of sentiment without succumbing to sentimentality.

Luczaj's poems also seem honed from a high moral order, but within wholly human parameters. In "My Life is Brilliant", the speaker gives thanks for the fact that: No one I love / has died so far today / every single war in this world / has passed me by / I am not starving and I haven't stumbled / onto any terrorist's map. The poem continues to give thanks for the horrors that are not happening in crisply parsed lines that build to a chilling ending, delivering a social message with complete clarity and absence of judgment.

In "Here is a List of Things I Ate Yesterday", Luczaj uses anaphora and hyperbole to great effect. Its surety of foot and authoritative tone have the potential to move many woman (and men) who have suffered from eating disorders themselves: First stirrings of fear— eaten / tremblings of wonder— eaten / a lot of bad music, and the television / I ate my own bed / I ate the full moon.

Like "List", several other poems in this collection—"Washing Her", "For José Drouet","Thaw"— display a surplus of empathy for their subjects. No mere navel gazer, Luczaj seems to possess an uncannily intimate knowledge of her characters that allows her to get inside their heads, but stop just short of being persona poems. Perhaps it is her vocation as a psychotherapist that gives her this ability; Luczaj runs an online practice at: mytherapist.com.

Several other poems here will speak to fellow wordsmiths. British-born Luczaj has lived in Poland since the late 1990's and has translated Polish and Ukrainian writers. "An Urgent Request", "Imperative" and "Holiday" are potent reminders of how slippery a thing language can be, especially when one's native vocabularly won't do. Luczaj desires: not only the perfect / and imperfect verbs / and each separate verb-concept / ...I need prepositions too / And the cases to which they attach / I need those little joining wires / Several thousand of them.

As seen in the previous quote, Luczaj often deploys a dry humor that can charge her poems with a pleasantly acerbic tone; she's even capable of doing so in a foreign language: "we groan ensemble / like the crowd at a firework display / in reverse." ("Holiday").

In the Big Think interview, Dove goes on to say that: "It was a long process to...be able to realize that even the smallest, the most domestic experience can move someone else. It doesn't have to be about the Trojan War....We live our lives in detail, all of us. We walk down the street. We breathe. We hear things. We try to transcribe it...and the details are what make us come alive."

The details in An Urgent Request have the ability to make its readers come alive, to waken to themselves, to feelings that may have otherwise lay dormant. It's therapy as art. Or as Rilke put it: "Art is not making-oneself-understood but an urgent understanding-of-oneself."

The debut effort by poet Cecilia Woloch's Fortunate Daughter Press will be appreciated by both the novice and sophisticated reader of poetry alike. The achingly urgent lead poem —"For José Drouet"—and a Q&A with the author can be found on Fortunate Daughter's web site.

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Lissa Kiernan
Poetry Editor, Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal
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