blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

Review | Winter
Sarah Vap
Noemi Press, 2019

spacer Winter (Noemi Press, 2019)

A woman makes one coffee each morning, before dawn, for twelve years, on a rare and violent planet, in a universe where there is, rather than is not, God. The woman’s favorite season is winter. She is elegizing winter, as it disappears, by writing a poem titled “Winter” over thousands of mornings. The coffee she holds is small and exquisite, with just a little cream. But this is the barest description of Sarah Vap’s Winter, which is more an ecosystem than a book of poems.
You could graph Winter’s structure to compare it with Bernadette Mayer’s classic Midwinter Day, a book in its lineage. Midwinter Day extends on an x-axis for twenty-four hours and contains the details of one day. Vap’s Winter rises on a y-axis and contains years of individual days. Instead of time moving forward, as it does in Midwinter Day, time in Winter holds still. Vap balances a vast stack of winters in her hands, letting us feel the weight of them.

More threads connect Midwinter Day and Winter. Bernadette Mayer writes of the threat of human extinction in 1978, during the Cold War. Vap’s book considers the sixth wave of mass extinction: one of Winter’s recurring images is a whale whose brains are exploding from the ping of industrial sonar. Both Vap and Mayer are maximalist rather than minimalist. They have a willingness to be messy but not to be disorganized. Mayer wrote her book in a small New England town, Vap on an isolated Washington peninsula, but meals, errands, reading, kid-tantrums, and low-paid teaching jobs figure in both. Mayer wanted to “translate the detail of thought from a day to language like a dream.” Vap wants to “understand place and time within . . . layers of smashed-together brains in the family-animal.”

Before I go into more detail, I want to offer a full sense of Winter as a whole. So here’s a different metaphor. The book is like a skinny lab beaker, but so tall you can’t see the top of it. Inside this glass chamber, a woman, her hearing aids, a cozy rug, a husband, pipeline lobbyists, saint figurines (Vap, like Mayer, went to Catholic school), a writing desk, horses, babies, Q-tips, and snow float around. Sometimes we are inside the chamber looking out through the woman’s eyes at salmon slapping across the road. Sometimes we drift upside down alongside the woman, as when she rages at Wallace Stevens’s antiseptic “mind of winter” or examines her own anus in a hand mirror (about which more later). Sometimes we are outside looking in at the woman and babies and husband asleep amid Lego men, tampons, insurance denials, drone operators, dried cum, and Christmas cookies. Certain passages of Winter have a trippy quality, and the woman struggles with vertigo, so it seems like my vertical-snowglobe metaphor is perfect. But it’s flawed. There are poets who whip up a glitterstorm of cultural wreckage and try to see through it to some pure, clear space. Sarah Vap isn’t one. There is no clear pure space in Winter. The woman’s body, the whale’s body, the bodies of her children, and the debris of late capitalism cannot be separated. They are all connected, all one complicated, excruciatingly alert organism. Sarah Vap is trying to render every aspect of this organism.

About “Winter,” the poem-within-the-book: Most mornings, the woman hardly writes a word before being interrupted by a human resentfully invading her space with an essential need—to feed, to hold, be held, to complain, tell a joke, or spurt a random fact about the Revolutionary War. As such, Winter is an elegy for an artist’s time as much as for the season disappearing in environmental collapse. Day after day, the woman fails at writing a coherent “Winter.” But she keeps at her task as a form of devotion. “I have come to think of the winter poem not as a poem, but a test of my soul,” she says. 

Time in Winter skips around. A poem with a toddler might be followed by a poem where the child isn’t born. Vap makes folds in time as she writes of her father in present tense, alive, making clear in the same line that he is dead and also that he will die soon. These moves are not confusing because the central ritual of the book—rising early “to write the crucial thing”—is clear. So Vap is free to arrange 200-plus pages of poems (twice as many as Mayer’s Midwinter Day) by texture, tempo, and emotional pitch. This non-consecutive order is what gives Winter the effect of happening all at once even though it covers years.

The years Winter covers are the period in which Vap’s three children exist as an agglomeration of smells, excretions, outbursts, fevers. The poet uses all kinds of language to capture this era—lyrical, contemplative, plainly documentary, whatever she needs at the moment. The weirdest passages of Winter, what Kenneth Koch would point to as “the poetry language,” are punctured by interruption-language. Interruption-language issues from the children or the mother or all of them at once. This creates a comedy that balances Winter’s graver concerns:

So mama can you love someone with your death star yes can you love someone with your blaster yes can you love someone with your carbonite yes can you love someone with your retinal scanner yes can you love someone with your screen door yes can you love someone with your cup of coffee yes.

But you can’t hate someone with your cup of coffee can you? yes you can.

Mateo: You can throw it at their face.

Sometimes interruptions from the nation-state burst through the body of the poem like an alien. In this poem, for instance, which distinguishes between different cries a baby will make: 

The cry of relief because able to breathe and the cry because, after vomiting, hungry again.

The one—we don’t know why, I—there he is. He’s crying.
It’s okay to be mad, sweetie: MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper with sensors and two Hellfire missiles.

Here is a passage from a different poem, which otherwise sounds like the friendliest possible instruction manual on vaginal self-examination:

ExxonMobil a little before the end of your vagina you can feel your cervix.

Donald Trump your cervix feels like a nose with a small dimple in its center. The cervix (from the Latin cervix uteri, meaning “neck of the womb”) is the part of the uterus that extends into your vagina where I.

Vap often ends a line or stanza, as above, with the fragment “I,” although she writes mostly in full sentences. Here is the complete text of another poem that closes with this dangling “I”:


Coffee. Window. Ice,

once the center-spot, behind my brain-sternum mama cracks, I.

The comma here is a little threshold separating “I” from the rest of the line, making an appositive. So “once the center-spot, behind my brain-sternum mama cracks” is the same thing as saying “I.” I is not the woman, and not what poets sometimes refer to as the speaker, but something else: an idea of self. If you break down once the center-spot, behind my brain-sternum mama cracks into its component parts, you get time-location-sound-verb. In my experience, time-location-sound-verb is an excellent translation of “mother.”

One more use of language in Winter: “Drones are probably killing someone right now” appears in tiny type at the top and bottom of every page. So naked is the need of this line to evoke the ongoingness of invisible war, so literal its purpose, that it is a bit embarrassing. But this is what attracts me. It will make me hold drone murder and breastfeeding by firelight together in my hands by any means possible. I feel that this book will stop at nothing. If it could, this book would lick me, make me bleed, it would reach out a needle and etch weapons onto my corneas.

Winter’s babies have names and are individuals, but they are also interchangeable. Vap is not creating characters. She is capturing beingness and energy. The people of this family are “dimensions,” not personalities. Winter is interested in the sticky neural net of the family-animal. It is obsessed with how the family wriggles within networks of larger things—fungal mats, mold, industrial sonar, racism. I realize that, in this review, I refer to both Sarah Vap and “the woman.” The author of Winter and the woman in Winter are almost the same, but not. The woman is mind and appetite and terror. She is hungry. She is happy. Sarah Vap the person narrates the backstory of Winter in its more journalistic passages. To quote poet Anne Boyer, a poet’s job is to make forms. Vap the poet devised the form of this book.

Winter asks: What objects, what traces, will remain of our time? What belongs to us to keep, and what is killing us? What both belongs to and is killing us? How can the sacredness of all this be documented? Sarah Vap considers these questions during her years of pregnancy and childbirth, a “porous” time when:

memories are pouring out of my brains, longing is pouring out of my brains, what I’ve previously thought of as my self is pouring out of my brains, what I’ve learned across the years is pouring out of my brains, all the things I’ve done right and wrong are pouring out of my brains.

As the woman’s old self and memories flow outward, awe rushes inward, crossing the blood-brain barrier to fill her body and consciousness. Awe of her baby’s stinky foot, and of frost. Awe of species, her father, her past, of love’s life-giving and fatal power. Awe, even, of the anus. Several times we find the woman in the bathroom, spreading her buttocks far apart. “Who can look inside the holes of whom,” she asks. “Who, in this nation state, must bend over?” She exposes herself as for a strip search. She wants to look as far inward, literally, as possible. The children know what she is doing but can’t see (Stop pounding on the door I am doing a genital self examination in here! what’s a genital self examination mama it’s when I look at my vulva and butthole in the mirror oh!) This is performance, but not a put-on. It is earnest exposure, an un-hiding. The audience is her children, a reader, G8 nations, the poet herself. By making her anus a site of questioning and self-knowing, Sarah Vap says fuck you to “the statehood maternal,” our patriarchy hell-bent on forcing women, especially poor women, to surrender their vaginas at the cost of their own lives. “If the obscene maternal is a refusal of the statehood maternal,” as Winter suggests, then Sarah Vap will be sacredly, exhaustively, overflowingly, unapologetically, completely and unwaveringly obscene. This makes me happy. It is what I need to be reading.  

Sarah Vap is the author of seven books, including Winter: Effulgences and Devotions (Noemi Press, 2019); Viability (Penguin, 2016), selected for the National Poetry Series; American Spikenard (University of Iowa Press, 2007), winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize; and Dummy Fire (Saturnalia, 2007), winner of the Saturnalia Poetry Prize. Her work has been included in numerous anthologies and journals, including Best American Experimental Writing. She has been the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, several research fellowships, and was the Distinguished Hugo Visiting Writer at the University of Montana. She holds a BA from Brown University, an MFA from Arizona State University, and a PhD from the University of Southern California. She teaches in the MFA program at Drew University.

return to top