Flatback Sally Country by Rachel Custer

By Michael Young
Flatback Sally Country is the second collection by poet Rachel Custer and is remarkable not only for the lyrical beauty of its language but also for the narrative thread that unifies it. We follow Sally, a woman in a small American factory town struggling to become more than the stories the townsfolk tell about her. Because she became pregnant at an early age, she is assumed to be salacious, but determines not to make the mistakes her own mother made while she raises her daughter, Mercy. But it is also the story of those desperate townsfolk who not only box Sally into a particular narrative but are themselves trapped similarly. It is a difficult story, but one told in beautiful poetry. Take a moment to savor the music of these lines,
Goodbye is the bone in the throat of her now,
a huge stone sinking the boat of her now,
while she stands in the bow, child in hand,
singing the last mournful note of her now.
(Song, pg 25)
What a wonderfully balanced use of internal rhyme and repetition. Although packed in tightly, those rhymes don’t clutter the line, but sing and dance demonstrating a notable skill. Here’s another masterful use of repetition:
I hear the things they say.
Listen: I’ve been stuck in this town, in this life,
in this name and all the names they name me,
I’ve been stuck being the person they believed
since I was just a child. Just a pregnant child.
(Mother, pg 30)
 Look at how the use of repetition both informs the problem of being stuck, but also cascades through the various threads, so that we have the phrase “in this” amplifying the dullness of “life” in a small “town,” and a central problem to the collection, which is control over one’s own story or, as indicated here, one’s own “name.” In all these ways, the speaker is “stuck.” And so is the nature of life in smalltown America. As is said at the conclusion of the poem “Mother,” “When was my story no longer mine to tell?” But this is not simply a struggle for self-definition; it is, on a larger scale, the struggle for home and what it means. Home is the centerpiece of this collection, and it is shown in manifold ways. The cover art is a painting by Evan Stuart Marshall called “Leaving Home.” And home is defined variously throughout as a hook, soil, a mother, a house one “can’t see from here,” “where money weighs you down,” and finally a grave. But it starts and is primarily a place where we are stuck.
The opening epigraph to the collection is a quote from Flannery O’Connor’s classic Wise Blood:
“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”
The problem of being stuck frames the whole. And what people are stuck in is the perception or assumptions of others, which makes the drive to find home equal to a struggle for self-definition. As the opening proem to the collection states it,
There is only one story and
it is not this story, sweat and grease and the grace
of ritualized days. The pinch of repetition in the
(History, pg 3)
Not only Sally, but everyone in this small town feels this pinch of repetition, everyone is struggling against despair. Hunger and desperation dominate most of the figures. Hope is a rare commodity found only in odd forms or in the young. Consider Tommy Two Fingers who loses two fingers in factory work and receives a payoff by which he plans to go
on the road. I’m actually a decent singer.
Think o’that! Just ’cause I lost a couple fingers.
(Tommy Two Fingers Quits His Job, pg 55)
Or Sally trying to break the cycle of following bad men, as she saw her mother do, because she asserts:
I’m different, though, now. I’m teaching my
daughter how to pick the right man.
(Daughter, pg 37)
This is another form of hope, another effort to break the cycle of repetition that constitutes life, that sense of being stuck. But the final hope is not for change in itself, any more than leaving one place for another will constitute any real hope or change. Leaving is illusory not in the sense of confinement, but in the way of telling our story. Who we are is inescapable because we carry our stories everywhere we go. As the opening proem hints when it says,

It’s a great place to be from

they might say, and smile. Pretty men and pretty
women and their easy belief that they are moving
forward through the world.
(History, pg 3)
The “easy belief that they are moving/forward,” is illusory. It is a belief that is not true. Everything returns us to our starting point. As the poem “Emigrant” puts it, “the world slopes/toward home.” Or, again, in the poem “Preacher,”
We all face our own trials. I told myself, relax,
in a town this size, every road leads to the highway,
and every highway leads eventually home.
(Preacher, 67)
Or again
(As if away
was a place she might belong.
As if away was a song)
(Sally Considers Taking the Train Away, pg 19)
Or as the title of another poem tells us “Even the Road Away Leads Sally Home.” It is, ultimately, a version of Eliot’s insight in the Four Quartets, “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” But Flatback Sally Country is not about a physical exploration but a metaphysical one: the embracing of the story we are born into, a way to take it and transform it through acceptance.
 It is no surprise that in this collection where people are stuck in a repetitive cycle of bad men, factory work, and the stories others tell about them, that the proem which frames the collection and the concluding poem, come to similar conclusions. Even if it isn’t exactly eternal recurrence, the repetitions of a life are inevitable in some way and so, too, the response to it, the real hope, which is a kind of amor fati.
there is only one way
to live in a place one cannot leave, and that’s
to love it.
(History, pg 3).
This is eventually what home is, the embracing of a cycle. And this is true even if one leaves the place of one’s birth because only by accepting the totality of who we are and where we’re from will we ever be at home, no matter where that is. Thus, the concluding poem “As for me and my house, we will,” is a poem of praise. The title is composed of the opening words of Joshua 24:15, dropping off the final three words, “serve the Lord.” Thus we come also to a kind of faith that redeems those in their struggle. In it, we find all things praised that were central to the despair in the collection. It starts off saying “we will//praise the Lord of porkfat and Flatback Sally,” and goes to “praise hurt,” “praise hunger,” “praise desperate land,” to conclude finally,
call it praise
our best days our hardest days
                                our best days our longest days
(pg 75)
The best days and the hardest days are side by side, as they are in any life. To reject one is to reject the other because they are all of a piece. They are all a part of our story. To embrace that is to find home, the comfort of being oneself. And that is the ultimate redemption found in Flatback Sally Country. A collection of beautifully lyrical poems and a difficult but powerful and redeeming story.
Michael Young’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water, was longlisted for the Julie Suk Award. He received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award. His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous journals including The Los Angeles Review, Pinyon, Talking River Review, and Vox Populi.

Frank Wilson on the poetry of Marion Deutsche Cohen

closer to dyingtruth and beauty.what wearing
Reviewed by Frank Wilson
The second of these volumes takes its title from a course Marion Deutsche Cohen developed and teaches at Arcadia University. The subtitle of that course is “Mathematics in Literature.”
Cohen’s day job is teaching math, and math figures a good deal in her poetry. Lest you think that might be off-putting, fear not. When it comes to math, I am without a trace of comprehension, and I had no problem at all with the references to sets, theorems, and the like. That’s because Cohen manages to communicate what it is like to have a passion for mathematics.
“Memoirs of a High-School Math-Brain,” from Closer to Dying, begins thus:
“The Parabola,” I announced.
“She would choose that one,” whispered three regular teenagers in the back row.
Yes, alas, I would.
The final stanza makes clear why:
Plenty of regular teenage girls got A’s in math.
But they didn’t prefer working on crossing polygons to going to a party.
And they didn’t write little squiggly geometry and algebra shapes in history class.
And they didn’t choose the parabola.
“Not as Much as Before,” one of the poems in Truth & Beauty is a response to students lamenting that they didn’t enjoy math in college as much as they had before college:
“… before college, I was like a kid in a candy store with math … The profundity of math could make me cry.
But in fact I didn’t really need the candy store … Candy was still candy even without the store and fifty years later I’m still a kid with candy. … Loving can come in spurts and it can come back ….
The poems in Truth & Beauty  are based on homework questions and classroom conversations that students and their teacher have shared. They are prose poems. Now, the prose poem has not had much success in English. Cohen’s work precisely because she does not go out of her way to make them “poetic.” The “prosy” parts of “Not as Much as Before” provide just the right context for that “loving can come in spurts” phrase.
While the profundity of math may make people like Cohen cry, it is life that brings heartbreak, and math is no help for that, as “Proof Theory” makes plain:
Like when my third baby died, and the students all know about that, I tried to prove that she couldn’t possibly have died, I said things like “But I ate so healthily”, “I already had two successful pregnancies”. Prove it, God, how did you do it, how could it POSSIBLY have been done?”
Heartbreak itself, though, never dies:
A grave once opened for me.
It was so big, so wide, an entire small house.
And she whom they were lowering was twenty inches
six pounds, fourteen ounces, small enough
To have fit inside me.
The dispassionate precision of these lines only makes the grief more palpable. In “Dreams about One Way in Which Life Goes On,” we learn that the child’s name was Kerin: “I have another baby named Kerin and she also dies. / I say I lost two babies named Kerin … / Another night I lost yet another baby named Kerin. … How many nights can I keep this up?”
And then there is growing old, which means growing “closer to dying,” while visited by insomnia, insinuating dreams, together with pain and memory. Here is “One Brand of Insomnia”:
By day I play Mozart and Bach on the piano.
I play pretty well. I sort of conquer them.
But by night they’re back.
By night they’re conquering me.
This suggests, rather startlingly, that the two conquerings work in synergy. Something akin animates “50-Year High School Reunion”:  “encountering my sixteen-year-old self. … I am hugging her, comforting her, advising her … Yes, I am advising her. And she is listening. She listened.”
Time to go shopping — or, more precisely, thrifting and that is what Cohen does in a good many of the poems in What I’m Wearing Today. Math tags along, of course. In “Math in the Thrift Store,” an “ethnic hand-embroidered top”  prompts interrogation:
What theorem are you? I ask it.
What is your proof?
What’s your Gödel number?
What’s your Gödel name?
But more than number resonates here. The speaker in “What I See in Thrift Stores” claims to seek space, time, “my past.” As in ”What I Wore in the 70s”:
I didn’t dress sexy.
I dressed arty.
I wasn’t a sex object.
I was an art object.
What it all adds up to is a fundamental mathematical truth: the terms on either side of an equal sign are just different ways of expressing the same thing. Cohen’s poems inevitably prove equal to their quotidian details. This is poetry not merely as a manner of speaking, but as an actual way of living.
Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. — The Epilogue. Email him at