Terrapin books

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.

The Infinite Doctrine of Water by Michael T. Young


By Larissa Shmailo

William Carlos Williams famously wrote: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” And the poet Anna Wrobel demanded, “If poets aren’t prophets, / what are they?/ If poets aren’t prophets, /what good are they?” More than any other art, we expect wisdom from our poets, even as we also demand the usual things we want from the arts: beauty, inspiration, elegance, connection, revelation. Dickinson, Whitman, and Frost delivered on those scores, and in an intimate, deceptively simple way, so does Michael T. Young, who takes up the mantle of poet as philosopher and fabulist in his rich collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water.

Young’s wisdom is paternal, and its source is nature, and the advice of natural history is couched in lyrical language full of subtle twists and delights. In “Advice from a Bat,” our Aesop adjures: “Hunt only at night. Fly erratically. Defy even your own expectations / . . .  Cultivate the myths about you . . .”  Many poems of Doctrine are like unexpected gardens in the center of lower Manhattan, replete with catkins, beech trees, lemons, dandelions, bioluminescence, chameleons, and gingko trees. And water schools us through the title poem’s prosopopeia:

Go around, it says, or through or under or over,
but go on.
Stand still for no one and no thing,
because when you stop,
your breath will thicken and grow dark,
the life swimming in you
rot. The stones will not preserve you,
their hands will not endure; in fact, you will grind
them down to pepper the way for those who follow.
Whatever trinkets you pick up,
soften them in your hands, shaping them
with the gentle art of friction . . .
                                    –“The Infinite Doctrine of Water”
Like the water which carves a way for those who follow, Young’s natural history explores, or more aptly, carries the past, a theme signaled by the epigraph from Stephen Dunn, who terms it “unfinished work . . . seductively revisable.”  The elegant lyrical sestina “The Generosity of the Past” shifts light, memory, and a changing relationship with subtle chiaroscuro.
In our apartment there was always light
splitting through the windows like mercy,
illuminating bookshelves and what we thought,
our conversations or our glasses of wine
lifted to toast each day of generosity:
the quantity surpassing what we knew.
The poet walks the streets of lower Manhattan and nearby Jersey, an observer of its denizens and architecture, the tacit memory of 911 always at the tip of the lyricist’s tongue. In his peregrinations he declares, like Borges’s Funes the Memorious, “that is to truly live—be a master of minutiae, every  marginal  memory,” but realizing “part of me was missing.” In “Birdwatcher,” he surveys his ground zero home, finding that coming to terms with tragedy may not always be possible in the “shadows it can cast but never catch.” But the poet notes growth attributed to the homo fabers of all epochs:
Years later, as I pass a construction site
and each morning, there’s a little more cement,
a few more girders, wiring and steel,
fused under acetylene flies,
I realize all those hands, all those minds
pick their way through halls of carbon and fly ash,
trace potentials down molecular paths of iron,
water and gravel, bits and pieces like breadcrumbs
trailing all the way back to subterranean lavas
and prehistoric furnaces, the inhuman fires
that go into making every habitation and home.

In The Infinite Doctrine of Water, bridges and subways and the station at Journal Square and Wall Street’s narrow lanes become an ecosystem full of flora and strange fauna, strangely haunted and strangely hopeful, connected viscerally to the past, animated by a lyrical pen that brings its fond transcendental musings to it, and luckily, to us.

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Larissa Shmailo is a poet, author, translator, editor, and critic.