Review by Dawn Leas
Fordham University Press, 2014
Perfect Binding, 60 pages
Since my son is an undergraduate student at Fordham, I usually find my way to the Fordham University Press booth when I attend the annual AWP conference, and this year in Seattle, I was able to speak with Elizabeth Frost, who is the Poets Out Loud series editor. During our conversation, I mentioned that I write reviews for Poets' Quarterly, and she suggested Gray Matter by Sara Michas-Martin, which was selected by Susan Wheeler for the 2012-2013 Poets Out Loud Prize. I agreed, and then since Sara happened to be right near the booth, I had the rare opportunity to meet an author prior to reviewing the book. When I asked her to describe the book, she said that it is about science and philosophy and community; that it moves from the personal I to the community I and back again. I walked away looking forward to reading the collection (even more so when I saw a blurb from a neuropsychologist on the back), and I was not disappointed when I began reading it on the flight home and then when I recently finished a second reading of it while sitting on a beach during vacation.
For this debut collection, Michas-Martin becomes an artistic chemist, head bent over a formula for a new elixir that not only enlivens the exterior world and animates personal experience, but also opens the interior world wide open helping readers wend through the vast landscape of gray matter where seeing, hearing, remembering, emoting, speaking, deciding and self-controlling reside. And she shows us the gradations of gray by exploring the science and art of the mind – how it works or sometime mis-fires; how it processes memory, experience, images and words.
Michas-Martin writes in beautifully tight language, making just about every word carry weight. There is a litheness to her economy, one that you know does not come easily, but only with serious focus and practice on the part of the writer. Many lines lead readers quickly across and down the page. Others stretch their legs and arms lengthening the time eyes are on them, allowing brains to decipher meaning.
“Olfaction” is punctuated with long and short lines, its phrases separated on each line by white space. They spill and tumble over each other like salt and pepper from shakers:
around the olfactory bulb it's impossible
to name directly a scent that opens on you
like a fire alarm carrot yanked clear out of the ground
or the whisper you inhale from a few rooms over...
Some poets jumble into a crumpled piece of paper what seem like disparate images and ideas, and then in the un-balling of the paper create an exquisitely executed poem. Michas-Martin is one of them. The dance of details within many of the individual poems is a force to be reckoned with, a artistic display to be contemplated.
From “Since He Asked:”
They saddle me with flatware,
I let the plants die
A music stand does not belong in the field.
in oversized boxes;
I should want this
and a white dress.
Writing in a formula laced with personal experience, Michas-Martin gives us vivid images of Lake Michigan, the comfort and angst of summer camp and home, the love and grit of marriage. These are poems that are relatable and reachable.
….When a new sand bar appears, it's flagged
and named for its uncommon shape. Working faster and all the time now, the men
are moving Lake Michigan...
Michas-Martin does not shy away from exploring the workings of the brain, the science behind its successes and failures; from blending philosophical questions with tiny tidbits of daily life in a poem; from questioning a lot. Sometimes she arrives at the answer, but she is also not being afraid to leave the question open-ended.
From “To Know It Again:”
The mind has some idea
of what to do
because it's always been invested
in the enterprise of seeing,
of how something feels
and how it operates and if
it's been here before, certain
about the death of many cells
or the time in line at the bank
you hugged the wrong mother.
In “Trichotillomania” the reader travels back to a summer camp cabin, the sting of being singled out for being different even when it is due to a disorder beyond the cabin mates control:
...Because of your ugly-making habit
we don't share our lip gloss.
We don't like your strange
brooding weather, or your face
“Capgras Syndrome” and “Cotard Syndrome” also portray stunning images of what happens when the brain misfires, when human biology goes astray.
In a short 60 pages, Michas-Martin covers a broad landscape - marriage, childhood memory, place of origin, travel, nature, psychological disorders, to name a few. Throughout most of it, she succeeds in making the interior accessible, the exterior more alive, and the abstract more tangible. This becomes more evident the more time a reader spends with the collection's poems. I recommend making the commitment to dive into it more than once. Each time you do, the deeper you will sink into meaning and understanding; the author's thought processes will become more vibrant each time; and the world of each poem will become multi-dimensional.
Dawn Leas’s chapbook, I Know When to Keep Quiet, was released in 2010 by Finishing Line Press. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her work has appeared in goldwakepress.org, Literary Mama, Willows Wept Review, Southern Women’s Review, Interstice, Poetry in Transit, and others. She is the Associate Program Director of the Wilkes University low-residency creative writing MA/MFA programs.