Review: Sad Math by Sarah Freligh












Carrie L. Krucinski

Sad Math
Sarah Freligh
Moon City Press
Perfect Binding, 70 pages
ISBN: 978-0-913785-64-5
One of the most important jobs for a poet is to tell the truth as she sees it and have that truth transcend in such a way that the readers recognize this truth in either their life, or the lives of those around them. Sarah Freligh has skillfully accomplished this difficult feat in her new book of poems, Sad Math.  Her poems resonate with those who came of age in the late 1960’s, as well as those who have come of age since, those who’ve struggled with what it means to be independent of the previous generation’s moral code and live life on their own terms. In short, we learn about ourselves.  Freligh writes about experiences many women are told to forget and not speak of again. It is her honesty that draws the reader in and makes her not want to look away, no matter the subject.
Sad Math, is a portal through which the reader goes back in time and lives the life of a young woman in the mid-twentieth century. The young woman Freligh writes of comes to terms with her mother’s illness and death, the strangeness of sex-ed, an unplanned pregnancy and adoption, and eventually middle age. As a young woman in the 1960’s she begins to understand what society expects of her, and she questions the roll women are expected to play next to their male counterparts. Freligh is at her best when going into those dark moments we all refuse to discuss in certain company, if at all. One of the best examples of this is from the poem, “Donut Delite.” The last stanza speaks of the confusion of adolescence and what is sometimes required of women from their male bosses.  The speaker recalls how her boss said goodbye to her on her last day of work:
On my last day the boss pressed
a wad of bills into my hand and kissed me
goodbye. When he slipped
his tongue into my mouth,
I could feel the old dog
of his heart rear up and tug
at its leash. His breath tasted
like ashes. He was my father’s friend.
I was sixteen and didn’t understand
Yet how life can kill you a little
at a time. Still I kissed him back.
Even the reader who has never experienced this type of situation personally, can understand why the speaker kissed the man back. He was a friend of her father’s; that’s probably why she had the job in the first place. It would have been rude not to return the kiss. Freligh frankly tells what happened, but it is that frankness that allows the emotion to take center stage. When discussing the effects of giving a child up for adoption, Freligh uses facts to build tension and allows the reader to interpret what he has read. She does not fall back on sentimentality, which would be easy to do. Perhaps it is Freligh’s background as a reporter which allows her speak of the most delicate matters and vulnerable moments without becoming too precious.  She shows the readers what they need to see, but she never tells them how to feel. In one of her most powerful poems, “The Birth Mother on the Day After,” she speaks of the day she went home from the hospital, a mother without a child. The first four lines of the poem draw the reader in and dare them to look away:
My stitches pinched. The pad
bunched between my legs,
leaked blood all over
my underpants.
Later on in the poem the speaker tells her mother’s point of view:
she thought it best
if we put this mess
behind us. I said
Freligh draws the reader back to, not just the mess of an unplanned pregnancy, but also the literal mess of childbirth. She once again reports what has happened; she does not tell the reader how to feel.
Each of the three sections of Sad Math builds to a crescendo of acceptance where Freligh is able to speak of past lovers, middle age, and the dead without bitterness. This is not to say that she brushes off the adoption of her daughter, in fact, she speaks of this child quite a bit. As a matter of fact, Freligh doesn’t shy away from her feelings when thinking back on the child she let go.
As a way to speak of quiet tragedy that no one else may see, Freligh uses sonnets. It seems that free verse would be easier when it comes to discussing the darkest corners of one’s life; however, the poems in Sad Math that are particularly strong and gripping are that way because Freligh has decided to convey these overwhelming emotions in just fourteen lines. Many of the most emotional poems are set into formal structure.
Another device Freligh uses to cut away unnecessary vocabulary and focus on theme and subject is using the title as plot. By doing this, she is able to write poems, which show a woman remembering a lost child or the death of her mother, but Freligh doesn’t need to worry about context within the poem because she’s given her reader all they need to know in the title. She can quickly get to the marrow of her work and connect with her subject and her reader.
The best example of both these devices is in the poem, “The Birth Mother at Work in J.C. Penney’s Portrait Studio.” Notice that the context the reader needs is in the title. We know who the poem is about, and where the action of the poem takes place. The poems that precede this also give some foreshadowing about where this poem will be going emotionally.  Readers should understand by this point that it is difficult to take portraits after giving a child up for adoption.  In the last stanza of this sonnet, the speaker says:
…Through camera’s lens,
I see what might have been: all grabby
hands and sticky lips. Eternity.
 Sad Math helps readers see that form and emotion are not mutually exclusive. It is rare for a poem to put a reader into an emotional frame of mind just by the title.  Freligh is masterful at sustaining the emotional pull in her poems throughout the entire book. Many times poets concentrate on the first poem of a book and seem to give little thought to the last. Fortunately, that is not the case with Sad Math.  The last poem, “Wondrous,” finds the speaker driving while listening to the radio. The topic at hand is the birthday of E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web. The speaker is taken back to her mother reading the book to her and her sister.
…though this is the fifth time Charlotte
has died my mother is crying again and we’re laughing
at her because we know nothing of loss and its sad math,
how every subtraction is exponential…
Here Freligh looks back on her life before the loss of her daughter and her mother, the loss innocence and youth, and readers are reminded of all they have read and how it seemed as though they were reading about themselves.  The last line of, “Wondrous,” has the speaker’s mother telling her children a decade after her death, “I’m OK.” Freligh’s word choices are direct, not flowery, which makes this collection honest and heart wrenching.  The only thing the speaker, and the reader, needs to hear is that everyone/everything will be OK. That Freligh ends her book with such a clear, simple statement speaks volumes of the artistry that is exhibited throughout this book
Sad Math is not a book only for women, or mothers, or the middle aged—no, it is a book for those who care about the human condition and what people can learn from one another. Readers mourn with Freligh while she writes about her losses, but they also learn from her fighting spirit, which can be funny, boisterous, and reflective all at the same time. Sarah Freligh is one of the best poets practicing the craft today, and to read her is to make contact with the divine.