Book Review

Bad Daughter by Sarah Gorham. Four Way Books, 2011. $14.95

Reviewed by Charles Byrne

For every object in the universe
a skein that will unfold.

Go not into the night darling
forward with your slip hanging.  ("Loose thread")

The trailer for Sarah Gorham’s fourth book of poetry follows the cover artist, Michelle Tock York’s, Metamorphosis character, towing a wagonful of cat, dog, and rabbit as she traces a knotted clothesline that dangles phrases from the poem "When we were good we were…". This is apt, as Bad Daughter is threaded tight by anxiety over cohesion—for the unfolding skein, the slip of the slip, or the dissolution of the self. The constituents of our very physical world are in danger of floating away:

                    … Without birds and their
thread-like courses, trees, we believed,
might float upwards. …  ("When we were good we were…")

As loose as the thread may seem at times, the careful reader will notice persistently recurring stitches throughout the book that signify careful needlework. Gorham, known for her work as co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sarabande Books as well as for her poetry, appears to be at the height of her powers in this collection.

The book’s title, as though spoken by the mischievous, phantom title character herself, is a bit of misdirection. Gorham’s poems are certainly often concerned with the identities of woman, daughter, and mother. But the phrase "bad daughter" is not the name of any poem in the collection and does not, to my recollection, appear in any of its poems. More importantly, there is, of course, no such thing as a "bad daughter." Gorham hints as much, with her epigraph to part II, the cryptic Jewish proverb, "what the daughter does, the mother did." No one is born "bad," no person is universally "bad"—and those we call "bad" reflect, as a mirror, "what the mother" (or father) "did."

But this does not mean that we do not all fear being the bad child, just as we fear being the bad parent. Bad Daughter voices our fear of what we ourselves are capable of—the forces within us:

Then [Shy Violet] laughed uproariously
and unlatched the bunny cages

to set all hoppers free,
loosening a hurricane…  ("Doppelgänger")

As Gorham frequently revisits, being "bad" as a girl is societally depicted in her "losing" herself (even if the danger of being good can be in losing herself in a more important sense): in untidiness, in unbecoming dress, in hurting (not caring) for others, in expressing desire, in experiencing pleasure, in divulging bodily functions.  For the daughter, even today, an especial concern is that of letting the slip show —of negligence in self-containment.

Daughter knew, but still felt foolish, as if she’d let
the water run to overflow.  ("Prick and twinge")

While trees are threaded tenuously by birds in the forest canopy, below the forest floor the girl is in danger of sinking—her self lost, perhaps, to the perils of beauty, while the water lily of her hair remains visible.

It is true when a girl sinks, her hair spreads like a flower,
the last of her to go under.  ("Salon")

Moments like these permeate Bad Daughter. Images that might otherwise be passed over because of the lines’ mellifluous language (here, for instance, the voiced plosives appear only in girl sinks, like, and go, each a key word/ phrase for different reasons) are in fact glittering stars in the firmament of the poems, to which the reader’s eye doubles back. The overall effect of good poetry of this sort is stirring: individual stars might be scanned over, yet each star not only contributes to the whole, but is itself a revelation to the careful observer.

Hair, to return to that symbol of strength and beauty—as well as disgust—does not just flower on the forest floor, but sprouts in surprising places in Bad Daughter: towing a mother ("I hold my daughter’s hair like a dog’s lead./ “Now you follow me,” she cries." – "Follow") or growing grotesquely from dead flesh ("Worse than a hair in your soup, is a long one pulled/ from a bite of meat" – "Salon"). Context matters for beauty, just as it does for words themselves; hair in one place is not the same as hair in another.

Certain other grotesque, and vivid, lines from Gorham’s poem "The end of illness is the end of metaphor"—

she watched a tooth disintegrate

inside a glass of Coke.
Drink this, someone said…

—reminded me of a memorable and apt illustration by the philosopher Daniel Dennett that he drew from a study on disgust by psychologists Paul Rozin and April Fallon (who, fittingly, themselves define "disgust" as "revulsion at the prospect of oral incorporation of offensive objects").

For example, would you please swallow the saliva in your mouth right now? This act does not fill you with revulsion. But suppose I had handed you a sparkling clean drinking glass and asked you to spit into the glass and then swallow the saliva from the glass. Disgusting! But why? It seems to have to do with our perception that once something is outside of our bodies it is not longer quite part of us anymore—it becomes alien and suspicious—it has renounced its citizenship and becomes something to be rejected.  (1989, "The origins of selves")

Dennett’s point is about self versus other, but I think that the illustration also expresses our need to contain ourselves, and the reflection of, say, our own bodily fluids to threaten that. Some fluids, of course, need to be externalized—and we flee them, unless we are being extravagantly bad:

Bird scolded from above as our dog
went rolling, rolling, rolling in horseshit.  ("When we were good we were…")

The fluids that (usually) need to remain internal, such as blood or saliva ("Have you seen the uncles shake their faces like monkeys,/ lips floppy and moist, saliva flying?" – "Immortality"), disturb us when we confront them. The disgust reaction is not only because the offending substance is newly alien, but also because it reflects something amiss, such as illness or injury (just as a hair pulled from an object of "oral incorporation" does).

Self-containment—remaining whole, coherent—is the concern of every living creature. Life is, we might say, simply maintenance of lower entropy in the face of high entropy ("staving off the natural tendency toward equilibrium with one’s surroundings", as the physicist Sean Carroll puts it); which requires a continual struggle until it is, eventually and inevitably, lost. ("For every object in the universe/ a skein that will unfold", as we heard from "Loose thread".) Disease, decomposition, "falling apart" are threats to one’s wholeness and hence threats to one’s life. Hence the alarm of the mother in "Prick and twinge" when

                    … She saw a crimson line,
death infection streaking up her daughter’s ankle.

What is particularly eerie about Gorham’s image of the streaking crimson line is that it is a thin and barely noticeable red line—a veiled fissure seen through the window of her daughter’s skin. Like the baleful cat seen from the fishes’ perspective through the ice in "Pond in winter," where a skin of ice shields them from her for the time being.

           …  Winter insulates—
with just an inch of oxygen
the fish respire, feed, swim,
while our cat is a frenzy of gesture,
paws drumming: You are going
to die.  If not now, in Spring, in Spring.

In these two poems and elsewhere, Gorham calls upon a Hitchockian sense of what we fear: the suggestion of the truly horrible, the anticipation of the worst.

Coming unbound is a threat not only to our physical bodies, but also to us as social beings. When one’s life plan or trajectory is incoherent, it makes us uneasy. When a person is incoherent due to drink or brain injury, we are uneasy. When we cannot make ourselves understood, it is exasperating. Humor—which is common in Bad Daughter—sometimes trades on incoherence in speech, or lack of self-containment of all kinds; but humor, of course, precisely tends to trade on what makes us uneasy.

We are creatures bound by sense-making. Which suggests, finally, the quest of the poet. A type of communicator, the poet’s paramount struggle is to make words cohere. She must allow sense to flower, but then corset it on the page, tightening with just the right amount of force. Logorrhea is abhorred by the poet (even—perhaps especially—for the prose poem or the freest verse; if tennis can be played without a net, to summon Frost, it’s not clear that it can still be tennis without racket, ball, sidelines or baselines). The right words for the right moments, and no more.

And though poets tend to find meaning everywhere, sometimes meaning is elusive—just outside our grasp, like the visual disturbances known as "floaters" (phenomena about which Gorham may have written in Bad Daughter not only the first, but the first three poems). "Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting" (Frost again)—but meaning is always in danger of melting with the cube, evaporating with the water.

Gorham rides the piece of ice. She is a herder more than a corraller of meaning. Hers are verses (turns) among stanzas (standing places). Like the sheepdog narrator of "Pounce", the reader is first carried along by his elation for most of the poem, then turned by surprise, then left pensive—the last line also a fitting metaphor for writerly discontent.

                    … We held a downright liberal picnic,
right there, plashing in the sun. I ate them one by one.
Then lay back under the feather-dusted sky, pondering.
I had to admit the taste was not so pleasant, really.

Gorham’s Bad Daughter reflects a writer’s lifetime of careful, considered poetic thought. She writes in the epigraph to part III that "Researchers have found that certain cells escape from a fetus, persisting in the mother’s bloodstream decades after she is pregnant." The reader senses that, like the child who literally remains with the mother for the rest of her existence, the world has been collected cell by cell and stored by Gorham as she has observed it, to surface later in her poems.

The concept of the "bad daughter" may represent chaos, messiness, unrestraint, vexatiousness, cunning—with both "a desire to know" and "a drop of cruelty" (from her Nietzsche epigraph to part I). If so, it represents the archetypal life force that we living beings channel and contain. Gorham’s Bad Daughter is the scion of that force, harnessed by the boundaries of line and cover.

Charles Byrne is a poet and philosopher from Illinois, whose recent work includes a poem forthcoming in Poetry Quarterly.  Some of his oldest friends are from Wisconsin—Madison, mostly—and his most recent visit (of many) was to protest in the Capitol last spring.