Zara Raab, Fracas & Asylum, David Robert Books, 2013
by Kathrine Yets
Zara Raab has published many poetry collections over the years— Rumpelstiltskin, or What's in a Name?, Swimming with the Eel, and The Book of Gretel. Her poems also appear in many literary magazines, including Crab Orchard Review and River Styx, and are often inspired by life on the northern California coast.
Zara Raab's newest poetry collection, published through David Robert Books, Fracas & Asylum inspired me with its personal truths, often told through a nautical lens. She uses ships and sea life as motifs as well as metaphors for her emotions. In her poem “Attachments,” Raab relates the poem's narrator to an octopus, “Sometimes I'm the Octopus,/ I have his knack: I too unsnap/ the ill-formed or too zealous—/ the ones who grow too attached” (31). She reveals a secret about the persona through this unruly sea creature. This poem is also a good example of Raab's play with language, off-rhyming with “knack” and “unsnap.”
I usually am annoyed by rhyme, but Raab often places the rhyme just right, so as her scheme was not noticeable. In her poem “Brown Bag” she uses the scheme a-a-a-b-b-b, and I did not realize this until I reread the poem. Many of the lines are off-rhymes, but they rhyme nonetheless. Her first stanza reads, “This morning I discover/ forgotten in a corner—/ the wad of stiff, brown paper/ that once held muffins./ Tiny poppy seeds spin/ inside the scent of lemon” (21). The rhymes/off-rhymes are barely noticeable, “discover” with “corner” and then with “paper” and “muffin” with “spin” and then with “lemon.” If you are a reader who loves rhyme, you have come to the right book.
If you are a reader who just experienced heartache, you have also come to the right book. One theme woven into this collection is separation/divorce. The first stanza of “Divorce” and a few that followed felt hallow without concrete details, “All those years, I didn't listen/ when you complained of discontent,/ your frustration with me, your burden,/ but prattled on, and overspent,/ spoiling our children/ on ribbons and satin./ I listened only to my own torment” (23). I wanted more out of this poem, more details. “His Absence,” for example, has a lovely second stanza, which reads, “Casting off widow's weeds, opening the gate,/ I go to his room under the gable/ as if there never was a divorce/ like an autopsy upon a table” (25).
Raab also paints the reader a picture of childhood in many of her poems. One of my personal favorites is “Carrots.”
This bright orange variety of flora
so often served to us at six o'clock
as we pulled our chairs to the Formica,
I name now the cousin of hemlock.
Their long bodies once growing in the dark
in caskets of soil by the spring scallions,
Mom brought them home from the corner mart,
and cooked them down to those soft medallions.
Dad said, using the tone of all despots,
(carrot or stick, these were our options)
“Eat up, now, or else. East all your carrots.”
Bitter madelaines, those soft medallions.
Their leafy, little tufts wave in the air,
saying, “Dig up this grave,” saying, “Pull here.”
She gives us bits of her childhood in the second section as well as bits of her parents' personalities, especially in her poem “Pangaea.”
One poem that left me with an eerie feeling is in the last section. “Death of Young Girl by Fire” begins by describing the car accident about to happen, then leads into the accident, “spinning her across the center line/ dividing her from death, accelerating/ her to light speed to met the Zion of flame,/ this child of sixteen, this dark-haired beauty... the girl who could not grasp why all the lanes/ from Baja to Maine had not become synagogues/ of fire as she watched her only sister rise/ on pyres un grieving in the awful heat.” (92). This moment, the way Raab describes it, took my breath away.
Kathrine Yets is a graduate of UW-Whitewater.