Review | Dummy Fire, by Sarah Vap
A poetic image can touch the depths before it disturbs the surface, as Bachelard says. If we understand this principle, we’re ready to receive Sarah Vap’s radical imaginative leaps in her debut poetry collection, Dummy Fire (winner of the 2006 Saturnalia Book Prize). In Vap’s poems, we encounter such surprises as a dress with the secret memory of a cow, and “pelvis-shaped clouds” that move over a snake-handler as he burns a tick off a snake. She writes often of mothers and sisters, landscapes and mystics, with a cowgirl-nervy wit balanced by tenderness. Throughout Dummy Fire, Vap raises questions about what is authentic and true versus what is fake or “dummy”—like trees witnessing a deliberate fire, or a mysterious nomad that may, or may not be, Santa.
Vap’s alchemic knack for startling imagery and juxtapositions draw from the poetic reveries of the French surrealists, such as Breton. In addition to Vap’s adventuresome associations, what makes her poems so refreshing is her oddball, laconic verve. Vap’s strings of endlessly inventive images are often followed by disarming non sequiturs, for example: “Bees at the beach shower. Five maidens in succession panting like oxen. Her wrists / are like goats in a stall.” Vap’s sly syntactical manipulations underscore the dazzling repetition of motifs that eventually become revelatory: “She tells Bonnie that the ocean comes from the shower, bullets / like bees from yellow canaries. The goat comes from the wrists and the maidens / from scattered hair.”
In Poetics of Space Bachelard asserts that “by its novelty, a poetic image sets in motion the entire linguistic mechanism.” But how can we distinguish between a truly revealing juxtaposition and the use of novelty for novelty’s sake? In “Sister Sleepwalks in Kona,” Vap’s depictions of mother-daughter and sibling relationships are novel in their metaphors, yet successfully anchored in unique dramatic circumstances: the mother “wears the yellow dress of canaries,” while the sisters agree to “lure a cat” by lying down in a pineapple field. Vap’s ubiquitous layer of menace keeps her edgy poems far from sentimental portraits of loved ones, as she observes “Hay on pavement, and mother’s nose / bleeds into tomato soup.”
Dummy Fire also inherits William Blake’s symbolic reflections of inner life, and his radical imagination. Vap explicitly evokes him in “The Built-In Accident—A Marriage of Heaven and Earth” and “crying into the rushlight and candlelight of winter—how blake was born,” in which she assumes Blake’s persona. Vap imagines the moment when Blake first sees an angel with “the plainest whitish / patina.” Strangely, Blake’s visions are “workmanlike,”
to star-child, or changeling—the new genealogy:
blanche. a bona-
fide who despised landscapes and women…
As Blake draws spiritual truth from visionary Biblical narratives, Vap reinvents the mythology of Santa Claus in unexpected ways in “Land of Blue Snow: A Christmas Poem.” Here Santa is depicted as a seer:
Prophet and his reindeer. His fingerprints
while we tell him things.
Is this the real Santa and his reindeer? Not the ones we know, surely. The speakers notice how, “Bandages of rain on branches trick us. / Reindeer moss tricks us,” implying that reality is slippery, unreliable. Evoking the canonical states of hell in Tibetan Buddhism, the prophet must “Reconcile: eight hot hells / and eight cold hells,” suggesting that the eight reindeer are metaphors for the prophet’s own spiritual division.
The charged imagery toward the end of the poem transforms the scene through its fresh look at the Biblical lake of fire turned upside down by the season’s coldness:
this one wears a white dress.
even the color on edge. Turquoise flower
fatally apart. Search, smell—this giant of ice
who throws bread at the neighbor’s dog. Loaves,
of daughters in the wading pool. Like throwing fingers.
“Christmas Morning: Dyeing the Saint’s Beard,” the third, and perhaps the most cryptic, “Christmas poem” offers even more fluid versions of reality. Are we observing a saint or a shamanic eccentric who has Freudian nightmares? The “saint” wears “A feathered headdress” and bizarrely “dreams of eating esophagus” while “cupping his genitals / in sleep.” This poem recalls the dream logic of Vap’s other poems, such as “Horse-Boat” (“there can only be intelligence / in all of Iceland’s bees”) and “Prophecy Spots” (“Deer appear at the edges. / Our dog is burning, so you cut off / her legs”). The emotional energy behind such dreamlike associations illustrates Emily Dickinson’s intuitive knowledge that a poem is good “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.”
Vap’s skillful balance of surrealism using flat declaratives saves her work from mere arbitrariness. She often uses statements that shift suddenly to pathos. “X times X is X” begins with the image of “moons touch[ing] / themselves,” and moons “fall[ing] through the sky,” then undercuts the potential Romanticism of such imagery with a tonal shift: “Moon? Sod to hear thighs— / shit-black.” Elsewhere, she tells us:
The romance hospital is dull.
she thinks her underpants are two kittens
Whether we’re peering into a prophet’s Christmas pilgrimage, or reading an “Essay on Skinning a Fox,” Dummy Fire is outstanding in its originality, its vividness, and its explosive lyrical esprit. As Vap instructs us in “Trees have been witness”: “Accumulate // to uncover. Cover to reveal. And the ones / left unrevealed? Possibly, the dummy fire.” Throughout the dream realm and the domestic, Vap illuminates the strangest of places with her uncompromising spiritual light.
Sarah Vap is the author of two poetry collections, Dummy Fire (Saturnalia Books, 2007), winner of the 2006 Saturnalia Poetry Prize, and American Spikenard (University of Iowa Press, 2007), winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. She grew up in Missoula, Montana, and received her MFA in poetry from Arizona State University in 2005. She currently teaches creative writing at Phoenix College and in the Phoenix public schools for Arizona State’s Young Writers Program. Her work has been published in FIELD, the Denver Quarterly, the Colorado Review, and Natural Bridge. She is currently a poetry editor for the online journal 42opus.