A review of Bright-Eyed by Sarah Sarai

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

by Sarah Sarai
Poets Wear Prada
March 2024, $18.00, 60 pages, Paperback, ISBN: 978-1946116284

Bright-Eyed could be subtitled, “Advice for the Perplexed.” In the title poem, she cautions, ‘Zero in on the thing bright-eyed and hopping with more.’ In prose poems and unrhymed verse, Sarah Sarai charms us with her outlook on life.

In her Acknowledgments, Sarai sends love to her family, “the warmest, funniest, most talented, most generous folks around,” and that love is evident in the wisdom she offers her nephew and niece in poem after poem. “The Crooked Road Without Improvement,” with an ironic epigraph from Nietzsche, comfortingly advises, “We die absolved at the end: roads, you, me.”  In another poem she fondly addresses them, “O You of the Cotton Pajamas!” Summing up in “Souls in the Penalty of Flesh”:

            We are much too or not enough ignorant of our splendor.
            We are souls in the penalty of flesh;
            yet by the nectar of flesh, we live in the consciousness
            of a girl, twelve, twelve and studying
            the ambient inhalation of family.

Family is indeed central to Bright-Eyed. “How Brilliant Beethoven” is a humorous if chaotic prose poem in memory of her father. And her mother? In the same poem Sarai writes, “She gave birth four times and also could drown mice in the toilet or a pail of water.” She gave birth to four daughters, actually, one of whom, her oldest sister, as friends with Judee Sill, the infamous singer-songwriter who died from a drug overdose. In “Hotting the Spoon” Sarai writes:

My sister was arrested
for being a hippie in Texas.
Mom concentrated the weather.
A hurricane slammed the Lone Star State,
Where was Judee then?
In London with the Kinks?
At Dale’s in the flats of Hollywood?
In a house thrumming with albums?
Death is a spiritual reorganization.

Later, when Sarai writes about her own sexuality – in “The First Time I Had Sex” (“He said, / ‘Now you’re a woman.’ / I thought, not your call.”), “After and Sometimes Stonewall,” and “The Pink Yonder” – she wonders, “did Judee know I was queer?” Sill had died before Sarai herself had sorted it all out.

This suggests how the implications of “the past” are always on Sarah Sarai’s mind. Again, her speculations often sound as if she is advising someone. Her nephew and niece? “Bright-Eyed” opens with the sentence, “The past is over, and that happens more than you think.” A puzzling aphorism, but she goes on to explain herself. “Not Me, It Cries” humorously opens:

My past doesn’t haunt me.
I haunt my past.
In the middle of the night, it jerks ‘wake:
“Shit. Now what’re you gonna blame me for?”

How often do we seek to absolve ourselves by pleading the ignorance of youth? But it’s true, isn’t it? If I knew then what I know now….. The poem ends:

Youth is now cringe-worthy.
“I don’t know why that’s gone,”
my past cries, confused
about age’s clarity.

On the other hand. as she writes in the title poem, “Memory is unreliable, making misdirection the sticker price of retrospection.” Depending on the day and one’s frame of mind, the past can be better or worse, more shameful or more glorious. She echoes this in “Some Mysteries of Youth Unsolved (Where I Lived When I was 13)” when she writes, “lives reenact contorted / memory, reenactment being / a distortion, a cry…”  But she observes in “”Wasted in a Special Way,” “It is always good to be young and loaded,” and this again sounds like reassuring advice to the young. Indeed, in “Big Little Lambs” she tells us:

My nephew and niece,
half-white all-Black,
don’t care about my divided self,
my split-at-the-rootness,
Christian blah blah Jewish blah blah.

It’s as if she is spelling out the complications that define so many of us, and both taking and giving reassurance to the young. Nothing is ever so simple. Nothing. It’s all part of growing up, growing older. Sarai concludes the poem, “Still Not, No”:

To have a self
That’s an art

“Examine your life / worth living,” she advises in “Patio-Speak,“ echoing Socrates. “Nothing,” she emphasizes,

is easy except hiding
which is
crack cocaine cut with angel dust.
It’ll destroy you quick.

To thine own self be true. More wise advice like this is contained in the very title of the poem, “Swim to Shore, Kid.” It’s not easy, she acknowledges, but it’s basically all up to you – and you have my support! “We’re all water, mainly,” she observes, comfortingly. Race, sexuality, identity are all provisional. What is is soul and body, flesh and spirit, and it’s as if the soul is trapped in the body like a transient in a cheap motel. Sarai concludes the poem “It Is the Body that Gives Us Away” (with the lovely epigraph from Sun Ra: “Prepare yourself for the moonship journey”):

Take off, Soul
Problems of bodies are for the living
Problems of hell for the living and dead

Sarah Sarai is full of good humor, earned wisdom and sound advice, not just for her nephew and niece but for all of us. But as she wittily cautions at the start of “A Vegas Vegan,” “I never promised you a statistician.” Nor a rose garden either! But you’ll enjoy her poetry nonetheless, no matter how perplexed you remain. Bright-Eyed is a delight to read. If it doesn’t make you any more judicious or more astute, at least you’ll be enchanted by Sarah Sarai’s words. 

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp, is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review, and author of Mortal Coil, A Magician Among the Spirits, and See What I Mean? published by Kelsay Books in 2023.