A review of Flatback Sally Country by Rachel Custer

Reviewed by Joan Leotta

Flatback Sally Country
by Rachel Custer
Terrapin Books
March 2023, Paperback, 96 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1947896628

After reading this book, I had to take deep breath—two of them. One in admiration of the skill Custer employes to evoke Flatback Sally Country, and the other to grab a tissue to staunch the flow of tears over the sadness I had encountered on these pages. Custer pens poems in prose, rhyme, uses space between words as stops to make us ponder on concepts  and where one may rest and exhale for a moment.  This book is somewhat of a novella in verse. If you have never read a book of poetry before, this powerful, slim, volume would be a good, though emotionally wrenching, place to start.

In fact, the closest thing to Flatback Sally Country I’ve ever encountered on paper is another  powerful litany of tales about the life of one person. Told from numerous viewpoints, about how the landscape itself affects her, her past, her present, and more, that book is the Pulitzer prize winning collection of short stories, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Strout explores various aspects of Kitteridge’s life story by story. Custer artfully employs this same technique revealing Sally and her world poem by poem.

With poetry, however, Custer is able to plumb Sally’s depth more deeply than Strout was able to do, even with her excellent prose. Using simple language, in a variety of poetic forms, Custer has created a powerful work that called out to me for compassion. I’ve heard Custer read from this collection and now, reading the entire book, I must say there is only one thing that could add to the beauty and impact of the work: performing the complete collection on stage as a choreographed play. In fact, there were times when reading this book, I felt I could see Sally in the room with me, hear Sally whisper some of these poems to me as if she were repeating the words of those who are quoted in the book.

It’s a hard book to read for empathetic people. The way Sally is treated brought me to the edge of tears more than once, not only for Sally’s suffering and lack of compassion for her but also for the way in which the poem set up a mirror reflection my own deficiencies in the area of compassion. 

One example of such is these opening lines from Custer’s prose poem “Look:

What things half-buried in the dirt of this yard: a hard candy, a used bandaid, the black half-marble of a doll’s eye. Like something caged staring back at something free. Like the rest of the doll is down there watching with envy any face that’s up here looking down.

In our lives there are many Flatback Sallys. Such people often pass unnoticed in big cities, but in small towns and even in those cities, often we see and simply look away. In fact, Custer uses the metaphor of a doll, an inanimate object, a toy, for Sally in several of the poems. 

Custer’s poetic prowess has been recognized often. Rachel Custer is the author of The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). She is the recipient of a 2019 fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts and a 2015 mentorship from the Association of Writers and Writing Program. Her work has appeared in many journals, including Rattle, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, The American Journal of Poetry, The Antigonish Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters (OJAL), among others.

As excellent as the craftsmanship is, the importance of these poems is far beyond their skillful execution as art—their highest value is their social impact. I thought I was a compassionate person until, seeing Sally’s suffering, I wondered—would I have stood up for her? Wounds like Sally’s can only be healed by each of us opening up our individual lock box of compassion. That is the implied hope in Custer’s work, and with her poems, she has given us the keys by bringing us close to Sally. It is up to us to use them. A powerful book.

About the reviewer: Joan Leotta, a Pittsburgh native, is an author and story performer. Her books include, Giulia Goes to War, Book One of the Legacy of Honor Series, Tales Through Time: Women of the South, The Complete Guide to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, Massachusetts, and others for chldren and adults. She writes fiction, non-fiction (food, travel, profiles) and poetry and enjoys life with her husband in Calabash , NC. with occasional forays to her home of more than 40 years, the Northern VA area,where her daughter still lives. Common threads in all of her writing are food and love of family. Her performances include one woman shows of women in the Civil War and colonial times and folktale stagings that stress understanding among diverse cultures. She loves to teach writing and performing.Check out her blog at www.joanleotta.wordpress.com