My thanks to Eleven, Eleven and reviewer Sabrina Barreto for the close read and this generous review of Split the Crow.
SPLIT THE CROW, BY SARAH SOUSA
Parlor Press, 2015
Reviewed by Sabrina Barreto
I’m swallowing a story
that ends with blood-stained snow.
I know how this looks.
It appears to be true.
So begins Sarah Sousa’s second volume of poetry, Split the Crow. The opening poem, “Her Moods Caused Owls,” serves as an immediate sine qua non of the book: history, and the individual human stories at its core, is not an issue of fallacy and truth. History is a matter of accountability, and stories are accumulated moments that pivot into cornerstones.
Just as history braids the threads of human lives, so Sousa gathers multiple voices into a chorus that rages and laments. Her chorus is a mingling of Native Americans and European colonizers, speaking initially from the Contact Period in 1600s New England, then traversing Midwest in the early 1900s. The brutality and subjugation that are mentioned as abstracts in American history textbooks return to their breathing, bleeding bodies in Sousa’s hands.
All are culpable, and it is Sousa’s unflinching stance toward her personae that gives her lyric-narratives power. In Part I, which features several accounts of archaeological observation, she excavates the burial grounds and personal effects of children, denoting how objects like the “left forepaw of a bear” (8) and a medicine pouch “Small as a tablespoon” (18) carry their emotional heft: “Sometimes love is expressed with a stone / heavier than what lies beneath it” (8).
Among interred bodies, foreign voices soon rise. The recurrent “Remove” poems, written from the perspective of captive Mary Rowlandson, provide visceral insight into the terrors experienced by settlers’ families seized and marched in raids: “Nine days on my knees. I leave / jelly-red bowls in the snow when I stand” (13). In her trademark forte, Sousa’s images subvert tenderness with violence: “I watched the goodwife, heavy with child, / stop and have a game of ring-a-roses / played with hatchets on her skull” (20).
But the most horrifying voices belong to the men who condemn: Puritan missionaries. Roger Williams’ hypocrisy appears first, succeeded by John Eliot’s pseudo-Algonquin Bible and his suggestive translation that “cleave is both / cut and cling to” (26), then cemented with a Christianized native’s confession “Satan makes me homesick… Reverend, I believe Satan is easier / with me” (29).
In comparison, the most captivating voices belong to liminal women: the native midwife complicit in infanticide, the native mother who bears a colonizer’s “mottled” stillborn (25), and, in Part II, a slave adopted by the Cherokee as “a gift given”(45) juxtaposed with a slave impregnated by a native and rejected by his tribe.
If Part I of Split the Crow was the Civil War, then Part II would be the Reconstruction. While the first half delves into decimation, the second half deals in “Survival and Other Skills” (56). No longer driven towards death, Native Americans live in death’s presence: the asphyxiation of their way of life. In response, tribal elders gather the living and ghosts alike, while they are caricatured against the “clever cowboy” in the “Indian Exhibit” (53) and their children are “Renamed at Boarding School” (54), where “Speaking Kiowa could get a boy thrown / across the room, collar bone snapped” (55).
Yet, in a longing for past rituals, there is more space for warmth in Part II: a “Courtship scene drawn on an envelope” (39), a lacemaker’s hodgepodge scrapbook of remedies and censuses, and daughters who still “cut hair, make light biscuits” (56) like their grandmothers. Sousa explores how memory is processed and contained not only in the body, but moreover through tradition – traditions that she draws upon from her female forbears in poetry.
In particular, there are four poets that inform Sousa’s work. There is Dickinson, with her crystalline diction, and Bishop, with her quiet details and narrative sequencing, but there is especially Plath and Glück. Sousa shares Glück’s sharpened sensitivity and intense adaptation of persona, and creates incantations reminiscent of the “Vesper” / “Matin” poems in Iris. Like Plath, Sousa streamlines fury, harnesses “quick and liquid” (26) sounds, and accentuates the energy of death, with a strong sense of fracture.
Split the Crow is a book that wrenches and haunts, “dark / and sweet as a raven’s wing” (19). In excavating the remains of a past life and culture’s lifeblood, Sousa’s reaffirms indigenous force, if not authority: “Sad because extinct but still / possessing mythical teeth, legs, claws” (6). History doesn’t slumber – it is couched in shadow, waiting to emerge from dust.
Sabrina Barreto is a Bay Area wordsmith and MFA Poetry candidate at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She is currently the International Editor and Poetry Coordinator of literary journal Eleven Eleven. She has received the Academy of American Poets Tamara Verga Prize, two consecutive Ina Coolbrith Memorial Poetry Prizes, and two Shipsey Poetry Prizes. Her work has appeared in The Bohemian, the Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle, the Santa Clara Review, and explore Journal.