Sarah Sala’s Devil’s Lake
(Tolsun Books, 2020)
Often, when readers encounter a book addressing queer themes, it revolves around the pursuit of love, or the rejection queer people face from friends or family. But, what about the daily violence queer communities endure? What about the microaggressions, the threats of erasure, the drama, and the sorts of longings which don’t always end up fulfilled because of life cut tragically short? The full range of queer experience remains largely absent from the literary canon.
If one needs a glossary of all the negativities a queer body might face, and then have each and every word re-imagined, re-written, and re-summoned for the sake of said communities, Sarah M. Sala’s debut collection of poetry, Devil’s Lake, makes for a good start. The political climate in the United States post-2016 election introduced an impressive violation of human rights, and LGBT people suffered drawbacks that they haven’t seen in a good decade. Sala’s work clearly reckons with this divisive political climate. From the poems “Blue Dog,” which engages with American gun violence to “Epigrams for Dorothy,” which documents an aging family member losing her memories to dementia, the reader gets the sense that life isn’t always easy for an outsider, and that the possibilities of danger, discrimination, and disappearance are ever lurking.
But, the setbacks LGBT people have faced have been around for decades, if not centuries, if not millennia. In “Nature Poem,” one of the crowning poems in the collection, and one of the best I have read of late, Sala meditates on the eternity of bloodshed queer women routinely encounter. That the poem begins with a toe tag injects a certain level of hearkening intent, especially when followed by an epigraph explaining the murder of lesbian hiker Rebecca Wight by a random shooter. What follows is heartbreaking and lyrical prose:
The feelings of a kiss:
an eager cloudberry
And then a gunshot, an inexplicable and resounding gunshot:
Then death, and then somehow, life afterward:
before I left
As one can surmise, these lines are extremely mobilizing. One feels as if we are hiking alongside Wight and her partner Claudia Benner just before Wight’s murder, from the smells and sensations of the unsuspecting couple, to the confusion and chaos of Benner after. Much like the fourth section of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), The Parts About the Crime, which tries to do justice to the murder and violence that women in Northern Mexico face, Sala has created a document for the times in regards to the inexplicable violence LGBT people face when simply expecting to enjoy the simple things in life. Sala, in other words, combines the action of true crime journalism with the pathos of lyricism, to extremely satisfying results.
Another poem of note in the collection is “On Receiving a Homophobic Letter: A Series of Erasures.” This blackout poem is organized into three renditions of the same letter with most of the writing blacked out, and only certain words left to the reader’s perusal. Sentences like “I’m super-not special” or “I am now filled with his children” jell together with crackles of words like “you but you” or “the fullness you.” In full awareness of the constant erasure and denigration LGBT people face, Sala consciously sculpts what must have originally been pernicious language into prose that allow her to rediscover and reimagine herself and the world at large.
I do often find that a lot of Sala’s shorter poems are witty, and well-worded, but not always emotionally inspiring. One of the best is the inaugural poem of the collection, “Hydrogen” which displays Sala’s combustion of words at work.
You wanna talk BANG? Hydrogen was there at 0:00 hours
in the coke-colored velodrome of dark matter.
Gasses checking gasses ad infinitum—chartreuse flare
then a deafening birth: ions of cosmos cartwheeling pink
red yellow green purple blue black in the sphere of night.
First I was a star, then a stain of water, then a kindergartner.
These words summon Sala into existence, from her early embryonic state into the days of early childhood, and with all of the weight of the cosmos. The play-on words (“coke-colored velodrome,” “ions of cosmos cartwheeling”), the lists of colors and sensations; they corrode and crackle, they exude and elude, they show all of the prowess of Sala’s pen. At the same time, there’s something hollow about the effect. Other poems in the collection left a similar impression on me. The poem “Tanager Street,” for example, documents the loneliness of waiting for a partner to arrive home, but reads like a list of thoughts. The ekphrastic poem “nature vs. Nature,” employs footnotes to provide a second reading, but the words left out didn’t convey an added sense of depth to what was originally written. I wonder if these poems were sprinkled with a little bit more of revealing incidents from Sala’s early years, or if the words employed were aligned in such a way to cohere into a thematic effect, they could have had a bit more of the punch of Sala’s better poems. Instead, they leave the reader impressed with Sala’s talents with language, but don’t necessarily carry momentum for what else is yet to come.
Nonetheless, the collection’s more ambitious poems display Sala’s commitment to formal invention and poetic range, and the best of Sala’s poems more than make up for the flaws of the middling poems. Devil’s Lake absolutely shows a debut poet of startling promise. I look forward to her combined emotional resonance and propensity towards justice to guide the new wave of queer poetry forward.