Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Catharine Clark-Sales: Brats

Catharine Clark-Sayles organized her recently published chapbook from Finishing Line Press quite logically. She opens with "First Fish," proceeds to "Act 2, Scene 2," and then delves into the tender flesh of growing up a military brat, moving a dozen times in as many years, trying to fit in at school and into her skin, as her mental gifts and discipline came into bloom in adolescence and adulthood. The result is a skillful rendition of a caring and competent physician and poet. She closes with the perfect poem, "Night Call." Here are its closing lines:

     I will not resent more than a little

     my dream forever gone, not curse you

     for the warmth cooling beneath my quilt.

     I will not hold you accountable

     for the missing hour of sleep.

     I will love the crescent moon, the sudden deer

     and the hustling skunk on my street as I return.

     I will love this midnight world.

     I will love my skill.

     I will love your need.

Not only does this agile poet, who almost always finds her balance on a secure high wire stretched somewhere between the sheer cliffs of Vulcan logic and Captain Kirk's over-the-top sentimentality, give us an insider's view of what it's like to stand guard above the chasm of death that will engulf us all, she actually creates the need for her own poems with narratives that have no resolution except to dissolve into lyrical lines, and then finally into the blank spaces between them.

In "Alas, Babylon Was the Code"--a literal statement of fact from her childhood, when her military officer father told her mother if he ever called and used the words "Alas, Babylon" to load the kids into the car and drive as far and as fast as she could to avoid impending nuclear bombs-- Clark-Sayles enacts this process in graphic, yet tender language. The poem opens with the following lines:

     After the towers fell     planes did not fly
     their trails of white stitching     the sky
     was bluer     like when I was a child     Colorado
     sky     high enameled blue     deep and wide
     clouds moved across     puffy white masses
     plume of a plane passing     a seldom thing

She then concludes with the subjects of her narrative (clouds--both natural and human-made), finding a life of their own:

     I would gallop     with them     across the gravel
     playground     running fast     before the wind
     they ran raster     I fell     rolled to watch
     the others move     up the mountain     evaporate

Once staking out her topical territory--growing up a military brat, whose background and mental gifts helped her become a physician with an expected grit, yet unexpected dose of sensitivity--whatever poem the reader comes upon is bent toward that landscape like a thirsty plant's roots toward water, its hungry leaves toward the sun. Simple poems such as "Tumbleweeds," "Chorus" (about "...those of us from nowhere, / or from too many places to name them all"), "Deluxe Puzzle," and "Divide," for example, are imbued with ontological connotations, in addition to their denoted meanings.

I have the advantage of living in the same county as Catharine Clark-Sayles. Recently, I heard her read two of the poems from the heart of Brats that speak directly to the bewilderment and inevitable  accommodation that comes when confronted with the experiences of adolescence ("On The Algebra of Collaboration"), and death ("First Call Night"). This poet-physician particularizes these universals by getting inside the condition of growing up without permanent roots, and in providing people with solutions to life or death issues with competence, humor, empathy and vulnerability--in other words, with her humanity.

Clark-Sayles gets it right with poem order most of the time. Her last three poems are spot-on. However, I would prefer opening this short book with the power of the two poems mentioned above. I do recognize the personal importance to the poet of "First Fish," a narrative about catching fish with her father who, after she hooks her first, responds with "That's my number-one girl."

For me, this thin chapbook is a "number-one collection." Short, powerful, relevant poems, with a voice I trust. It doesn't get much better. I close with what may be my favorite poem, at least until I read Brats again. Then, I'm sure, I'll find another.

     First Call Night

     Don't feel guilty, it's really not your fault.
     The nurse says "We need you to pronounce"
     and all I know by heart is "Jabberwock" and that
     would scare the widow but now you've really done it
     with snicker snack and formal blade stuck in your brain.
     Your career is over if you giggle
     in front of this nurse or this man's kids.

     You have got to get his name--Something-vich.
     You've only been this guy's doctor for three hours
     and forty-seven minutes and the nurse
     was definite about "No Code." You
     are just the night call intern, haven't figured out yet
     how to sign M.D. so it looks like it belongs,
     but you've got to get his name right,
     "Something-vich and how many family are in the room?

     Look serious but kind. Keep your hands
     in your pocket if they shake. The nurse says
     "Room 918. Get the family to go home
     so we can get him downstairs to the morgue,
     admits are stacking up in ER."
     The chart reports "Pancreatic CA, prognosis grim."
     Even on the cancer ward you don't say "death."

     Don't stammer over doctor when you say
     "I'm the on-call doctor" and remember:
     it really is not your fault that the small dark woman
     with reddened eyes sobs in a chair next to the bed
     and the people clustered under the get-well balloon
     look at you as if dark wings sprout from your new white coat.

     The waxy ivory stare of the man in the bed, Mr.--what is his name?
     isn't holding any blame as you flick the pen light firmly, beam shining
     down into still black wells of pupil as if you have done this often.
     As you press fingertips stuttering with your own wild pulse
     against his cooling skin don't think of the night you were ten
     and stayed up past midnight reading Poe's "Accidental Burial."

     Wait for a silent count to sixty just in case you might
     feel one last bump of his heart, then stethoscope
     to chest, listen to the trickling pop of fluid (surely)
     settling and not even in imagination any wisp of breath.
     Say "I'm sorry. He is gone" and "I'm sorry
     for your loss." Offer tissues and a priest.

     At the nurses' desk fill in each box neatly with numbers in black ink.
     For time of death pick, as your one small protest, an exact number,
     something like 9:47 PM,
     and don't wonder where Mr. Janovich was
     while he waited for you to come.