Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Sarah Venart, I Am The Big Heart


Albert County Breeder

It was years before I could walk back
to that doorway, figuratively hold

the post of your fallen porch
with its thousand green Mason jars

staring out towards the weathered barn.
On each window your dust

held the shapes of the cobwebs. Here
is your father coming out the kicked door.

Inside I’ve seen the hard-packed dirt
on your kitchen floor, ketchup caked

to the spoons, the bucket in the corner,
a.k.a. the winter toilet.

Outside we have more in common: bus shelter
for the wait at the end of the lane, broken-looking

crab apples, blue spruce, red pines,
tar shingles on the coop,

and the wild eyes in the animal
we brought to breed with your animal.

Montreal poet Sarah Venart’s second full-length poetry collection is I Am The Big Heart (Kingston ON: Brick Books, 2020), an exploration of empathy and moments small and large, writing a lyric of time and of heart. A follow-up to her full-length debut, Woodshedding (Brick Books, 2007), as well as her chapbook Neither Apple Nor Pear, Weder Apfel Noch Birne (Toronto ON: Junction Books, 2003), the poems in I Am The Big Heart are organized into five sections of poems—“The Big Heart,” “Still Full of Arrows,” “Flowers for All Occasions,” “The Heiress” and “Joy in the Cloisters.” These are poems of dark heartbreak, pulling at the threads to examine how it emerged, is constructed, or even how it all falls apart. “When they leave me with your body,” she writes, as part of “You Can’t Take It with You,” “I put my head / on the dark room of your chest.” As the poem “The Chauffeur” begins: “I look up and it’s time to go. All ambulance. I fetch / one daughter at daycare, the other at kindergarten, // though I’m too early. So I see the heartbreak— / class lights out, the children, even mine, // small heads laid out on desks waiting / for their signal of dismissal. Even so, we are let go.”

Part of what makes her notion of the “confessional mode” so compelling is the density and the slant of her narratives. Her lines wrap themselves around her subject with incredible precision, but never to obscure, even when she isn’t writing in a direct, straight line. Venart focuses on the minutiae, writing of domestic labour that predominantly falls on women; there is a coiled tension in her lyrics, which are quite different than the narrative stretches and comparatively-open sprawl of New York poet Rachel Zucker’s similar lyrics on mothering and domestic tensions. She writes on longing, desire and desperation; hard-won hope and the determinations of daily living. Venart writes on the largess of emotion, including how big an early crush on a neighbour boy feels in the chest. “Somewhere around fifteen,” she writes, as part of “I Believe You Still Have My Key,” “wit closed me // safely as a dress seam. Or fear. Same thing.” She also writes a suggestion of underlying, hidden violence and memory, such as the opening of “Against Confession,” that offers: “My daughter won’t remember me asking the dog to sit, and how— / plunk, in the scratched bit of garden between barnyard / and doorway—she obeyed instead. Her memory winds in other ways, / magnificently obscuring facts. When my sister visits, she says I’m the same / because I don’t remember what she swears she witnessed— / someone doing something to me in a bathroom long ago.” As she responds as part of a recent interview posted at the AllLitUp blog:

I wrote this for people who’ve maybe put aside something that is personally meaningful to do the mostly silent work of caring for others. This is of course meaningful as well, but it is not always easy to put aside what you want to do to be of service to others. My mother did this kind of silent service her entire life. I only really understood how much she put aside after I’d lost her. All women do this—to some degree in isolation—these commitments of enormous love. I hope readers feel less alone reading the book. 

Someone asked me, “Aren’t you worried about how your family will react to your poems?” And the answer is that I wouldn’t want my daughters to not know the real me. And I love my children to hell and back, I’d die for them, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had moments when I’ve resented having lost something because of them. I want them to know I’m a human being. And that’s okay for others to know. If you write confessional poetry, if you love it, like I do, you have to be prepared to show this messiness. There is shame associated with confessional writing; some critics dismiss it as too broken or unstable or fragile—I think of Lowell’s line about watching “for love-cars” in “Skunk Hour,” that instability of not being able to look away from what we should not admit an interest in, that’s exactly what I don’t resist. I love what is incongruous and wrong. I don’t resist the poetics of what happens off camera, in the less Instagram-able moments. I make it my home. Anyone who wants to join me, I’m happy to be your den mother.



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