A review of That Strapless Bra in Heaven by Sarah Sarai

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

That Strapless Bra in Heaven
by Sarah Sarai
Kelsay Books
Nov 2019, $14, 79 pls, ISBN: 978-1-950462-20-9

“Boundaries are propaganda,” Sarah Sarai concludes the poem, “Backward Fables,” and that could very well be Sarai’s motto in these astoundingly witty, intelligent, playful poems. Who says I can’t? Who says I have to? The very title of the collection, a line from the poem, “Wish Me Luck,” suggests her subversive streak.

One of the boundaries of which she is skeptical is that a story must necessarily go from beginning to middle to end in a cause-effect logic. She seems to be reminding us: These are words, remember! Words have their own sense. Take the poem, “Six Aunts Wobbling”:

Slim Aunt Shirley went
home and straight Aunt Gin
wiped her furred lip’s
beer moustache,
something I sport now and
then but not her bosoms.

Queer Aunt Denise,
who is not Denise my
dyke-aunt, summoned
the spirit of my aunt passed over –
Tilly with the bad eye.
She was a whip at cards.

Poppy yodels
before and after shots.

Aunt Denise who is my
dyke-aunt partnered with
Queer Aunt Denise.
She has the Tilly-gift at cards.

Poppy and bosomy Gin crossed
ankles like fingers as they
cheated and lied
in the way of families.

Both Denises shouted at Poppy.
Stop yodeling, you!
She poured another round.

So tell me…what just happened here? Whatever it is, it’s charming. Six women, part of the same family, are playing cards and drinking…and what else? Or take the poem, “Love Being Among Them,” the best you (or I, anyway) can say is it seems to be about two people trying to overcome the obstacles to their love. (And what does that signify, specifically?)

So many of Sarai’s poems end with a witty twist that makes the dizzy logic of what precedes seem so perfect. The poem, “Wish Me Luck,” a meditation on the essence of good fortune, ends:

Could be luck’s the
River Jordan of fiction,
a passage, part of the daily miracle,
a Glad bag of coal
Superman will squeeze
into diamonds.

I saw him do it.

Many of Sarai’s lines have the declarative emphasis of aphorisms. “Easier to make an enemy than beef Wellington” begins the poem, “Call Me Sheena.” “Tenderness isn’t necessary but there it is / like a chemical we write to Congress about,” she writes in “Not Simple Is Joy nor Cosmology.” “Wedding planners are a food group,” she writes in “A Scarlet Moss,” “So is roast beef.” “What does ‘old’ mean except / A man doesn’t want to fuck you,” she writes in “Corpses and Cats.” But just as her poems follow a logic of their own, so you need to take the wisdom of her aphorisms with a grain of crazy, knowing Sarai is having fun, maybe at the reader’s expense.

Speaking of fun and the pithy, succinct lines that characterize her poetry, her library poem, “On the Shelving Cart,” is uproarious. There are twenty-six titles on this cart. Here are a few:

“Pictorial Archive of Female Touch”
“Freud’s How-To: Volume IX
of the Academy of Futile Investigations”
“Library of Geological Curiosity: Female Orgasm
Challenges to the Richter Scale”
“Proceedings of the Society for Sensual Revelation”
“Darwinian Arguments for the Quick Grab”
“Theoretical Orgasm: A Position Paper”
“Real Deal Orgasm: Authentications”
“Paradigms of Necessary Ecstasy”

Somebody’s been doing some interesting research.

Classical allusions run throughout Sarai’s poems. Aeneas and Dido show up in at least two poems, along with Homer and Dante. This suggests the sort of “mythic” world her mind and verse travel in. “And the Ships Set Off,” a meditation on temptation, takes Helen of Troy as its muse. “Please Don’t Think I’m Being Disrespectful” ends with classic Sarai sardonic wit:

From my two semesters of Homeric Greek:
“psyche” translates as spirit and soul and breath,
as in The goddess has bad breath.

Not to mention her spirit and soul.

But Sarai is equally comfortable in the modern world of art and expression. “Hockney at Bellevue,” “Tippi as Pippi” (Hitchcock’s obsession with blondes), “Family” (a meditation on Jaws and The Exorcist) are other poems in which her wit stands out. “Motherhood” evokes Rosemary’s Baby. “I’m talking Satan / who fathers Rosemary’s / baby in a so-so apartment / in The Dakota. / But in the Dakota is / no such thing as so-so / so strike that.” The poem “Anxieties” comes with an epigraph from The Wizard of Oz. “The Risen Barbie” flirts with the idea of resurrection, naming Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy, Janis, Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. along the way.

If you’re still wondering what Sarah Sarai in up to in That Strapless Bra in Heaven, consider this observation from “Time Lives to Thwart Chronology”:

So many ways to spell poet
“fool” – “layabout” –
“competitor.” We must proofread.

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is).  Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.

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