Sarah M. Sala’s Devil’s Lake is at once cosmically expansive as well as honest and intimate in its exploration of violence on our planet, in our country, and in our day-to-day relationships. Her poems delve into domestic and natural realms, into private and public lives, and highlight many landscapes as places where people deemed “other” are often in danger. Devil’s Lake holds love poems for the speaker’s partner and the natural world around them, as well as elegies for marginalized people senselessly killed in that same world. Sala’s work makes space, through poetic form and the various speakers’ imaginations, for queer joy, while also providing evidence of America’s many paths of destruction.
Several of Sala’s poems are ekphrastic, dedicated to Leanne Maxey’s series of queer portraits. In one such poem, titled “On My Back,” Sala writes, “So much depends upon the landscape / before its wildness leeches away. / The viewer’s assumptions thrown / back at her. / As if to say, / my queerness is the most / natural thing I inhabit.” As in an earlier poem titled “Nature v. Nature,” Sala proves that the speaker’s queerness is as natural as the earth around her, giving herself permission to imagine queerness thriving and openly and widely accepted. In another portrait poem, the speaker says, “I sing / myself into the world / not as a mirror but mineral/ more intensifying / adjective / than butcher.” Devil’s Lake often positions the speaker’s being as one and the same as the natural world, as though declaring her existence as such will grant permanence. In the book’s first poem, “Hydrogen,” the speaker notes, “First I was a star, then a stain of water, then a kindergartner.” Sala’s poems take ownership of the speaker’s origin story and seek to find recognition and acceptance of her full self in her surroundings.
At the same time, the speaker’s proclamations of love and life are countered by homophobia, racism, toxic masculinity, and unrestrained gun violence in the United States. “American Ammunition” and “Aubade” take place in the aftermath of the horrific Charleston Church and Pulse shootings. In “American Ammunition,” the speaker admits, “A ghost appears seeking household items. Pauses before the nightstand. Opens the drawer / to rifle past hand creams, nail files, paperback books. Over here, I say. Are you my afterlife?” The speaker could recognize herself as one of the dead after the Pulse murders. In a country where school shootings are the norm, “Blue Dog” details the moment when a stranger in a costume enters the speaker’s classroom and she automatically expects death. Later in Devil’s Lake, the speaker describes an initially innocuous subway ride that becomes dangerous when she is left alone in the train with a man who watches her. These evils become mundane and a daily expectancy while the speaker travels to work, while she teaches, and while she tries to sleep. Sala’s portrait poems serve as a radical response to these various deadly threats, and each poem becomes a monument of survival.
Sala uses various experimental forms as tools of empowerment in Devil’s Lake to reassert or alter history. For instance, in “On Receiving A Homophobic Letter: A Series of Erasures,” Sala redacts portions of the original letter to create multiple versions of it, allowing the speaker to reclaim power by changing the letter’s meaning while also still bringing its original, harmful intent to focus. “Nature Poem” details the 1988 murder of Rebecca Wight, a graduate student killed by a man while hiking on the Appalachian trail with her girlfriend, Claudia Brenner. This long, spare poem uses white space and tightly compacted language to demonstrate the difficulty and pain that Claudia, its speaker, experiences in detailing the gruesome murder. For instance, on a page containing only these few words, the speaker states, “Because I ran / first, he knew / to expect / you.” We feel Claudia’s grief by moving through the gaps between the things she can and cannot tell us, and in the time and space it takes to flip to each section. Before the poem’s first line, an image of the evidence tag from Rebecca’s murder case appears, standing in stark contrast to the poem’s serene title. Much of the work in Devil’s Lake is long-lined and forces the reader to re-orient themselves, demonstrating that there need not be a standardized, singular way to tell a story or a truth. It only makes sense that a book aimed to disrupt what is and is not normalized in this country uses nontraditional forms to house its beliefs.
In Devil’s Lake, Sarah Sala examines phenomena as small as an element and vast as a lost continent, aligning personal identities and natural worlds to demonstrate how the livelihoods of both are at stake in our current political climate. In “Interior vs. Exterior,” the speaker declares, “I control the boundaries of my form, / and yet, when divine, the self permeates the / physical world.” Sala’s speaker marvels at the day she is legally allowed to marry her wife, and yet she also acknowledges an ever-present expectation of death when navigating the world as a queer woman. In the case of “Nature Poem,” its experimental form begs the reader to empathize with Claudia in her stark, direct address to her lost love, forcing us to relive her own trauma. Empathy and acceptance should not be such radical concepts. It should not be a revolutionary idea to be able to attend a church service, to teach a class to a room full of students, to dance in a club with friends, or to hike in the wilderness with a loved one, and do so peacefully. But in this year, with such absolute, resolute evils, Sala’s persistent assertions of love and hope despite it all are truly transformative.
Emmalee Hagarman earned her MFA in poetry at The Ohio State University, where she served as poetry editor of The Journal. Recently her work was selected by Kenyatta Rogers to receive the Academy of American Poets Award/The Arthur Rense Prize, and also selected by Ruth Awad to receive the Helen Earnhart Harley Fellowship in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Waxwing, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Laurel Review, among others.
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