Sundress Reads: Review of City of Skypapers

City of Skypapers by Marcela Sulak

The title of Marcela Sulak’s collection, City of Skypapers, encompasses the fact that the work was written each day for three years as Sulak lived in the city of Tel Aviv, and is also a perfect fit for how she blends urbanity, government and war eloquently with earth, sky, art and the human mind. 

In the first section, Sulak begins each of her poems except the last with the words “To get here today…” and proceeds to describe vivid scenes of things she’s witnessed and done before the present. Sulak uses a matter-of-fact voice to discuss topics like daily bomb sirens and friends in dangerous places, which strengthens the reader’s grasp on the  implications of being a civilian caught up in the crossfire of a war-stricken land and the resilience one must harbor. Sulak mentions the bombings and sirens more than once, as well as “the place the soldiers get off” between memories of doing normal things with her daughter, like riding a bike to school or washing with soap in the bathroom. She has wonderfully mastered the use of contrasting tragedy with simple, everyday things, lacing the two in, out, and around each other and making the latter seem all the more lovely, important and innocent. 

The first time this technique struck me was in the very first piece, titled “To Get Here Today (A Piano).” Sulak begins recalling her own childhood in Texas, cutting fruit and putting frog eggs in the tub with other children. Whether friends or siblings the reader doesn’t need to know- only that after the eggs were submerged, they would “caress them saying caviar, / by which we meant luck and money, the stars.’”  Then she shifts to the present day and the place where soldiers arrive and depart and, although unwritten, often don’t return. As she observes this place, which is a spot in her everyday adult routine, she notices a fence that someone has painted like a piano. The unspoken hope and innocence of a musical instrument perhaps allows her to remember wishing for good fortune during her youth in the face of grown-up weariness. 

From the beginning of the collection, Sulak uses incredible imagery. Certain things come up throughout the book: friend’s names, bomb sirens, kingfishers, bicycle seats, her own legs. The uncensored observations of a woman with a poetic mind show that certain things circle back into focus when perceived against the chaotic world. I love her description in “Surface Tension,” when she writes “our taxi’s the needle through the white / and pink lace of almond blossoms / along the ‘Settler Road’ to Jerusalem”. She recounts embarking on trips and adventures to holy places, always noticing the flora and fauna of her surroundings in stark, descriptive detail. The perfect and effortless existence of nature brings peace where it grows in her work.

Sulak is a modern woman who feels the depth of Judaism and the history of the city she lives in, knowing it’s all important, while simultaneously wanting to break free and write a new narrative. We feel her respect for Jewish tradition as she forms her work around certain religious holidays and Yiddish words. She italicizes these phrases and explains them in depth at the end of the book. We also feel her desire to make sense of things in her own way when she notes that her friend named his daughter after his ancestral city, whereas she named her own daughter after a woman. 

In the poem “Genesis,” pertaining to the seventh day after God created the world, Sulak explores the idea of her and God both resting. She studies her own thighs while God watches a kingfisher. She admits that God created her legs, but she sculpted them with her many feats: running, giving birth, climbing ruins in high heels, growing and carrying a monstrous yam. God has created the nature that she observes so closely, and she sculpts it, writing with metaphor and grace. She puts God in a familiar role, as a friend or colleague when she writes “it’s just the sort of thing God would say”. 

You can tell that Sulak is a successful translator by her careful choice of words and her complex vocabulary. In “Purim,” she writes “to get here I had to / understand that so many compound / words in my life do not employ the use / of the hyphen to hold them. They’re bound / by habit, I guess: ice cream truck, inner tube,/ love letter, makeup, love life, ice tray, nightstand,/ steel jaw trap, and hitchhiking priest”. She takes the understanding of language and her skilled translations to a new level of human activity, peculiarity and familiarity. She uses words like “audacious” and “schadenfreude” and gives personification to plants that acted drunk, bouncing around in a basket on a bike ride home. 

Not only does Marcela Sulak vividly pull her reader into the life of a nation plagued by war, the mystery behind it, and the world of an intelligent single mother, she attempts to bring attention to societal and government issues as well. In “Correspondence,” she writes about comparing a country’s missile accuracy with a friend, about the sound a bomb makes, and about the evil of politics. She breaks apart the word conversation and notices how the beginning is “con.” She acknowledges the consequences of living closely in masses, letting leaders deal with business, and how society has advanced to be able to reach anyone at any time without being charged for it. Sulak includes her personal experiences with photographers and how they try to capture photos of other people’s lives for the media and make up their own story about it to get attention and evoke false emotion.

There is an underlying tone of detachment when Sulak speaks of war and loss throughout her days in Tel Aviv, which may come from the desensitization that humans experience in the face of adapting to something that is always around us. In her piece “Siren: Silenc,” she speaks about a siren going off during bath time and how a child’s silly comment made the two of them laugh in the face of terror. She notes a bus exploding near a hospital, but adds that things are worse in Gaza and Syria. This attitude of troubled acceptance appears again in her piece about the Waste Department in Tel Aviv. The poem is about the incessant consuming of humans and the discarding that follows. She imagines a mountain of garbage, painting the trash collectors as otherworldly to not be burdened by the weight of it. They grab bags with “hands gloved in winter,” predicting the cold and harsh environmental outcome we are in the process of creating. 

All of these things: religion, government, education- are distractions from what? Perhaps war and the banality of evil. One line that gave me chills was in “Sudoku,” where Sulak wrote “For the radio waves rest as lightly on our heads as air stirred by a hand moving from a blessing.” Before that observation and after are others of more tangible circumstance. The whole poem speaks to me about the subconscious knowing of things larger, more sinister, and more spiritual than what modern times want us to acknowledge. This truth inside pulls us toward things of simple, soft measure. Like flowers, birds, the bond between mother and daughter and the one between friends. Although City of Skypapers takes on the exploration of multiple topics, it appears overwhelmingly about observation and the human spirit and mind. Perhaps Sulak notices the beauty in small things so often because she wants to balance the darkness of mankind’s past, present, and future. She exhibits strength and toughness from the things she has endured through her honest telling of them, without asking for anything more than awakening and listening. In her words, Sulak invites readers to look more closely at the world, to practice self-reflection, and that there may be redemption somewhere, for those who look hard enough.

City of Skypapers is available at Black Lawrence Press.

Emily DeYoung (she/her/hers) is a student of the world from Michigan, who travels as often as possible. She has been to over 25 countries since graduating high school, and uses the people, places, and small moments she experiences for inspiration when writing. Emily has one published poetry collection, How the Wind Calls the Restless, which won first place in the Writer’s Digest 30th Annual Self-Published Book Awards Contest last year (2021). She loves reading memoir, camping, large dogs who think they are lap-sized, and listening to classic and punk rock.


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