Sara London is the author of The Tyranny of Milk (Four Way Books, NY). She teaches creative writing and literature at Mount Holyoke College, and has previously taught at Amherst and Smith colleges. Her poems have appeared in such venues as The Iowa Review, Poetry East, The Hudson Review, the Poetry Daily anthology, AGNI Online, and elsewhere. She is also the author of two children’s books (HarperCollins; Scholastic). Born in San Francisco, she grew up in California and in Burlington,Vermont, and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has worked as an editor in New York, as a journalist on Cape Cod, and, since 2002, has been reviewing children’s books for The New York Times Book Review. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Statement of Poetics
impulse as a poet was to seek illumination through narrative. Sequential
expression is a natural mode for me; what Alan Shapiro has called that “arc of
connecting origins and ends” has long propelled me as a writer and inspired me
as a reader. Anecdote and incident were once located for me primarily in
childhood memories. And while my leaning toward a linear unfolding of “story”
has grown less pronounced over the years, family experience, as part of my
historical continuum, is still of ongoing fascination. If only intermittently, I
still retreat to and retrieve from that not-so-distant old country of
The “spaces” memories open, writes William Carlos Williams in his poem “The Descent,” are “of new kinds.” Memory, he says, “is a kind/of accomplishment,” an “initiation.” Indeed, the way retrieval blazes a new present in poetry makes it a singularly magical enactment. And the tension between the retrievable and the lost is a resonant part of the narrative. Canning time for emergency survival is no small bit of our enterprise as poets; we relentlessly invent new realities that give us access to our past as they nurture us in the “now.” All the while, with our “new realities,” we’re subconsciously laying in provisions to ensure palatable continuation — to link us to a future, our future. But really we’re foraging for more time.
Poems are in fact dogged inventors of time. In her book on poetic closure, Barbara Herrnstein Smith discusses the essentially ahistorical nature of poems and the way a poem becomes inevitably “unmoored” from the “circumstances and motives that might have occasioned it.” (In a recent essay in Poetry, Tony Hoagland refers to poems that refuse “to make a history,” insightfully characterizing the rejection of narrative continuity, what he calls “disorientation” or “vertigo,” in much poetry today.) But I’m interested in the way poems can reclaim history, can revisit and unmake experience, and simultaneously make new legacies.
Invention itself, as in a complete re-constituting of experience, happened in a way that was new for me in the title poem of The Tyranny of Milk. The narrative, a surreal recounting of a Sabbath dinner spoiled by hyper-lactating cows, suspended me in a kind of dairy-parlor domestic vertigo. By braving the bovine fiction, I gained access to writing about family, religion, tradition and the imagination in a way that felt truthfully self-illuminating. I grew up in a household of traditional Jewish values, in which elaborately prepared, prayerful Sabbath dinners were a routine. My poem questions the sustainability of belief and ritual. It also explores the tension between enduring love for one’s parents and family history, and the great distance traveled from the breast of nurture to the bistro of independence and art. Which is to say that elements of surrealism and satire here served to initiate me into a complex personal exploration. The poem (in Smith’s phrase) became a “script for its own performance.”
How we get from here to there in a poem, and especially how we get to “there,” how we end a poem, is of particular interest to me. (Smith’s book on poetic closure remains of great value on this topic.) Though intuitive for a writer of experience, that point where anticipation and expectation come to rest in a poem can nonetheless feel elusive in the writing process. And so much, it seems, depends upon where we leave the wheelbarrow, as it were. The meditation “Why the Water” rolled along the currents of my mind (and on the flats of the page) for a long time before resolving itself. It was a kind of breakthrough poem for me, dwelling in such an intensely sustained way on a single figure of nature. (After leaving my home on Cape Cod for a new life in inland Massachusetts, I began to reflect on that great wet element that had so powerfully seeped into my soul.) The poem helped me to loosen up. It allowed me to discover the unknown and unknowable, to be conducted to a place of meaning along a sensorial current, and to do so, as Keats put it, “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Ultimately, the personal posture got swept away by the potent force of a larger “story,” that of human longing.
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