September 2012

Rachel Mangini


The Soft Place by Kate Schapira

"Pressing up to the membrane," pressing up to the soft place. Read again that word: pressing. Hear its insistence, the not-backing-down quality of it that could make it annoying or even injurious. Pressing leaves a mark. Here though, that mark is not a bruise, but a book "teeming" with "silver multiplication," delving into and creating "increasing complexity." The pressing-up-to in Kate Schapira's The Soft Place is smart and layered. Schapira presses in order to see more clearly what lies beneath. She presses up to various topics, source materials, and forms creating poems that demand focus, that make me want to join her in her attempt to pull things apart and see what she can make from what she finds inside.

In the second section of The Soft Place, "Suture Sutras," Schapira repurposes the traditional Hindu and Buddhist sutra to examine a medical procedure: the suture. Traditionally, a sutra is an aphorism, a maxim of sorts. Schapira's poem is made up of two-line sutras in which she personifies the stitch,

One thing stitches can say: "This inner thing is mine."
They hoard redness puffed around them.

uses it as metaphor,

Anything trapped between surfaces is a secret
just as likely to lead to infection.

and employs it in a meta comment on her text and on the form of the sutra itself,

Redundantly layered and lined with siv-, to sew,
the root of all worth is to suture convincing meaning to something.

Schapira takes this seemingly banal topic and presses it, makes it big, applies its laws to life.

As I understand it, in Hindu and Buddhist texts, sutras were often accompanied by longer explanatory writing. In keeping with this tradition, "Suture Sutras" isn't just comprised of sutra couplets. Schapira's sutras are interlaced with longer blocks of text, but they aren't explanatory; instead, they further complicate the poem. They are sometimes visual or instructional, like the sections called "Painting to Be Constructed in Your Head" (a title she borrows from Yoko Ono's Grapefruit), and sometimes, in sections titled "A Memorable Fancy" (a phrase from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), lists of keywords, or more personal prose poems about seams holding things together, or about separateness, or a longing to flee. This poem is so layered that no matter how many times I read it, I see something new. I get the sense that it is at once deeply personal, that Schapira wrote it while fingering a line of fresh stitches somewhere on her body, and also narrative, as the speaker talks of stitching herself to the dog to make "a painful but quick escape." It is a controlled use of a specific form -- the sutra -- but also a freeform mash-up that borrows titles from other poems, keywords from online searches, and words and phrases from medicine and biology. And this single poem occupies only nine pages of the book, which is to say: this slim little book holds so much.

Another good example of Schapira's layering is "Open Storage," a long poem about a train trip the speaker takes with a lover and the lover's parents. Usually preferring to be the presser, here Schapira presents a speaker who lets her soft place show as she squirms under the pressure of family relationships and closeness. The poem is constructed of shorter sections with repeating titles that construct a picture of the trip in the mind of the reader. The sections titled "Ocean, Air and Sickness: Day 1," and the similarly titled days two through five, are perhaps the most transparent, the most like journal entries showing the progression of an illness the speaker endures while on the trip. In them we can hear her frustration. She sometimes sounds like a whiney teenager: "I don't really want to know where we are. I want to know how far it is." But taken together these "Sickness" sections, numbered and repetitive as they are, evoke the ticking-off of days one might do on a train where travel is "Exact traffic, prescribed, set aside." Reading it, I feel like I am there on the train. I feel bored, a little lonely, like an outsider, an observer. I want to feel better, damn it. I want to lock the door and section off my lover from his family, keep him in our little lover world, sometimes. Sometimes I want him to go away.

The theme of closeness versus separateness from "Suture Sutras" comes up again and again in "Open Storage." The "Safety Fact" sections of this poem draw on official information about safety in train travel to mull over issues of love, family, and privacy. "Safety Fact 2" begins, like each of the "Safety" sections, with the fact: "You cannot judge the speed and distance of an oncoming train," but the poem quickly turns away from the fact to more personal prose:

I don't know the order of operations for a person
Much as I love to recognize parallels
Sometimes I touch you to make sure
you're still standing up and explaining the difference
between safety and all we can see from the windows

Here we see a vulnerable lover, unsure of how to be, because "the order of operations for a person" is not clearly defined like the safety facts. The facts serve as a contrast to this relationship uncertainty, this human muddiness.

As this excerpt suggests, parallels are another theme of The Soft Place. Schapira's text is loaded with parallels. In "Open Storage," sections titled "Heirloom Notes" discuss heirloom tomatoes alongside notes about family and heredity as the speaker struggles with the patterns and rules of her lover's family. The sections titled "Look Up!" or "Look Down!" draw parallels between things observed above or below while traveling. The way Schapira notices parallels in these sections of "Open Storage" is similar to the way she examines the stitch in "Suture Sutras." In both poems, her hyper-intelligent curiosity shines, showing me connections I wouldn't have imagined. There are a few cases where these parallels exist only in the mind of the writer, their idiosyncratic complexity leaving the reader feeling a little bit of "huh?" For example, the section "Look Down! Evidence That Supports Relief / Kinds of Glass" begins: "Seaweed like straw locks and ringlets... Cameo… Skate / egg cases... Verrerie parlante... Whelk egg cases like / past chains..." Cameo and Verrerie parlante are types of glass (thank you, Google), and the other things listed here are things found on the beach. The list itself is quite beautiful, intensely focused on minute details, yet executed like a long slow exhale, ending with phrases like "Two lovers walking" and "salt holes for breathing," but why seaweed or egg cases support relief I'm not sure. Why they are paralleled with glass, I'm not sure. Glass is essentially sand, is that it? I'm still wondering, but that is a good thing. Most readers want a little (or a lot) of "huh?" from poetry. I like the "salt holes for breathing" this kind of poetry leaves open in my mind.

The Soft Place is, as the title suggests, not just a book, but a place where you can spend some time. Press up to it. Pause. Relish in Schapira's "pinkish-red solutions / to a problem of surface-area thinking."

The Soft Place by Kate Schapira
Horse Less Press
ISBN: 978-0982989623
80 pages