By Sara Peters
House of Anansi (2013)
Read by Sarah Burgoyne
“From the beginning / you should know I’m embellishing / but was I ever twelve?” –Sara Peters’ 1996.
The violent pinks and blues in cascading chevrons on the front cover of Sara Peters’ debut collection, 1996, is the reader’s first clue that these poems are not afraid to be in your face. What is striking about Peters’ debut collection is her ability to marry the childlike and the sinister. Peters’ poetry shifts the gaze from the luminous kitchen of traditional childhood poetry to the ragged screen door against which June bugs slam like dark and threatening secrets. Realities of vulnerability, beauty and cruelty are brought to a child’s eye-level, in which the reader is simultaneously on the “brink” of everything and has already gone too far.
Peters presents us with traditional-looking lyrics cranked to scalding at points where two sisters practice for their “future rapes,” and the mother of Jérémy Bastien (a four year-old beaten to death in Montreal in 2008) dresses him in long sleeves to hide his wounds, turning the radio on full-blast. The poet lets night enter her poetry, following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Bishop (like Peters, a child of Nova Scotia) and Frank Bidart whose poem “Ellen West” one cannot help but think of when reading Peters’ “Mary Ellen Spook”, which is based on the life of 67-times exorcised Anneliese Michel. Peters’ poetry aligns itself with Bishop’s in its miniaturist’s attention to detail; each image is as meticulous as the lettuce which in “I Understood Our Time Was Running Out” is chosen “carefully / as a ball gown, comparing ruffles.” The precision and simplicity of Peters’ writing leaves no room for affectation, making the poems refreshingly insightful and new, bringing to light that second (yes, there is one) when “the sparkling water goes still.”
1996 creates a new symbolic language for thinking about childhood. The “X’s” that remain on the child’s calves after the ballet laces are taken off, the sunburn in the part of a young girl’s hair, and the seabound doll torso “armless legless sucked and beaten clean” function as name tags. What’s more is there is no surprise or naiveté in the voice of Peters’ speakers, giving the poems a certain agelessness that echoes the line from “Mary Ellen Spook”: “and always / these questions.” The undomestication at work in 1996 is enough to cause any reader to rethink a purely optimistic aestheticization of childhood. The questions 1996 confronts us with are tragic, volatile, and utterly important.
1996 takes Canadian poetry off the beaten track, running it hotter than we can stand. Childhood sheds its pretty scales to reveal bones as sharp as needles. As a new voice, Sara Peters is refreshing, brave and profound. She pulls us through the familiar field but does not lead us to a magical grove or secret wardrobe, but rather to a house “burning unattended in the dark.”