Chapbook, Sarah Dowling, Above/Ground Press, [email protected]
Sarah Dowling’s zine Entering Sappho is a love poem. All we know of the lover writ-ten to is that the speaker is completely overwhelmed by “you.” We also know that “your” voice is especially devastating; by my quick count there are 13 references to this voice.
Repetition is the poem’s dominant technique. Some of the pages are a listing of places the speaker “is” and persons (and, especially confusingly, concepts such as xenia — hospitality) from Greek antiquity, followed by the words, “I wake up and disappear,” or else, “I wake up without coming to.” Beyond Greece and sex and romance generally, I do not understand the connection to Sappho. These essentially identical lists occupy five out of 21 pages.
On the rest I found an approximation of this: “as soon as I see you — hardly / because I have seen you, I lack the / voice — this voice no longer reaches my / lips, and my eyes perceive nothing — I’m/greener than grass — and I die almost / of failure — I trickle with sweat…” There’s some variation in structure but by my count there are 13 lines or couplets about dying/being nearly dead, 18 about sweating, 21 about trembling or vibrating, twelve about “subtle fire”, 10 about green grass, and 31 about not being able to speak/hear/see in the presence of the lover.
There were certain stanzas that seemed interesting but which I had trouble understanding, which was frustrating when sandwiched between repetitions. There several cryptic references to pressing enter.
Tallying may seem like a cheap way to evaluate a poem if rhythm and repetition are being used to create the sensation of being overwhelmed. However, getting back to the issue of the lover, I found it difficult to be invested in the speaker’s romantic asphyxiation without having any sense of its cause. Why am I reading 31 examples of the same thing when I could be exploring the poem’s other character? For me, Dowling’s repetition had a deadening effect, boredom taking the place of romantic intensity and empathy.