Cream City Review cover The Cream City Review
Fall 2000 Volume 24, Number 2
ISSN: 0884-3457

Review of Sarah Rosenblatt's On The Waterbed They Sank to Their Own Levels

by William Harrold

Sarah Rosenblatt comes from a family of artists. Her father Adolph Rosenblatt is a professor and a sculptor of renown, her mother Suzanne a well-known painter and writer whose black and white drawings from the cover of Waterbed throughout the book, create human personalities, with impressive warmth and mystery, in remarkably few lines. Sarah's mind-set and talents, then, are almost a given, as we witness page by page, the radical and successful experimentation with language and imagery, the minimalist presentation and clarity of her poems, and the painting, sculpture and film techniques she has brought to the medium of poetry.

After being in the Creative Writing Program at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Sarah Rosenblatt moved to New York, graduating from the MFA Program at Brooklyn College, where she studied with John Ashbery, who has called her poetry "Refreshingly iconoclastic and vigorous."

Waterbed is a book that veers from the center. In the first poem "Hazardous Driving" the persona and her unnamed companion are taking dangerous curves and spinning out of control, realizing that their right sides have vanished. But afterwards the moon wrecks through the window, and they lie in a bed where they sleep with both sides and more.

Time washes back and forth through these pieces. In "Past Closing Time," it is as if time could not even find the shore, and someone trying to set an eternal dinner table, sees it quickly wiped away. The seasons vanish too, and in "Losing the Season" as the husband's mustache grows to cover his lips, the wife cannot remember their ancient lunches, the only reality being the almost unconscious imprint which the child's cries make on the mother's chewing gum.

In such a world as that depicted in "The Man Without His Umbilical Chord" her "aura" is displaced into a paper bag. Sudden "kinks" appear on the forehead because a faceless, nameless, atonal man has no birth-cord or gravity -- not even a rope -- to pull him back into the space between skyscrapers. As Yeats predicted, "Things fall apart/The center cannot hold."

In Rosenblatt's world, sadness is the distance between people. They never seem to connect, gliding on different planes, and passing not as night-ships, but moving through each other without noticing. And the dangerous time-slicks they walk on mean displacement even of the parts of the human body.

Life is a futuristic wave, where energies get "knocked around," and what we formerly thought was a hand might be a tennis racket lifting spaghetti in a house where all the ghosts had died.

Just when we think we have a handle on the image and the direction of Rosenblatt's poem, it takes off fast as a jet-hare in another direction, finally folding back on itself, so that the experience, always unified, jells into a clearness too bright for the sun to stay long.

If a picture of this new world could be taken outside time, it would reveal how our emotions rush to "pucker on the knuckes. " Poems such as these come out of the darkroom of life, with clear images of who and what we are. Unresolved matters drag us to our own level on the waterbed. When the moment of truth hits, faces can fall like "cakes in the oven".

The human body plays an important role in so many of these pieces. Rosenblatt is fascinated by the body as if it were a piece of sculpture, wrinkled and rough textured, with parts standing out in bass relief, each charged with emotion.

In "Yo-Yo" the image is that of a boy's parents moving up and down on a yo-yo, as he deals with his emotion of "repulsion." There are many similar patterns of "movement" in the book, not only up and down, but in and out, and away from self into "other places." For the contemporary man or woman, the "am" seems displaced, dwelling distantly in "things" (See "Visiting New York"). The persona lives in a post-post-post modern world, so much of the stability and coherence of the past destroyed by the explosion which science and relativistic philosphies have engendered. In "Sunday Evening" the poet calls it an "earthquake." The aftermath has settled on the eyes strangely, like a thick dark honey, distorting the route the bees take to the flowers. Even after a nap, "you" awake to feel you are "a toe caught in a beer can."

There is a mellowing in the latter part of the book. After having the post-nest experience, the persona returns to her hometown and her parents, to find that "love still shined through the holes/in their knit sweaters." A sobering mood sets in, when we discover the toll that time has taken when we were not looking. Yet in some ways it is a sweet revelation (as in "This Age"):

We have a better understanding of the weather
than our parents.
But our parents know best
how to live in it,
how to siphon it out of the pool.

Grandmother Rose too has "centuries of human nature/built up in her spine" and her "opinion" was "recreated/in the lines/around my father's eyes." Perhaps the air "accepts them more" on their own terms.

Poet Antler has pointed to Sarah Rosenblatt's "precise startling imagery," and poet Maurice Kilwein-Guevara has written of it as a "wonderful collection that skews our perspective." Sarah Rosenblatt's voice is a solid addition to the contemporary literary scene. On the Wateribed They Sank to Their Own Levels is a must reading for all people who prefer cutting-edge poetry. It will show poets the way to the styles of the future. I highly recommend it.

[Rosenblatt Gallery] [Sarah home page]

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Copyright © 2002 Suzanne Rosenblatt. All rights reserved.