Relationships Red in Tooth and Claw: A Review of Sarah Marcus’ They Wear Bears
by Gary Charles Wilkens
These poems are hard. Generally not hard in their reading or interpretation, but carbon-steel-blade hard in their imagery, language and emotions. They Were Bears (Sundress Publications, 2017) is divided into three sections, each introduced by a quotation, from Robert Hass, Brian Teare, and Nathalie Handal, respectively. The poems in the first section seem to generally be about a relationship between a woman, the speaker, and a male significant other, whose few comments are given in italics. Judging by the comments of both, and the speaker’s use of brutal natural imagery, it is not a happy, nurturing relationship, least of all for the speaker. In the volume’s opening poem, “The Agony of Splitting,” she reflects “It’s been a bad huckleberry year./ We are not supposed to fall in love,” and relates that
A beloved bear kills a beloved friend,
and the grizzlies who feed on his body
are also killed. My backbone bent
into the shape of us.
The bears of the title appear in most of the poems in this section, and sometimes seem to be images or symbols of the woman’s anger, shock, or horror, usually at the man’s attitudes or how he treats her, and other times appear as nemeses or spirit animals for the speaker. In “Damage Ready”
A bear follows me
as if I’m an injured animal.
I continue my passage south.
A deep bear sadness.
I wait and wait for the night to end.
The man, for his part, seems fixated on the raw physicality of sex, with comments like “I want to cum in your mouth, and I want you to swallow,” (“Suffer not yet our eyes to hunger for your face”) which the speaker follows with
I leave a trail of blood,
because I’d like to see a bear,
and I’d like to be followed.
Aside from bears, the imagery is of harsh wilderness settings, such as mountains, fields, basins, forests, ravines, and fossil beds. Throughout the tone is grim, the feelings brutally honest, and the relationship characterized by uncaringness and aggression. Here is a representative passage from “Choke Point”:
You have been an impassable
rockface of waiting— my unclimbed
northern ridge. You tell me I’m the fluting,
the place the glacier leaves,
the result of years of loss.
I tell you you’re hurting me, and you say
it takes a while for you to commit.
I exhale to slip through the fissure,
but you hold me at the wrist.
The effect is harrowing, to be sure, but also can’t-turn-away fascinating. Marcus paints a vivid picture of two people addicted to each other as they tear each other apart:
I know that I am your open fissure,
meat split across the backbone,
a fresh carcass. You will call to me
and I will undress and undress for you.
The later poems in this section focus more closely on relationships between humans and bears, as the speaker ever more close identifies with them: “I want you to tell them/ I was a bear, and I am /laid with bears” (“But Mostly There Were Bears”).
The poems of the second section still deal with relationships, but this time often with the speaker’s mother, sister, or family. These aren’t any happier or more characterized by mutual understanding, effective communication, and sympathy than the romantic/sexual one. In “Sisters” the speaker describes a history full of strife:
Virginia sounds like the sister
I wanted to be, sounds like sister, the meth
made me mean, sister, I held you
against the wall, sister choking, sister, we were
so young. A sister protects a sister who cut her up,
cut her straight through until the windows
were all closed that night, sister like smoking,
like I’m yellow for you still.
In “Mother: An Aggadah” the speaker uses the old story of the scorpion and the frog to symbolize how people who need each other can still destroy one another, which perfectly fits her relationship with her mother, who does not get her:
Two days after I called off the wedding, my mother needs to talk to me. Kirsten had driven up from Louisville that morning. The three of us at the kitchen table. My mother drinking scotch. My face swollen with grief. Kirs’s hand on mine.
There are some things I need to say to you, she says. The heaviness of being in this circle. Crueler than giving the ring back. Your life, she continues, crying, it doesn’t have to be so painful. I ask her if this can wait. If she thinks this is a good time for her to get some things off her chest. I see Kirs’s lips part in shock at my composure. But it’s just loss.
In section three the tone lightens a little, and it even contains a “Love Poem,” wherein the speaker confesses “I don’t know how to be/ in this city/without you.” The poem “Mythology for Desert Lovers II” contains a passage that essentially summarizes the message of this collection:
I try to explain that love is a violence,
even when it’s beautiful.
When you enter someone,
you must also leave them.
These are poems of quiet violence, difficult love, dark menace, stark pain, and grim resilience, and Marcus’ skill in invoking these feelings with lean language has few close equals. Reading They Were Bears is a fearsome, chastening experience, and one I highly recommend.