Don't Smoke in Bed
By Sara June Woods
Reviewed by manuel arturo abreu
With Don't Smoke in Bed, Sara June Woods invites us into the simultaneously comforting and uncanny space of relationships in transformation. Drawing its title from a Nina Simone composition, the chapbook echoes the song's themes of the loss of innocence and the pain of moving on. Whether nostalgically recalling past interactions or plotting the future with yearning, behind the playful sweetness of the eighteen poems in this chapbook is a fog of tiny dread.
Every poem in Don't Smoke in Bed is a letter, written in a tone both casually awestruck and subtly flippant. Each is addressed variously to real objects, imaginary entities, gestures, or feelings. They have titles like "Dear animal machine self who is myself but doesn't always feel like it" and "Dear mouth opening into a yawn." My personal favorite is "Dear tiny lizard woman who is a feeling I have about the way the world could be on days I let myself outside the wrong-shaped church I live in, into this new place & its endlessly diffuse sunlight, which is incidentally perfect for photos." Just like the best moments in the book, this title hides its power in clunky conversationalism, providing a new take on what it means for the vernacular to have 'returned' to poetry after the digital.
Epistolary poetry tends to be the province of mansplainers like Ovid and Harold Pinter, but if there's anyone capable of reclaiming the form and matching it to its true vernacular counterpart (actual letters), it's Woods. She strips away the patriarchal undertones of heroism, repressed piety, unrequited love, and other themes that often drive the epistle. As such, the straightforward intimacy we may expect from the letter form tends to warp into an abstract romp across a landscape of private memories: "Why couldn't I come back this time / as a sound that comes out of you." Constellations of concrete images orbit an opaque nucleus, which for me evokes the question of how one writes about relationships, the transformative spaces where something both is and is not, where the real is both less and more real than it could ever be.
While the syntax of the poems is that of direct address, the reader is unsure who is speaking and who is listening. Who or what, rather: objects such as drapes have full personalities, life histories, aspirations. The memory of a drum has genders. In one poem the speaker wants to fashion a leash for a fly from her hair, to "take him on flies / around the apartment / like a wingy dog or a / super chill cat maybe." Whether the sentence refers to actual events in the world of the poem or serves as a kind of encryption for a lovers' chat, it's equally confusing. This occurs often in the book, meaning that despite or because of the conversational approach of the poems, a feeling of semantic vertigo arises: "I apologize for the coded nature of this message," the speaker says early on. The only anchor is the whimsical intensity of these apparent relationships, which can just as easily result in bad puns as in moments of forlorn beauty, as in the following stanza:
This dirt I have
in my pockets is a promise
about wings we had & lost.
How many muscles does a person
forget how to use over the course
of a calendar year?
How many does she remember?
Is this a constant?
In this warm light, do
my feet look like women
who braid their hair only
when the sun is coming up,
& have easy dances for children?
Because I would like them to,
but today the wind is too soft
to think straight.
I want to build a house with holes
in the floor that go down to places
they have old myths for.
Ones we've read & others
that are probably lost
to wherever our wings went.
At its best, a Sara Woods poem is akin to wrapping yourself in a cozy blanket you find out is sewn from pine needles, or possibly like if Jorie Graham were a werewolf. In a sense, Don't Smoke in Bed elaborates the gnomic fables of Woods's second full-length collection, Sara, or, the Existence of Fire, into a form of epistolary surrealism. The same absurd literalism is present here, but the material is presented in longer chunks, as opposed to minimalist fragments. Also present are Woods's alchemical tendencies and her focus on becoming: "What does a world look like when we / hold so strongly to the things we have / become as to not know where / we might have room to let the new parts in?" As in her older work, she continues trying to find magick in the banal, knowing that "People like drugs / because they're the closest / to magic but real magic exists it just / doesn't care what we want, / & I don't blame it. I'm just a parked car somewhere."
Sometimes, however, the conversational tone defangs the more incisive poetic moments, stretching conceits too thin and deflating the poem with a series of flat non-sequiturs, such as:
You are a beekeeper, an avalanche &
it has recently become really important for me
to tell you something you already know or
could have easily guessed. I want to tell you something
While they are amusing in their imitation of mundane conversation, in moments like these the poetic voice loses its distinctiveness, becoming too redolent of the glibly awestruck tone that other contemporary poets have adopted. Striking a balance between the authenticity of direct address and the rigor of poetic elegance is difficult, especially in the epistolary form, but I appreciate Woods's willingness to take the risk, because more often than not, the whimsy lands hard and with glee, such as when one addressee's face "looks like the idea / of guardian angels if we keep god / out of it. Like magic moms / with wings who like to turn / off our ovens just because."