Poetry Review: Sara Adams’s Poems for Ivan

Illo for Paul David Adkins's review of Sara Adams's 'Poems for Ivan'.

The Short and Winding Road: Sara Adams and Poems for Ivan

Poems for Ivan
Sara Adams
Porkbelly Press, 2016

Serious subject matter notwithstanding, Sara Adams’s second volume, the micro-chapbook Poems for Ivan, is a delightful, sharp, poignant story of an awkward relationship that is both doomed to fail and doomed to repeat. Adams creates a Möbius strip of narrative, taking her readers on a short, circuitous route of memory which both illuminates and exposes the lovers: flawed, remote, and unable to connect, despite their best efforts, in a long-term manner.

As this collection of nine numbered pieces opens, the speaker introduces Ivan, an engineer, whose father worked as a Chernobyl liquidator, one of the people tasked with cleaning up the residuals of the nuclear disaster. The speaker describes Ivan as “. . . a tall, emotional man / who doesn’t like to wait, / a young father / who never wants to go home.” And despite the fact that Ivan has mastered the mathematical demands of engineering, he cannot manipulate chopsticks at a Chinese restaurant, metaphorically highlighting his inability to forge intimate relationships.

As the chapbook advances, Adams masterfully enjambs her lines to create both tension and disconnection. The speaker admits, “[I]t’s hard: our conversations / are limited to the components of / lunch.” And here we get to the heart of the volume: the shortfalls of language. Christine Garren, American master of poetic brevity, explains linguistic shortfalls in a 2005 interview with Story South, stating, “I see truth as fluid and language as frustratingly static. I understand that language is probably bound to fail the task.” And this is where Adams’s speaker finds herself: perfectly enunciating the word kapoosta, a type of vegetable, while Ivan cannot even properly pronounce “pray,” stating in the third poem that he “doesn’t like to pry.”

Ivan is also not above placing the speaker and himself in danger, as he wanders through a junkyard with her for hours at night, surrounded by vagrants and dogs, refusing multiple opportunities to exit the area. Neither the reader nor speaker can discern the exact reason for Ivan’s risk-taking behavior. For her part, Adams concerns herself more with snapshots of human connection—or rather disconnection. For instance, in the fifth poem, the reader finds himself entering into the middle of a conversation: “In a perfect memory, we are roasting meat in the woods. / Sharpening your stick, you tell me everything is fine.” But everything is not fine: the couple is surrounded by dogs; gunshots split the air in the distance; and the couple is unarmed except, perhaps, for a couple of beer bottles. Ivan is incapable of using anything beyond the simplest language to convey comfort or understanding, while the speaker’s own fear is palpable and unassuaged.

As the collection approaches its close, in the eighth piece, the speaker visits the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum alone and scans through photographs of liquidators for men who resemble Ivan’s father. The awful catalog of exhibits mesmerizes her, and in a beautiful gesture of empathy, she notes, “I had to pry / myself away.”

The final poem closely resembles the opening piece, in both form and subject. The Möbius strip comes full circle through the imperfections of memory, and the reliving, or even repeating, of the unsatisfying relationship. The couple is sitting, this time, in a local restaurant, eating Slavic dishes. The speaker observes, “You lean across the table, your chest / almost touching the vareniki . . .” The conversation is earnest (“Why are you in Ukraine”). The scene recorded within the collection’s first and last poems is almost identical. Almost. Adams perfectly captures just how frail and unsure memory actually is, even as we cherish it and swear by its vitality. Our memories preserve warped impressions of things, like the “fossilized mutant flora and fauna” in the Chernobyl museum. As Adams sees it, language and memory are both unreliable and vital to our identities.

In Poems for Ivan, Sara Adams honors the tangled, repetitive state of the human condition. She escorts us through a dysfunctional relationship where two people are trying to make the best of it. And while her collection provides no firm resolution, she is nonetheless firm in her understanding of human interaction. “We both know,” she closes the chapbook. She could be addressing Ivan, or she could be speaking with us, the readers. She doesn’t tell us what we know. But, intuitively, we both know enough. Here are a man and a woman; they are broken as beer bottles; they are aimlessly wandering the night. This is how it is. This is each of us, stumbling through life with a person we’re not sure about, perhaps can never know, yet nonetheless, without hesitation, joining hands and advancing through the dark.
Paul David Adkins lives in New York and works as a counselor. Lit Riot Press published his debut, full-length collection La Dona, La Llorona in May, 2016, and plan to double-release his volumes Operational Terms and Graphics and Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath in November 2016.

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