She May Be a Saint, by Sarah Nichols
Review by Siân Killingsworth
Sarah Nichols’ micro chapbook She May Be a Saint (Porkbelly Press, 2019) is an enigmatic exploration of a chimeric speaker, recounting the disintegration of a former identity and the darkly lyrical creation of a new self.
This book is composed of seventeen centos—short poems created entirely from lines and phrases selected from works of Sylvia Plath and C.D. Wright. It seems to me that Nichols chose these two poets’ works because the source poems are densely packed with images that are easy to pluck from a poem and repurpose. Only a few of the lines are recognizable because Nichols so expertly weaves them into a new, unique series of portraits. Admittedly, I have not read a lot of Wright, so her voice seems to me wholly subsumed in this creation, while Plath is still distantly identifiable – but perhaps only because she and her work have been so mainstreamed into contemporary consciousness via movies, anthologies, stories and the ubiquity of her most famous poems.
These poems are brief, with short lines comprised of few words. As a collection, She May Be a Saint is incredibly tight, as each poem builds on those preceding it in a lyric narrative that has a clear, multifaceted arc. It begins with the revelation of a self. The self goes on to describe her creation and we understand that it is in fact a re-creation in response to an unnamed trauma. In employing the voices of these other poets, Nichols creates an unsentimental speaker who describes a unique experience.
The speaker, “an unidentified woman,” opens in the first poem, “Once I Was” by inviting the reader to,
Call me the
Duchess of nothing
To self-identify in this way, the speaker permits readers to acknowledge some measure of her stature and its simultaneous absence. A prominent member of European royalty, a duchess (or duke) ranks immediately below the monarch, yet to style oneself “the Duchess of nothing” is to suggest the meaninglessness of such a title and also to herald the imminent revelations of her dominion found in the poems that follow.
The religious elements of saints are jettisoned in favor of a more pagan supernaturality. The title is taken from Plath’s poem “Poem for a Birthday: Maenad,” and appears in “Once I Was,” signaling to us that this poem and the series that follows focus on re/birth and a watery spirit concealing (and revealing) her rage. In “Neat,” the water spirit is named again: the “undine-like maiden” is the blood running through veins.
Self-erasure is a thread that runs through the book. This Duchess notes “old happenings, / erased,’ and through the book makes oblique and overt references to her body being “a // coil, / blasted.” The speaker erases herself in order to create herself anew. Female saints of the past are known to have starved themselves, often to death, in the name of their religion, and their religious life was often founded in lieu of marriage. This physical diminishment has long been regarded as a form of self-effacement, and these acts were subsequently rewarded with sainthood after death. So, the Duchess, in a roundabout way, is the titular saint by way of self-negation.
Beginning in roughly the Middle Ages, some Catholic girls and women fasted to the point of developing anorexia mirabilis, a condition of self-induced starvation that often led to death. Their intention was to leverage physical suffering to get closer to God. Notable sufferers include Catherine of Siena and Saint Wilgefortis, both of whom took vows of chastity, abstained from food, and prayed for ugliness in order to avoid arranged marriage. Lack of food regularly led to these proto saints seeing visions and hearing voices, phenomena that led to a transformation from mortal to saint. In She May Be a Saint, the voices of others have been reshaped to speak for her – both Wright and Plath are manipulated and effaced so the Duchess’ own voice may come forth.
Many of the poems in She May Be a Saint refer to language, words, writing, ink, and carbon– a word with multiple meaning, calling to mind to the carbon of typewriter ribbon, carbon as replicated pages of print, the carbon graphite “lead” inside a pencil, and finally, carbon as the basic element of life. The Duchess replicates herself through telling, writing. She “drafted a / fictitious life.” Perhaps this is exactly what we’re reading: a juxtaposition of language, experience, erasure, rebirth. The opening poem again lays down the framework for this notion:
carbon of it,
an end to the
Words to rid me
As an opening statement, this powerful self-negation sets the stage for the Duchess to recount the traumas of the body, its difficult recuperation, and the novelty of a created identity with which to begin anew. About halfway through the chapbook, in “Invisible Wounds,” the Duchess reveals that she suffered an unnamed trauma twenty years in the past that forced her into “dormancy.” This is perhaps the reason for her original self-effacement. Rather than taking readers through therapeutic dissertation (as some poets do) that allows her to work through the trauma, the Duchess prefers to eliminate it and claim a new life entirely.
Since the speaker’s identity evolves continuously through the course of these portraits, it can be somewhat difficult to pin down because of this flux. We are witness to her body’s disintegration, its pain and the lessening of pain via drugs, we learn in “The Mask Increases” how her “bones soften,” yet all the while, she reveals, “I think I have been healing.” She “inhabit[s] a doll’s body” and later, in the poem “Other Bodies” seems to acquire a new body, which she calls “My new instrument.” With slightly eerie nod to gothic horror, the Duchess pulls back the veil on her wounds, tenderness, fear, resignation, and (spoiler!) a hint of threat at the end.
Nichols’ micro chap is spare and concise, but each poem is crisp, brimming with electricity and mystery. As a reader, I was left feeling somewhat breathless, as one might feel after watching a psychological thriller. The Duchess’ self-immolation and regeneration is a gift to readers, letting us closely observe and feel the transformation from a wounded spirit to a powerful one full of potential and intent.
Sarah Nichols lives and writes in Connecticut. She is the author of eight chapbooks, including This is Not a Redemption Story (Dancing Girl, 2018) and Dreamland for Keeps (Porkbelly Press, 2018.) Her poems and essays have also appeared in Five:2: One, Otis Nebula, The Fourth River, and FreezeRay.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).