Time’s Apprentice, by Sarah Stockton
Published by dancing girl press & studio, 2021
Cover design by Kristy Bowen
Review by Risa Denenberg
I looked forward to reading Time’s Apprentice, knowing the author Sarah Stockton, as I do, who is a curator extraordinaire of the journal River Mouth Review where, in every issue, she places a set of striking poems by different poets next to one another into a collage of shared meanings. And, as I write book reviews for RMR, I wanted to have a chance to have my say about this chapbook.
I mention Sarah’s curator talent, because it is equally present in Time’s Apprentice. It is no simple task to seam together a life in its many facets in a way that signals to the reader that no one facet deserves all of the attention. There are memoirs that do this, of course, but a small collection of poems, if done well, can also bring a rich and many-sided life into view. A braid of living strands run through these poems, creating the kernel of a whole life—strands of time, seasons, and cycles. Attention to sequencing of poems in a collection—a dilemma all poets struggle with—is a talent she possesses.
Some of the poems here are dreamy. My favorites are the three poems titled “From the Diaries,” which are epistles to Anais Nin—a French-Cuban-American diarist, essayist, novelist, and writer of short stories and erotica. I also read Nin’s “The Diary of Anais Nin,” back in the day. These poems are subtitled “Dawn,” “Noon,” and “Dusk,” and begin with “Dear Anais—”. Scattered through the collection, they mark a cycle of returning to the inner life. Written as unsent letter in a diary, they are the keepers of emotion-laden secrets. In “From the Diaries: Dawn,” she says, “Remember exchanging those lists of past lovers? / I left a few names out—revisions forthcoming.”
And in “From the Diaries: Noon”:
I fell overboard in disgrace. The houseboat leaks
but your diaries are still safe. I’m banned
from the docks until I pay the rent.
And in “From the Diaries: Dusk,” the letter writer asks, “Do you think it is time for me to go?” and implores, “please come back, / write me into your story.”
I love the allegorical meanings that I find in these poems (“fell overboard,” “pay the rent,” “revisions”) offering insight into the writer’s dreams, but with many possible interpretations.
There are poems harking back to childhood, such as “What Grandmother Ruth Taught Me” (“Take a raw egg and cup it / in your finger-painted hand.”), or “Summer’s Mouth” (The summer my parents / abandoned us, each other.”). A reminiscence about a father now grown old in “The Sailor’s Daughter,” gives this report: “My father has become a small boy demanding attention, tacking / across the lanes in search of whatever he forgot.”
Another facet here is chronic illness. In “Chronic,” the word becomes a metaphor for all the difficulties of a life. Chronic is: “endless cups of bitter leaves,” “a transmogrification,” an “internet hoax,” “a chronic liar,” a “phase of aging.” Seeking explanations for what underlies chronic illness in “The Placenta Effect,” Sarah posits wide-ranging, often crank theories from her own research:
I’ve been studying the historical records of
hypochondriacs and wondering if my
religious doubts are a factor that only
medication or a thorough confession can
abate. Like every sick person I’ve cast
my symptoms wide over the internet, chasing
down desperate strategies, ludicrous
theories that at first, for a time, seem to
loosen the binds […]
Other poems evoke Sarah’s grown children. In “So Far Away,” the loneliness that a mother can feel once a child is thoroughly launched is expressed this way,
My daughter calls to say she has had an unexpected encounter
with a green iguana. I live in the north. She is far away.
As she talks, I look up iguanidae, knowing my textual knowledge
won’t persuade her to move back home, regardless of the facts.
“Whoever Goes First,” is a not-so-gentle reminder that we all will die, and those of us getting older should be planning for death, including having serious discussions with partners and children. I so appreciate this no-nonsense take on aging and death. And although, “we say that we hope to go together / (like all lovers do)” it is also wise to know that things may not go as we hope:
but secretly each wants to be
the first to cross
death’s unknown threshold
like a child at a new school
who looks back, hesitant, the goes on
comforted by the presence of the beloved
still standing at the dimming gate.
And lest I give short shrift to odes to the natural world in Time’s Apprentice, I will mention that there are “coyotes / down by the duck pond,” “one last naked swim in perfect / golden water, one last fling,” and “a swirling tidepool” with “kelp infused water.” In the poem,“In Every Season, A Shade of Blue,” there are “clusters of morning glory,” which are “bursting / bruised berries.” This ode to blue continues,
blue kisses the jelly fish’s tentacles
struts across the western jay, shades
into mussel, whale, parrot, frog
It is rare to find so much depth in so few poems. I think you’ll like this small book that covers so much territory so well.
Sarah Stockton is the author of the chapbook Time’s Apprentice (dancing girl press, 2021) and Castaway, forthcoming in 2022 with Glass Lyre Press. Her poems have appeared in wide-ranging publications including EcoTheo Review, Glass Journal, Psaltery & Lyre, About Place Journal, Rise Up Review, and many more. Sarah has an extensive background in university teaching, workshop facilitation, freelance writing and editing, and is the author of two books on spirituality and spiritual direction. Whether reading, writing, studying, or teaching, poetry has been a part of Sarah’s life for over 40 years.
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press; curator at The Poetry Café Online; and an avid book reviewer. Her most recent publications include the full-length collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition.