A Review of Sarah Vap’s Winter: Effulgences and Devotions
June 26, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Ian Maxton
Drones are probably killing someone right now. These words appear in small print at the top and bottom of each page in Sarah Vap’s most recent collection Winter: Effulgences and Devotions. These words are like an alarm going off quietly in an apartment that one searches for everywhere, but cannot find. They are the nagging sense one has forgotten something. They are an earworm of imperial decay. Someone is probably being extra-judicially dispatched, but between those moments, Vap attempts to write. That is to say, she tries to live and work, just like the rest of us.
Winter presents itself as a collection of prose poems, but really, it is a collection of fragments toward a poem. For twelve years, Vap attempted to write a poem about winter. This book is the result. Written in the stolen hours right after waking, her sentences often cut off. Thoughts are left hanging. She keeps getting tripped up on the “I.” “O, the tenderness, I – ,” goes a typical invocation of the self. And these are invocations. Vap is trying to get to the “I” with which Whitman sings himself.
However, things keep getting in the way of poetry. The drones, for one. The death of whales by sonar is another. Her young sons intrude, and she keeps having more of them and loving them anyway. Their voices and hers meld in the same way their bodies once did. She and her family move. She and her partner work degrading adjunct jobs. They keep losing their health insurance. They live, for a time, in an out of the way shack on the Olympic peninsula, a logging road their only connection to the outside world. In the background, winter itself is coming to an end in this region. The impetus for the poem, its occasion, is disappearing.
One of the ways Vap tries to cut through is by putting all of this anxiety on the page. Trying to make visible this country’s vile, invisible wars is an obvious example of this, but whole pieces are devoted to stray thoughts: that the valley they live in may flood irreparably one day, that the flu ripping through their home may never end, that her father’s illness will lead to his death. These last two items are part of how Vap accesses the “I.” It is not through poetic transcendence, but through the body and its daily, grotesque functions.
Vap’s sons are shit-obsessed. They sing odes to poop. They play in chicken feces. They find it all very funny, but in that way that children’s humor is deadly serious, too. They rely on their mother (and Vap’s role in the household as primary caregiver is hard not to notice in the book, even if it goes mostly unremarked upon), after all, to wipe their butts and laugh at their jokes. The asshole becomes a site of both humor and vulnerability. As an absence, Vap transforms it into symbol of the inner self—a place of potential enlightenment. Because it is a site of abjection, as well, enlightenment never quite comes.
The language in these pieces can be haphazard, flat, and rough. It is thrilling to read precisely because it feels unfinished, because it feels as though it has not been worked to death of a dozen years, but accumulated—like mold. Vap’s style can be direct at times, withholding at others. She can indulge in archaic poeticism or blank diarylike entries.
Winter can, at times, feel overwhelmed by guilt, by the knowledge that even the stolen moments that make up its composition are a privilege that comes at someone else’s cost. In an essay for N+1, published in 2006—right around the time Vap began to conceive her winter poem—Elif Batuman wrote that “the single greatest obstacle to American literature today” is guilt. This, she says, “leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence.” Batuman contends that this has led to the stunting of our national literature, that our collective way of dealing with this guilt has been an obsessive focus on “craft,” which whittles our writing down to nothing. Writers, she says, act “as if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits.”
But it is difficult not to feel guilty. I sit down to write and the attack begins. My cat is dying. The cupboards are getting empty. There is too much work to do. There is not enough time. Drones are probably killing someone right now. And they are doing it for me. They are doing it for Sarah Vap and her children, too. So we can all enjoy the last few winters we’ve got left. Things keep getting in the way of enjoyment. Shit keeps getting in the way, literal shit. And for some reason we are writing at the same time that drones are probably killing someone.
This is the logic of capitalism. It is perfectly happy to heap its guilt on individuals. And because there is nothing you or I or Sarah Vap can do, on our own, to amend the deep wrongs of our time, despair becomes the status quo. In this perverse logic, if the whales are dying, if the drones are bombing, if winter is ending it is all your fault and there is nothing you can do about it. Vap writes, at what seems to be the end of the book, “Tomorrow, I think, I just won’t try again.” These words read, at first, as a resignation to this logic, as a final defeat. Because if writing is self-indulgence, if writing is a useless act in a world collapsing around us, then the only logical—the only moral—thing to do is to stop writing.
The book does not end with these words, though. In the epilogue, Vap sets the scene for the reader one last time. She is at her desk. It is a dark winter morning—“the fire is burning, there is a cup of coffee in front of me, I am having a thought: I am happy.” Thus, the book ends.
There is perhaps nothing more perverse in our time than to admit to happiness. But it is essential that we find it, because despair cannot fuel revolution. Happiness, as a kind of hope, can do just that. Batuman ends her essay with a similarly buoying injunction: “Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things . . . write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.” Winter is, ultimately, the rare book that can take up writerly guilt as its subject and achieve not just dignity, but happiness.
Ian Maxton is a communist writer and critic. He is an associate editor at Passages North and a contributor at Spectrum Culture. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bright Wall/Dark Room, Protean, and Cease, Cows.