Sarah J. Sloat grew up in New Jersey and has lived in China, Kansas, and Italy. For the past 16 years she has resided in Frankfurt, Germany, where she works as an editor for a news agency. Her poems have appeared in West Branch, Juked, Yemassee, Front Porch, and Barrelhouse, among other journals. In The Voice Of A Minor Saint, published by Tilt Press, is her first chapbook or book-length publication, white and saddle stitched with attractive cover art by Emmanuel Polanco.
The title, shared by a poem in the book, came across as witty self-reference from a writer who sees herself as still emerging and thus less considered, but perhaps still speaking in a voice as yet uncompromised by the temptations which accompany establishment. Sloat also suggests that one tends to find sacraments among the mundane and overlooked, so that the poet with accurate vision commits her artistic life to dwelling on them:
I keep my hair close cropped
that my face might fit in lockets.
My heart is small, like a love
of buttons or black pepper.
On approach, I notice how
objects grow and contours blear.
That’s what comes of nearness.
I have an ear for the specific…”
(from “In the Voice of a Minor Saint”)
True to this faith in minor things, much of Sloat’s verse concentrates on moments not charged by love or death. She doesn’t confront us with the inner workings of affliction, the aftermath of passion; she gives us bad hair days:
yourself: at least the trees
put up their parasols; at least
the orchards you wear as hair
surrender those damn apples.
Nonetheless one is drawn in by the insinuations, the suburban street that leads finally to mortal decline. The sedulously observed trifle becomes a door to the abyss in everyday predicaments:
World, I forgive the lack of focus.
I know the knob of sun will turn;
even here, I trust clarity
to honor our appointment.
While Sloat discovers her inspiration in the ordinary, the poem that results is rarely ordinary. Her poems thrive on repetitive examination the way one might turn an object over in one’s hands and expose different facets. Despite this approach, her work is seldom wordy, conjuring like an origami maker a great deal from the plain with a few twists of phrase:
In the folds where I am rolled,
some mornings I have seen the Andes,
strands of wax, and in the stitches
once I made out a line of ants
carrying their minute burdens.
Everything that appears possible
can be turned into something impossible.
The greater traumas reside in her verse too, subtly implicit, in the underbrush or around a curve, though still available. Take for instance the sly and masterful “God Have Pity on the Smell of Gasoline,” where through a kind of abstract metonym the manmade becomes trope for the man, who is in need of absolution. Here the volatile, the tactile in an unpopulated scene leads by the trail of that nauseating vapor back to a past contaminated by the residue of burning. The scent of gasoline is urgency itself, the threat of conflagration, a flash of self-immolation. Here is the oxidized, polluted world the car has created. Here is napalm:
…God pity the vapors lifting
through the pores of the soil,
loitering near the pumps,
soot that films hair and coats,
that beds in collars,
dark groom of velocity…
Mostly though, Sloat’s poetry avoids indictment, focuses less on relationships and more on self-awareness in time and place. When she puts aside the magnifying glass and picks up the mirror, the effect she achieves remains that of the reserved witness, of testimony distilled until subjective response becomes solemn, persuasive as facts:
I weary of the season, whitewash
and blind arrows
The sun has come to steal my outline,
come to sort me,
stretch me along its javelin.
Succumb, it says when
already the heat is lurching south
in one long exhalation.
(From “Summer’s End”)
Sloat relies more on her supple voice and impressionistic shifts in image and line structure than on traditional prosody. Nevertheless she titrates into this collection occasional poems that exploit more formal techniques without any trace of discord. I would judge both ghazals she includes in the chapbook’s twenty-two poems as worthy representatives of her fine idiosyncrasies as a writer and of ghazals in general, my limitation to English (and rusty Spanish) notwithstanding.
As with any volume, there are stronger poems and weaker ones. On occasion, Sloat pursues the banal and doesn’t find much more. But overall, I found In the Voice of a Minor Saint to be compelling and taut. Its sequence consistently uncovers natural synergies. Nothing here feels out of place or jarring in tone or theme. Sloat abstains from approaches that tend to provide for easy access, seldom relying on narrative, and preferring vestal meditation to jocular monologue, and so for the most part her ideas refuse to yield nutmeat to a cursory skim. Yet in the end the work is highly readable, a simple though hardly trivial measure of quality. These are poems one wishes to finish, and the same can be said for the book as well.