Sarah Vap’s Winter: Effulgences and Devotions (Noemi Press), is a long narrative poem set during the years of early motherhood, when the speaker’s children are still small. Motherhood profoundly changes the speaker’s consciousness (or “brains”) by making it hypervigilant to the visible and invisible threats of capitalist precarity, environmental destruction, and the military industrial complex. This awareness of threats and harm naturally breeds anxiety and anger, but it also fuels devotion to “the family animal”—the tentacled conglomeration of the speaker, her partner, and their three sons—that is comparatively protected.
Vap shows that rapturing in the tumultuousness and peace of domesticity can be a way of taking responsibility for the violence that enables family life. People who can provide for their families participate in the destruction of the environment and do so in the name of enjoyments that ethical misgivings only periodically disturb. Savoring can be a way of acknowledging and owning this stance. The way that adjacent suffering affects the rituals of the family unit is captured in the celebration of Christmas, close to the time the speaker’s father dies:
My dad will try to have the final heart surgery of his life in February, but it won’t happen. Instead, he will die. I have just finished putting out the children’s gifts from Santa and filled everyone’s stockings.
The death of the speaker’s father affects how readers see the gifts from Santa and vice versa. The heart surgery is a kind of gift, and the opening of presents is akin to open-heart surgery. The heart surgery lends the presents a vividness of red they would not otherwise have—a red that evokes Santa, figure of the grandfather. Indeed, the speaker reflects at a later moment: “I have always felt that some ratio of tenderness and sadness is the most loving state of being, to me.” The stance of devotion, which the holiday fosters, transforms suffering and death into a softer sadness, which is fuel for domestic love. This is even true of the suffering and deaths of those our country harms for the ostensible purpose of keeping us safe. These too fuel love, as surely as logging enables the physical comforts of the speaker’s wooden cabin filled with wooden furniture in the woods. This devotion is not detached from or immune to suffering, but susceptible to the flares of anxiety and anger that suffering calls for.
The structure of the book is nonchronological. The sense of time is jumbled in a way that evokes the experience of having three children, one infant after another. An event that seems to divide the book, creating a clear before and after, is the election of Trump (Trump’s name appears on page 57, but then not again until 175). With this introduction of Trump, the speaker’s genital awareness amplifies, as we can see in this passage from one of the book’s longer poems:
Vulva-related ideas, vulva beholders, vulva at the sucking portal, vulva legend that just glided past him, vulva’s impartial eyesight, vulva’s investigative eye, vulva drawing Constantinople for her sons, vulva’s treat, vulva eating chocolate croissants with her sons this morning, vulva the homogeneous totality of darkness, vulva verbalizes the indescribable cave, vulva of the all-too-familiar, vulva’s analytical intelligence, vulva’s exquisite night, vulva playing language games, vulva becoming increasingly self-conscious as her son reads over her shoulder while she writes about vulvas, vulva is that the part outside mama yes sweetie, vulva the one part of me that is not always talking about contained-ness, vulva the reality of the pioneer, vulva closely following the market, vulva makes an ink drawing of the mouth of hell.
The election of Trump triggers memories of an undescribed assault the speaker experiences earlier in life, leading her to descend into the nether region through which she can speak her hatred and her love. More specifically, she can speak through the vulva (which is a figure for the book) her maternal desire to be the only material that houses and feeds and pleases her children:
I want to be absorbed into the ground below their feet, then be sucked up by a tree.
I want that tree to be logged, turned into lumber, and sold back to me.
I want to use those boards that I just bought to build a deck that I can sit on, and watch myself fall back down at night in the form of snow. Or, better, fall directly into the open mouths of my children.
In this book that identifies itself as “a book about catholicism, a catholic book,” it’s worth noting the transubstantiation of the body into wood and then snow. But the aspect of the snowflake the book continually draws attention to is its microbe center: at the center of the snowflake is the same kind of microbe that fills the bodies of the family animal. The goal of transubstantiation is to reinforce the family animal by partaking of its shared substance. A purpose of the book, is Catholically, to taste oneself and be tasted (the Eucharist or body of Christ being, in one sense, comprised of the people at church).
One of the ways the book tastes itself is through its frequent returns to the question of what it is about. Sometimes, this means repeatedly taking stock of phenomena such as the Earth’s possibly disappearing winters, the spawning of salmon, the whale brains melted by military and industrial sonar pings, Catholicism, the speaker’s hearing loss, and logging. Such acts of taking stock help weave together the various sections. Another way the book reinforces the sense of underlying connection is by finding new ways to articulate its own theory. One example is:
Todd asks what I’m writing. I say well my publisher says it’s a book about dirty centers and maws.
Oh, he says, — it’s your book about holding infinite opposite truths inside of oneself in order to stay on earth.
He hands me a cup of coffee, I.
It is as if Todd hands the speaker not just the coffee, but in his explanation of her work, herself. The theory Todd proposes is beautiful, but I found the book fit together clearly enough that such statements didn’t always seem necessary. I could imagine, however, that for a reader who read this work over a long period of time, such acts of tying together might be essential.
What makes this book so special to me is how intimate it is; each poem can be seen as a glimpse through an orifice of the family animal, out of which comes blood, babies, miscarried fetuses, poop, and possibly souls (or a solace, which borrows from that possibility). It is a book that asks to be lived in as we might live in a family, but the book is not a closed system. It leads into the extended bodily world that can still feed us snow.