July Read of the Month: “The Disappearing Act,” by Sara Pirkle Hughes

Sara Pirkle Hughes

Reviewed by Anya Krugovoy Silver

In her consistently outstanding debut volume of poetry, The Disappearing Act, Sara Pirkle Hughes demonstrates her facility with beginnings and endings.  Poems about childhood, family relationships, and the fleeting, fraught nature of sexual desire detail life’s complexities while resisting answers to its mysteries.

Hughes writes masterful first and last lines:  “When my father hit me, he hit me out of love” (“What You Must Understand,” 4) begins one poem; “Even then I held both men deep inside like hunger” ends another (“Watching an Old Springsteen Concert on TV,” 6).

Hughes’s openings and closings are never wasted.  More profoundly, though, she is interested in the beginnings and endings that mark and define human life.  She writes many poems about her childhood, years shaped by respectable poverty in a small Southern town that doesn’t show up in any guidebooks:  “The ocean of my childhood/was crab grass and powdery dirt,/pathetic landscapes, the town dump/teeming with possums”(“My Hometown,” 11).  Childhood in the poems is marked by close relationships with the speaker’s father, mother, siblings (especially her twin sister) and grandparents.

Despite the buttery warmth of a biscuit, or a tire swing whirling her dizzily around, these poems are not sentimental evocations of rural innocence.  Just like the possums crawling around the town dump, childhood holds its humiliations and terrors: the physical violence of a beating, the embarrassment of not having enough money to buy a glossy magazines, racial hatred.

There’s quite a lot of pretending and dishonesty in Hughes’s poetry.  Married couples pretend to love each other, when, in fact, a husband might loathe his pregnant wife’s “disgusting body,” her breasts “awful beige eggplants” (“The Phone Call,” 58).  A baker fantasizes about his assistant sprinkling coconut on a pie, only to contrast her youth and promise with “his wife crawling around the den, / looking under the couch for the remote” (“The Baker,” 49) Marriage, in these poems, is “more dream / than truth” (“The Difference Between a Man and a Woman,” 47), marked by secret lusts and disappointments.  Even after many years together, a woman might want to throw a stiletto at her husband, and a woman might be worn out by serving not only her husband, but her children as well.

In addition to the end of love, which “escapes like steam” (“If Love Exits,” 50) in many of Hughes’s poems, she also takes on the subjects of cancer and death, most movingly the death of a beloved grandfather. Death, in Hughes’s poems, is death.  It isn’t necessarily cause for epiphany, or noble, or transcendent.  In the book’s closing poem, one of the collection’s most stunning, Hughes suggests that “Life may be nothing but darkness, / but now, that darkness is cooing. There may be no mystery beyond this” (“Lullaby,” 68).  However, rather than being a frightening poem about the existential abyss, “Lullaby” offers the possibility that this life, though it might end “too soon, / with no warning” (68) is enough, that the world offers the ineffable and real beauty of the here and now, “the crickets. . . singing our names” (69).

In fact, despite the betrayals and stumbles of life, Hughes’s poetry is ultimately more joyful than elegiac. Yes, love can be befuddling, and men can be predatory, but sexual desire is also fun, exciting, and celebratory.  There’s a lot of kissing in this book, perhaps most memorably in “The Makeout Party,” which ends with the speaker’s dizzy exit from a closet in which she and a boy have just exceeded their allotted time, and after which “I grinned back like a fool” (59). Sexual desire, though intense, isn’t the only kind of love celebrated in the book.  The section “The Miracle of Hands” offers several poems in which familiar hands comfort and protect each other.  The gorgeous poem “My Younger Sister Riding Shotgun” remembers the speaker’s twin sister crocheting chemo hats (Hughes is a breast cancer survivor).  The twinship between Hughes and her sister is profoundly tender and trusting, as well as silly and fun. In the aforementioned poem, the speaker imagines her sister as holding her together and keeping her tied to life itself:  “The road we travel is a skein of yarn unraveling. / All night, cars zip past, fast as she makes stitches” (28).  The image of life as an unraveling skein busily mended by the speaker’s sister is gorgeous and satisfying.

Hughes’s poetry stands out from much other contemporary poetry through its verbal acuity.  None of her poems are sloppy, lazy, or bland.  Her words are knitting-needle sharp, her images absolutely precise: church women “jeweled butterflies” (“My Grandfather in the Pulpit,” 22), and the mummy in a local museum “terrible in his tininess—raisin teeth, eyes sutured like a bad cut” (“Field Trips,” 12).

Hughes is not a poet of abstractions, but a poet of the tangible and actual.  As a result, her images are carefully cut.  She also has a terrific ear for sound, including both internal and end rhyme, assonance, and consonance. These concluding lines from “My Mother After My Fourth Round of Chemo” demonstrate her fine use of alliteration:  “my mother’s touch / will dissolve my disease / easily as dawn erases dreams” (30). These lines move from the crisp alliteration of “dissolve,” “disease,” “dawn,” and “dreams” to the dreamy assonance of “mother’s,” “touch,” and “dissolve” and “easily,” “erases,” and “dreams.” The sounds of the poem perfectly encapsulate its description of the speaker being rubbed on the back by her mother, juxtaposed with her (typical) embarrassment, as a child, of being seen with her mom.

Hughes is also an accomplished writer of form poems.  The book contains pantoums, sonnets, and villanelles; these poems are held by their forms rather than straining against them.

The Disappearing Act is not only a remarkably mature debut collection, but it introduces a poet who demonstrates poetry’s relevancy and vitality, its continued ability to speak to us.  Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith recently said, “I’m convinced that one of the only defenses against the degradations of our market-driven culture is to cleave to language that fosters humility, awareness of complexity, commitment to the lives of others and a resistance to the overly easy and the patently false” (Washington Post, May 29, 2018). Hughes’s poetry honors language, complexity, and the lives of others.  Her poems are not overly easy, and they aren’t false.  Hughes should be essential reading for anyone interested in current, everyday life as intensified and clarified in poetry.  Her book is absolutely first-rate.

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