Reading Dara Yen Elerath’s debut collection Dark Braid is like being a guest at an ominous wedding. Through 84 pages of measured stichic and prose poems, a reader partakes in strange customs and ceremonies, dines on likely-poisoned food at the banquet, and watches the usual drama of a bride and groom transform steadily into something unspeakable. This is not a collection for those prone to turn away from horror out of some paternalistic sense of decency; however, readers able to recognize new achievements of lyric imagination and subtlety will find much to admire in these haunting poems.
Beyond her central theme of problematized romantic love, Elerath assembles a gendered cosmogony from commonplace materials. In a mode redolent of Anne Sexton’s Transformations, Elerath inverts traditional fairy tales with poems like “Hansel and Gretel in Reverse”: the doomed children move backward out of the witch’s oven, then relive ceremonies of sacrificial purification and feasting. The poem ends with a deep insight about the relationship between mothers and the bodies of their daughters. While this poem is the most direct rendering of a contorted fairy tale, the whole of Dark Braid is suffused with a fairy tale’s delicate oscillation between whimsy and disaster.
Interspersed among Elerath’s bleak parables, thoughtful critiques of erotic love and the gendered body delight and entertain. Consider the opening lines of “The History of My Body”:
I have given up the act
of kissing. It is a task
most taxing and involves
tongues and the passing
of saliva, which calls to mind
the motions of the sea—
motions too unseemly
to be described (37)
This tongue-in-cheek sense of scandal at the most basic ritual of erotic love adds levity to some of the more devastating revelations throughout the collection. To imagine a lover’s saliva as the waters of the sea suggests a kiss can be a realm of storms—a place to drown. Elerath goes on to evoke the compartmentalized and commodified feminine body, and the poem ends with a stunning image of the speaker as a doll trapped inside a box, dutifully performing other aspects of romantic ceremony.
In one of my favorite poems, “Diving Bell Spider,” Elerath leaves her generally beleaguered feminine speakers behind to write in the voice of nature’s most elemental matriarch:
In spring I anchored my web
in a tangle of eelgrass.
Whatever entered I ate
or mated with.
But tell me, what kind of story
were you expecting? (49)
Elerath goes on to celebrate the freedom of the spider before being discovered (a ridiculous imperialistic verb) and bounded by an arbitrary taxonomy. Elerath sustains the punchy second-person address in the poem:
You say I’m a wonder of nature,
my life evidence
of divine agency.
You discuss my feeding habits, the markings
on my abdomen.
But have you ever heard my song?
Not a beautiful one, perhaps—
I learned it when I was nameless,
when I did not live
in any textbook, or in the thoughts
of entomologists— (50)
The poem goes on to conclude with an evocation of savage, natural beauty—prior to the imposition of taxonomies and (perhaps) of gender itself.
While much of Elerath’s new book is just as dark as its title suggests, this is a deeply generous collection of poems full of rich imagery and thought-provoking lyric argument. The braid proves to be an apt metaphor for the intimate logical structures displayed throughout this work. In their rendering of fraught romantic, gendered love; Elerath’s poems wield tenderness just as effectively as darkness. I conclude with a line from “The Lyre”:
My husband asks forgiveness. I say yes, always yes (17).
Nate Duke was born in Arkansas. His work appears in Granta, Colorado Review, The Offing, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University.