Named After Death by Sarah Blake
Banango Editions, 2016
“This book is for everyone haunted, and so it is for everyone.”
Sarah Blake knows your deepest fears: not fears of monsters or villains but something scarier: a haunting that begins within yourself.
Named After Death is Blake’s first chapbook, a project created in tandem with a “companion workbook” that pairs each poem with suggested activities—word searches, connect-the-dots, and free-form drawing.
At initial glance, this seems an oddly playful choice for a book about cancer; most poems address the brain tumors simultaneously faced by her mother and grandfather. And yet the workbook makes a natural pairing—gently tugging the reader toward the meat of a particular poem.
I came to Blake’s chapbook in the midst of my own haunting. A year after a significant loss, my solution was to keep my hands moving to ward off the thoughts that came during idle times. Named After Death works the same way: immersing oneself in the workbook allows the reader to be dragged through Blake’s grief and come out untouched on the other side.
After a loss, many people use the language of “working through it” as if grief is a problem or a puzzle to be solved, and in this way Blake’s activities don’t merely busy your hands—they also occupy your mind. Since her mother and grandfather faced brain tumors, the workbook at times feels like a cognitive test that submits us to a jumble of letters and meanings. “One Part of His Brain” corresponds to a mazelike activity for us to unravel:
differentiates his hand from a fork.
When a tumor overwhelms this part
he sticks his hand in his pizza.
He throws away all his belts.
The activities in the workbook don’t beg do be analyzed. Instead, we can come to understand through the act of attempting them. In one poem-activity, Blake asks us to “draw 10,000 birds” as she ponders infinity. What would it mean to complete this futile action? Could you make sense of what you are left with—a page dark with scribbles indistinguishable from one another?
They seem like symbols
or one symbol. And they could be likened
0 to the passing of my grandfather
if I could see them passing and not also be moving.
0 I come across his handwriting in the house.
While the workbook alludes to the mind, Blake’s poems fixate on the body, digging in to illness and its physical horror. The speaker often maintains a distance, however, reducing the body to its most basic anatomical forms.
The inner ear has a room, the utricle—
the name of a fruit, too, the world’s smallest,
one-seeded, indehiscent. The size of a grain of salt,
I could hide it in a crack in my tooth. I could hide
my mother’s acoustic neuroma under my tongue
and think of it as a seed. It could bloom
into a sound.
Here, too, introduces another delicate balance: a juxtaposition of anatomy with botany. Blake traces landscapes and topographies but also malignant forms growing on MRI screens. This juxtaposition points to a central question within Blake’s work: a tension between growth—of bodies, of plants—as both a sign of life and a sign of death.
Death took a shape beside me
of a horse, and I grew, and it grew,
and though I am a small thing
it is a large thing. Its leg
the length of me.
Trotting around a room.
The speaker in Blake’s poems questions whether death only grows beside her or also grows inside her? Throughout the book, the speaker fixates on her body—the hairs of her eyebrow, her belly, her fertility. Would her body grow something fruitful or something malignant?
Bookending poems about her grandfather’s deterioration are several poems featuring the Agave americana—a large plant native to the southern U.S. and Mexico.
Once I confused ball moss for a tree in bloom. I hear
the Agave americana blooms, reaching
thirty feet in two months, a stalk with small, yellow flowers
at the top. I’m glad I haven’t seen them
because the plant dies. I would, too, if I let anything bud,
like that, straight from my heart,
if I let it grow, as a sweet thing, good to eat.
The accompanying activity presents Blake’s conflict: it instructs you to imagine a bloom for the Agave americana, but doing so would essentially kill it. For the speaker, the body is hope intertwined with fear, the potential to create new life but also the potential of an inherited malignancy, in the same way that the Agave americana is destroyed by putting forth new blooms.
0 the lung is not really a lung
0 anymore because the branches
scarred into little balls as if
0 blossoming and those the buds
0 and those the fruits of his life
tucked away in his lungs
0 and maybe the tumor is bracing
0 the lung open, maybe the tumor
is a star that will implode
0 and bring him into itself, and that
0 is the way to die, leaving
nothing behind but light.
The speaker feels this weight of potential—to grow new life but also to fail to thrive. At times Blake’s hauntings read like body horror. Is this deformity, an improper form of growth, something that has been passed on to her?
I remember the maggots
on the cloth instead of the meat in Redi’s experiment of 1668
and the final success of Pasteur in 1859. Two hundred years to prove
life does not come from non-life. But what about life coming
from what might be called a deformed life.
Without growth, there is no future—a sentiment the speaker arrives at by the final poem. In the final activity of the workbook, Blake instructs: “If you cannot imaging moving forward, imagine the future you would arrive at.” In allowing a single other thought in, it begins to break apart the mass of your grief. A single seed that may grow and consume you.
My life continues to come in and not come out,
and I imagine my wedding. And I imagine
my wetness on the night of my wedding.
I allow myself to think of things beyond him
and I am flooded by them.
In the hours that had passed since beginning Blake’s chapbook and workbook, I had come to imagine many things—and not one of them my own grief. I had arrived at the answer to Blake’s question: my ability to create is the very evidence of my potential to keep living.
Sometimes you must prune something—lose an important part of yourself—in order to keep growing.
Alison Thumel‘s work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Hobart, and Banshee, among others. Her first chapbook won Salt Hill’s Dead Lake Chapbook Contest and will be published in 2017.