Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, long-listed for the National Book Award, and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards, is a poetry collection of (late) consumer capitalism, of #MeToo, of postmodern referentialism, and contemporary apocalypse—“sent via Blackberry”. Reines’s polemic on contemporaneity and longings for connection is simultaneously an ode to our capacity for life, “is the song of one hundred/Thousand chemicals approximating/Sunshine in my hair”, approximating the hot, arid, and vaguely iconographic feeling of the metallic sun and block font printed on the cover of A Sand Book. Relying heavily on relatable references and American pop cultural experiences such as Hurricane Sandy, Reines writes the apocalypse with “The sun was setting/Over a great confusion”. Some of her critique is playful though serious— such as seeing “The social role of the future/For men like” Mike Pence— and some is deeply, traumatically serious, like “nausea/at the sight of our flag/too big in the blowing rain”. Reines is a 21st century prophet, which is to say, the prophet popular American culture created: “I swear//Society/Was making me do it/The voices//From the television reached me”.
A Sand Book is rhythmic, self-aware of its free incantatory metrical style, and utilizes motifs that re-emerge without surprising, making them feel distant, like echoes or reminders. These motifs come through in poems written as collages of experience, many of which lack normative progressions of sense and opt for stream-of-consciousness reflection. A variety of poet’s references— including explicit references to lovers like Susan Sontag’s “M” and subtle Sylvia Plath line echoes— pepper the book as Reines grapples with her own poetic persona, questioning the position of the “known poet” and also struggling to determine the female position in the contemporary world, asking “if you were god/how would you treat/yourself?”.
Dovetailing with self-questioning and female agency throughout A Sand Book is sex itself. The book is filled with sex and desire both literal and figurative, longings for connection and brief achievement of it along with the “feminine yearning to feel seen”. Desire “pours from me in waters and it pours from me/as tears” but is not given freely. Sex is intrinsically connected to blood and menstruation, tying the female body to physicality and autonomy, or the cultural lack thereof. This poetry warns (but does not chide) the reader not to run from the world and emotionality by hiding in desire-less physical sex, relatably stating, “In sex it is/Possible to hide. You/Can hide in there forever/If you want”.
Laid out in 12 sections each with one long poem, A Sand Book begins with section 1, “Arena”— a personal section which puns on “sand” in Spanish and Ariana Reines’s name. The first image and poem “Desero” react to “the book” of Paul Celan quoted as epigraph and command: “NO MORE SAND ART, no sand book, no masters.” Reines rejects and “forsakes” this canonical imperative, creating friction between the “master’s” commands and the book she is writing as well as between the physically destroyed book in the image and her own A Sand Book. The poem “A Partial History” opens the reader into the world wherein “We were lost in a language of images./ It was growing difficult to speak. Yet talk/ Was everywhere.” Talk, like news reports from the all-present media, writes physical lived experience, conflating physicality and bodiliness: “our skin was the same wall they talked about on the news”.
Section 2, “Twelfth Night,” is a narrative sequence of chants: “I was repeating the words all the way through/They got me through/They got me through” building repetition of the personal to re-emphasize the unsettled/ing feel/ing of this book/and of sand: “It was like the twisting of a dove/It was when the bird flutters at the back of your throat/It was very very sensitive”. Reines moves into part 3, “A Partial History of Iridescence,” with already partial histories and critiques of the America that made them, writing, “I started to feel kind of American I mean like an adult sitting uncomplaining”. Within this Ameri-critical stance come poems like “Magazine Feminism” that critique and also hold space for different feminisms and things like dating app culture. Reines writes, “I studied it with unkindness/The way I had learned to study my own face and body” in the selfie, in the mirror. Yet even in this cold space there is hope for the ability to “love differently. I could”.
Section 4, “Gizzard,” runs right into the dust storm that is today’s social and political world. It is here that women’s rights come to the fore and the #MeToo movement, writing away from or around “even the worst/Men of my culture”. Reines exploits senses of conflict between generations and types of people by critiquing the boomers who “taught us the world/Was ending but they were wrong…Our parents, badly/Harmed”. A Sand Book turns with these themes to follow a missing notebook in the next section, “Safeway,” carrying with it the baggage of the sections before in a growing climax. “Something/Historical was happening to me//Something already/Antique,” Reines writes, moving in anticipation through that anxiety of which “I wanted to feel people/Living” deeply or deeper. The shallowness of life is comforted by but one notion: “To have become rock” and hard, unfeeling and unyielding. This section laments the emotionally “rubbery/Haunted look” of youths “before whose eyes/Many decapitations and porns/And little else of moment/Has passed”, and yet still there are reminders or hopes of “How much I love human places”.
This section’s heart, “Participles of Deserere,” contains much of A Sand Book’s contemporary emotional and activist vein, referencing a poet named Tongo (perhaps Eisen-Martin) and the work of the poet toward culture shift and critique. “Armorica,” the next section, immediately equates “America” with “armor” and the warfare of violence remembered— primarily against women: “A presentiment or memory of things/That happened here before she ever/Set foot here, and the things done to her/And the things done to other women”. The mother is here the artist and the artist is mother, nurturing hope and change in a violent world. This change becomes possible through the empowering gestures of section 7, “Thursday,” which operates as a spell or magical incantation. Beginning with a magical symbol and an etymological litany of “Thor’s Day,” Reines writes more sex, more feminism, but amplifies and weaponizes her words: “I wish the violence in me to die with myself”. She continuously questions the men/women binary, asking “what’s it like to be a man so loved by men/To be looked up to by them in this masculine way” while acknowledging part of her as “a small man standing up for himself inside me/I am a small woman standing up inside a tall man”.
From this high point of energy, A Sand Book crashes into the eighth section, “The Saddest Year of My Life.” “i was crouching over my phone/waiting for it to tell me what to do”, Reines writes, indicating that technology or perhaps others generally play master—“let somebody who doesn’t know me tell me//What to do with my body”. The formal experiments and prose poems here have unbeautiful sentences matching the melancholy tone: “I have stretched my word so far/I no longer know its value”. A Sand Book hurtles into “Tiffany’s Poems” with this needful energy; with Tiffany, sex is one way to feel in our consumerist world. However, writing Tiffany is also creating and embodying her, for “Not to have written is to resign oneself to oblivion on the one hand/But on the other it is to turn oneself over/To liberty”. Reines pulls purchase from the gorgon, perhaps thinking of Hélène Cixous, as a timely symbol of womanhood “on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED” immediately followed by a Ginsberg reference (“I saw the best minds” from Howl) wrapped into consumer capitalism announcements (like those of a supermarket ad). In place of Tiffany or emotion comes consumerism, for “If I do not become a corporation I will never beat the assholes to the moon”.
Gender and sexuality meld neatly with queerness in section 10, “Nine Neoclassical Poems.” Containing more than nine poems, this section returns to anxiety, particularly from #MeToo and rape and the anxiety over saying “something bad” about the proverbial “him” of patriarchal America. In response to these queer and female anxieties comes section 11, “FKN Ziggurats,” dreaming of “a Gay//Priesthood, queerness as a Kohanim, priest/Class of the world”. This section in which “the malls,” other ziggurats, “Are built all over the world that we might shop our way out/Of oblivion,” is dedicated to Julian Brolaski and contains very short poems that build to a long “New York School” poem with stream of consciousness references, hard to hold onto, leading out of the main body of the book into the ethereal final section. On all black paper with white print, Reines explains “Mosaic” as the direct channeling of an outpouring of love “of such ravishing totality that I don’t know what to compare it to”. The love as “thoughtforms” overtaking Reines’s body during a walk (moving her away from the “real” world) began to speak to her and the resulting section is a transcription and reflection of the bubbling of memories and sexual/feminine shame that resulted in a “beard” of boils— “the only possible garment” for woman in today’s world. The platitudinous transcriptions include lines such as “Analogy is the structuring principle of the universe” and “the suffering of woman is the true story of the universe”, ending the book’s journey with a simple, channeled, perhaps anticlimactic message-driven focus.
A Sand Book covers an immense amount of territory over its 300+ pages, and as such the shorter poems interspersed with the longer poems work both as respites and little contemplations for the reader. While some of these feel a bit like filler, A Sand Book works more like a novel than like a poetry collection; not every sentence is meant to be or can be strong alone, but together they form a driven narrative whole. Reading Reines and journeying with her encouraged a deeper contemplation of existence because of this mix. With the sun setting on this our confusion, work like A Sand Book “might be the last/& only way to short/circuit the bad that may/converge on you”.
Cixous, Hélène. 1976. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Translators, Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4. 875-893.
Brolaski, Julian. 2017. Of Mongrelitude. Wave Books.
Eisen-Martin, Tongo. 2017. Heaven Is All Goodbyes. City Lights.
Ginsberg, Allen. 1956. Howl and Other Poems. City Lights.
Robert Eric Shoemaker holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics from Naropa University and is currently a Comparative Humanities PhD student at the University of Louisville. Eric’s work has been or will be featured in Jacket2, Signs and Society, Asymptote, Columbia Journal, and others. Follow Eric’s work at reshoemaker.com.