Sarah Jean Alexander - a scrapbook of poems and of short stories, of nightmares and of daydreams, of love letters and of prayer cards
Sarah Jean Alexander, Wildlives, Big Lucks Books, 2015.
two poems @ The Quietus
I knew it was impossible
Hobart x1 x2 x3
New Wave Vomit
Keep This Bag Away From Children
Pangur Ban Party
Illuminati Girl Gang
Super Awesome Mega Gigantic Pretty Sweet Friend Zine
Thought Catalog x1 x2 x3 x4
Unsure if i will allow my beard to grow for much longer
Shabby Doll House x1 x2 For Every Year
Press Board Press
Wildlives is a scrapbook of poems and of short stories, of nightmares and of daydreams, of love letters and of prayer cards. In her debut collection, Sarah Jean Alexander asks (and answers) the hardest questions about love and loneliness and 21st century human survival. Wildlives excavates the depths of heartbreak, hope, and helplessness that can exist between two people in a small, human world.
“These are romantic poems, but not demure. They are edgy, contemporary poems, yet unafraid to dwell in timeless tropes of heaven, flowers and rain. Never shying away from the magnitude of love, Sarah Jean Alexander inhabits the space that two people once occupied together—and no longer occupy. She reminds us that the gods still love a love poem and that god prays to us.”—Melissa Broder
“Sarah Jean Alexander digs herself apart in a confessional mash-up of poems, one liners, and short prose pieces in search of identity and love. Her words are aimed intimately and directly at ‘you’ from page to page, but she’s cleverly addressing the reader as well, a kind of tight-rope attached between our eyes, all of us loved and unloved people balancing and falling to the chorus of Wildlives.”
—Shane Jones, author of Crystal Eaters and Light Boxes“These poems are strange and comforting, but comforting in a strange way, like the way it sometimes feels good to touch your eyeball, and strange in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable, like someone is watching me from inside my brains, and also they are beautiful. I feel embarrassed for all the previous generations that didn’t get to read this book.”—Chelsea Martin
“I’ve only met Sarah Jean Alexander once, but it was intense time and a wild time. I think that’s how you have to define Sarah Jean, and I think that’s how we have to define the work we find on these pages: free and brutal and savage and, yes, wild. I’m reading this author and it feels as if she really knows truth. It feels as if she is my best friend. It feels as if her heart and her fears are exactly the same as mine. For these reasons, it doesn’t matter that I’ve only met Sarah Jean Alexander once: thanks to the strength of this book and the weight of these letters, I am convinced that we will always be together.”—Luna Miguel
“The shock that comes from being alive has not worn off for Sarah Jean Alexander. It is evident in her writing as attentiveness or awe. And with it, in Wildlives, she has given us rhapsodies on love, exhilaration, anxiety and regret.”—Edward Mullany
Sarah Jean Alexander’s poems are filled with miniatures. Ok, you say, not always and you are right–sometimes, though–and even when they aren’t, there is something about the poems in Alexander’s debut collection, Wildlives, that reminds me of tiny dioramas, arranged to tell different stories about their author’s ongoing negotiations with space, time, self, and others.
Alexander invites us to wander furniture outlets with her and to meet her in a restaurant in Italy to gently place silver dollars and Shiraz into her mouth.
Dynamic, chant-like language lends an incantation quality to Wildlives. “Ahhhh” opens as the poet introduces a familiar metaphor conjuring lover as sinking ship, but immediately upturns this image with far more bizarre ones:
Tiny people on the shoreline become tinier
people still as you float out out and away, out out
and under, belly up in green water and foaming waves.
Alexander’s lines read stranger and more spellbinding as they accrue greater focus, moving further into a quasi-Lynchian dream-state that is paradoxically more vivid than the “normal” places the poems sometimes begin in. Instead of neutralizing unusual situations with specifics or bridging the gap between real and imagined worlds with comparison, Wildlives portrays a sense of distortion that accumulates, magnifies, and contradicts as more detail and information is taken on. Paradoxically, things become more and less realistic at the same time–taking on a logic of their own that is both and is neither.
Andre Bréton says that surrealism requires an absentminded, dreamlike state in which we can create or perceive art freed from our typical impulses and expectations. In closing his 1924 manifesto, he writes:
Surrealism, such as I conceive of it, asserts our complete nonconformism clearly enough so that there can be no question of translating it, at the trial of the real world, as evidence for the defense…
This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes as little impression upon me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live which are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere.
Much like this, Wildlives exists and operates elsewhere–in its own realm, woven out of logic that is uniquely its authors–part of Alexander’s poetics requires that we enter this universe as readers, and resist cannibalizing it with the logic of ours. (It wouldn’t hurt if we tried to do this with other peoples poems always, but it seems especially crucial to appreciate this book fully.)
As the speaker is relegated further away from the other objects in “Ahhhh,” the language used to characterize the scene becomes increasingly lucid and immediate. On second read, what is happening isn’t impossible, or even odd, as the laws of physics go – when you get further away, things look smaller–this is one way reality works–yet Alexander’s tone portrays an emotional truth than is just as convincing as the physical one, and contradicts it–it feels like they shouldn’t.
In film and television, people use the term the “uncanny valley” to denote a kind of hyperrealism that gets too spookily close to verisimilitude to pass for real or fake. While this is something to avoid in TV, I am beginning to believe it is what poetry should aspire to.
While the uncanny is technically extremely similar to reality, it ceaselessly announces its unreality on stylistic or meta-narrative level at the same time. (Actor Nolan North says this is “where things look a little too real and you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at. It becomes weird like it did in The Polar Express, where the eyes seem so realistic, and yet you know it’s animated.”) I want to argue that Alexander’s poems oscillate between emotional realism and surrealistic image to obtain a similar effect–while they tend to be somewhat colloquial, and invoke familiar metaphorical vehicles like oceans and animals, their language is combined in stark and eerie ways, always turning away from the familiar when you least expect it to.
Alexander’s poems initially seem to take up the confessional tradition; the book is divided up in sections titled “The Unfair Distance That Can Exist Between Two People In A Small Human World,” “Share Your Fears With Mine,” and “Being Honest Does Not Count,” and most of the book deals with paradoxical sensations of remoteness and claustrophobia felt by a first-person speaker towards romantic partners and other people. The collection is dedicated to Keanu Reeves. Images become deeply macabre, though–far more Edward Gorey than Anne Sexton.
The first section of the book is bold and sprawling, while the second contains a cycle of short fiction pieces. Each of these rectangle-shaped prose blocks distorts a shared, domestic space at a micro-level. Though lovers are central, Alexander’s microfictions are staged more like plays, using dead & living animal characters and objects to illustrate Alexander’s tiny and bizarre imaginings, casting their human players as ever-present ghosts that loom behind them (and aren’t we? With our experiences or art always?):
We taught the small gray stones how to disassemble themselves and then we put our shirts back on and walked towards the street again. You pulled a potato sack out of your back pocket and we began scraping up every dead animal we could find flattened in the street. We collected eleven squirrels, five rabbits, two foxes, and a crow. We carried them back to our living room and watched them mix with the silver fish as thousands of tiny dead bodies continued to pour through the open windows. These “figures” also pop up in the books first and final sections of poetry, granting Wildlives a conversation quality, between forms as well as between real and dream or metaphor and its object.
“I’m not sure why stones are compelling to me,” Sarah Jean told FANZINE. “I like that they can be tiny, or the size of mountains, they can be shiny and rare or they can be covered in mud for eons. That we can see them and use them and kick them every day and never take notice, or take so much notice that it consumes us. A jewel is just a rock. Sand is just tiny rocks mixed with minerals. It’s just another thing in this world that humans choose to ignore or flood with attention.”
The final section of the book dwells most viscerally in the everyday, containing to-do lists and poetic meditations on day-to-day rituals interrupted by longing. As anyone who has read her weather reports for Real Pants knows, Sarah Jean Alexander has a unique gift for poeticizing ordinary life at a micro-level that is relatable, yet fresh–she uses figurative language economically, but in bold, bright bursts.
Alexander’s list-poems exemplify this best, containing vivid-yet-common images of the author procrastinating online, saying goodbye to planes flying overhead, and doodling a fat puppy. The poems describe acts done idly, yet are themselves anything but idle–lines are delightfully uneven: sprawling at one moment, then shockingly cogent the next.
While Sarah Jean’s poems sometimes tap into a childlike sense of wonderment, they refuse the lazy naiveté of so many poems of these kind, which end in only the flimsy resolution that the life of the mind always wins out over the real world’s gritty logic.
Instead, they portray wonder with a refreshing, complicated maturity–though many of these poems invoke fable and storybook-structures, their narrator is always a fully human, grown woman whose imaginings do not detract from her strength or abilities to navigate the world reasonably.
Wildlives is concerned with both literal and figurative explorations of space, and which metaphors we choose to ignore or flood with attention, particularly when the two coalesce in heightened moments of intimacy between people. “The Edge-Parts of Different Places” begins with the lines “It is hard for one human / to fit inside another human”–describing a moment with a partner as a locus of both physical and emotional contradiction. As the poem goes on, its language becomes increasingly surreal, closing with the image of a Woman made out of bats.
This image depicts that creation of a kind of creepy, closely-knit darkness that provides comfort, claustrophobia, and even escape. Alexander conjures intimacy with a kind of haunting, low-grade psychic violence–I am reminded of Dorothea Lasky’s Thunderbirds at some moments. (Though Alexander’s poetics is complex, unusual and uniquely her own, I feel also compelled to bring up Tomaž Šalamun, Cassandra Gillig, and Melissa Broder–who aptly, blurbed the book.) Invocations of the surreal are echoed and answered on the next page, as the piece “Humid Air and Three Blankets” closes with its speaker uttering the phrase: “I am here to remind you / that this is happening”–a kind of choral remark that speaks to not only these pieces, but Alexander’s poetics more generally.
Though Wildlives is full of relatable, confessional poetic moments, it is not an egocentric collection: the author displaces her sensations onto dead stars, unwieldy mountains, bodies become forage, and mosquitos transported across state lines. Alexander’s announcements of amorphous longing take on refreshing physicality that isn’t amorphous at all. “The biggest stars in the universe are called red supergiants,” she announces, reflecting simply that: “I shouldn’t have let you become mine.”
Though I don’t know if there is a word for it, I want to say that Sarah Jean Alexander’s poems are the opposite form of the Whitmanesque expansive impulse–instead of making herself larger, the author manipulates language to make herself and the objects of her fascination so incredibly small they seem racked with detail–as if nothing else exists.
“I am tiny next to you,” begins the poem “695,800 kilometers.” The next moment, lovers have swapped appendages. Like my favorite of Alexander’s poems, this begins somewhere safe and lyric but quickly becomes an arrangement of tiny, eerie memento moris–a still life the author moves through, shifting seamlessly from light to solemn, play to lament, dreaming to waking, yet always herself manages to emerge intact, guiding us out in some new, direction we could never have dreamed up ourselves. - Lucy Tiven
Sarah Jean Alexander’s poetry has that quality of stepping from her life with the appearance of being effortlessly beautiful. It makes you almost forget that she’s one of the hardest working poets around. From her tweets to her long-form works, Alexander puts craft and devotion to the service of a poetry that is honest, funny and generous. Wildlives will be a gift, the beautiful fruits of a long period of writing and living. - Michael Seidlinger
Sarah Jean Alexander expresses happiness on the internet via Facebook. Happiness is a big thing with Sarah Jean Alexander. Out of countless online writers Sarah Jean Alexander is one of the few that has previously worked as a bartender, making her transition to the poetry world especially easy. Her poetry readings are the things dreams are made of: funny, poignant, and downright captivating. Few can compare to Sarah Jean Alexander’s poetic chops. Besides writing her own stuff she curates the infinitely excellent ‘Parlor’.
Well things are about to change for Sarah Jean Alexander. ‘About’ is a relative term for the big event is happening in February of 2015. But it is a pretty big event. ‘WILDLIVES’ is coming out. For those unaware of ‘WILDLIVES’ it is a collection of poetry and short stories written by Sarah Jean Alexander. Ah yes the infinitely excellent Mark Cugini of Mark Cugini fame is responsible for this fortuitous event. Thankfully people have plenty of time to prepare themselves.
A Facebook status says far more about the event. For some strange reason Sarah Jean Alexander states she cannot wait for the book. This is confusing. If Sarah Jean Alexander is indeed the writer of ‘WILDLIVES’ she does not need to wait for the book. She already has ‘WILDLIVES’ via being the author of said book. Does this status refer to the eventual departure of her book from her expressive mind into the expansive geographic universe that is the world? That would make way more sense. Or maybe Sarah Jean Alexander is waiting for her writing self to write the book and to amaze herself with it. Such a thing is quite normal among online/real life hybrid people.
Is the world ready for Sarah Jean Alexander’s unique artistic vision? Beach Sloth certainly is. Through the gradual evolution of Beach Sloth from random weird online dude who read Sarah Jean Alexander’s work to something closely approximating ‘friend’ or at least ‘acquaintance’ Beach Sloth has seen the transformation of Sarah Jean Alexander’s work. For plenty of online movements revolve around Sarah Jean Alexander. ‘Shabby Doll House’ helps to keep Sarah Jean Alexander quite busy with editing work.
Everything Sarah Jean Alexander has done has been working towards this moment. From her relocation to New York City to her constant readings, Sarah Jean Alexander has changed the lives of countless online citizens. With so much work already being done on behalf of the internet Sarah Jean Alexander has so much more to give. ‘WILDLIVES’ will be the best poetry collection of 2015- beachsloth.tumblr.com/post/66927275923/wildlives-by-sarah-jean-alexander
Sarah Jean Alexander’s first book, Wildlives, centers itself squarely in the 21st-century. Poems name check Google, PayPal, and even indie hip hop band WHY?’s 2008 song “The Vowels, pt. 2.” However, these poems also reference heaven, rain, and stars, decidedly timeless tropes of poetry. Which is not to say that these poems are cliché, simply that they mash up old and new to explore loneliness, lust, and love in a modern world.
Wildlives is a mix of short lyric poems, prose poems, and what could be considered fiction. The hybridity of form rings as the differences between Tweet, Facebook update, Tumblr post, etc. Indeed, there are a handful of poems short enough to tweet:
The biggest stars in the universe are called red supergiants. I shouldn’t have let you become mine.
There is a mountain of wordsI am frightened of
and you are at its peak.
That last one is a little too long to be a Tweet, but the point is that Alexander’s short poems tend to be very short, and it’s a fact that she’s an adept Twitter user (over 16,000 tweets as of the writing of this review). Still, these small poems pack in huge ideas.God is a good man. We are an accidental series of events. Ideally, we should not be able to tell where one person leaves off and another starts.—“Narrative”
Despite taking on big themes, Alexander’s poems remain breezy and conversational. The overall effect is like getting coffee with a friend who talks at length of her dreams, nightmares, anecdotes, and fantasies. In “Violent Knight” the speaker sees herself in the mirror as a bald woman: “I put myself into bed and dream about a day when the both of us are 85.” In one of the strongest pieces in the book, “Fit to Size,” the speaker tells us about her beliefs:
My relationship with religionThese micro moments—a smile, a prayer before sleep—enter into the macro: how do I believe, and in what, if I believe in anything at all?
comes with many footnotes
and complicated annotations
and mostly excuses
and Jesus Christ
it freaks people out
when I tell them I still pray
before I fall asleep every night,
but have you ever thought
about how efficient
a person’s smile is
as a form of communication[.]
The book is divided into three sections, the middle of which is a single piece called “Share Your Fears with Mine.” Made up of ten prose blocks, the piece begins:
The living room could no longer hold all of the dead fish that had been piling up for the past week, so we opened the windows and let the tiny silver bodies spill out onto the street.
The piece follows two characters, including the speaker, as they attempt different ways of being intimate. In one section, “You turned to me and lifted your shirt a few inches and said, Touch your belly to my belly[…]”, while in another the characters teach stones how to stack themselves into a “fortress” on which they hang a sign that says “NOT DEAD INSIDE.”
While some of these poems may strike the reader as akin to social media, their sentiment is earnest. Alexander is a poet unafraid to engage with big questions, unafraid to attempt answering them. Using contemporary diction Alexander updates tried-and-true poetic images to create poems that live comfortably in the age of the Internet.
What other poets are using modern forms, language, and images to engage with big themes and questions? - www.hazelandwren.com/2015/what-were-reading-wildlives/
brought this to the US with me as well; had got this in may but hadn’t felt ready to read until two days ago; i guess partly bc it’s written by sarah and it’s her first book and so i want to give it the attention it deserves/not read it casually, and also bc i knew it would be emotional, and wanted to be ready to be overwhelmed. felt grateful to have these in my hand and glad that it was as emotional and overwhelming as i thought it would be
the poem the book opens with the poem ‘Holes’
Holesfeel like this poem sets the tone for the rest of the book – the way its willing to state, in unambiguous terms, ‘I once loved another human a little too much and this is all that he gave me in return’.. it’s so beautiful and rare to encounter such vulnerability in poems. like, when the writer loves, she loves hard– reading them makes you wish you were always as open abt the parts of you that hurt from loving as much as she does
‘If I look into your blue eyes for long enough and if I am
determined enough, will some of the colors in your irises
detach and float through space in a slow enough fashion
that they don’t get lost in a wind drift, and can they gently
settle on the wet brown hills of my two eyes so that I
begin to look a little bit easier and feel a little bit lighter?
Then twenty years from now people will ask me, How did
you get the color of the sky to live inside the holes in your head
when the rest of you is so dark? and I can look at them and
say, I once loved another human a little too much and this is all
that he gave me in return.
the ones i liked best were the ones abt relationships/with a fixed other or ‘you’ that was being addressed. in describing these poems as generous it is also describing the way the writer gives/shares all of herself with the people she loves. there is a line from another poem where she ‘kissed each stone to say thank you’ and like that love is something she extends to the small things co-existing with her that she is grateful for
it’s especially nice to have heard sarah read a few of these aloud and then to read them again, hearing her voice
excerpt from page 43:
I said, One time I had a very
good friend named Arielle and I told you about how Arielle
and I worked together for a short amount of time before
she left for school in a state that was far away from where
we worked. I had only known her for two months and had
not thought of her in over a year. I asked, Do you ever try
to remember all of the people you’ve forgotten? You said, I don’t
know. I guess I figured people stopped existing when they aren’t
around me anymore and I said Yes, I feel that way about you.
folded the page after reading the line/her response ‘yes i feel that about you’ - it makes the poem take a very sharp and sudden turn, makes you hold your breath/re-read the line, to understand what she means/what the writer is revealing about her emotions towards the person she’s with
the poem where the writer walks into an empty old field and the person she’s with tells her to hold very still and she says ok and he begins to place sticks, twigs, branches around her until its a mountain and she’s at the centre of it and then tosses a match towards her and walks away, that fucked me up / made me cry
- Natalie Chin
WILDLIVES, the new book from Sarah Jean Alexander, sat down to interview The Combined Consciousness of Beyza & Dalton, or: BAD.
The Making of Wildlives by Sarah Jean Alexander