September 2020

Mouth Full Of Seeds

by Marcela Sulak

Black Lawrence Press, 120 pp.

 

Reviewed by Amital Stern

Serenade for Nadia 

reviewed by

Janice Weizman

Livanelli_SerenadeforNadia.REV.jpg

Here’s a secret that any of us who’ve tried to make a clean cut can tell you:

There is no such thing as leaving “all your former life behind.”

Perhaps the real question this volume grapples with is: How do you write your story when you’ve tried everything to leave your background, your family, nationality, religion, friends, siblings, parents, your roots behind? What remains of your language and your form when you have attempted to dig up and displace their very roots? What havoc is wreaked upon your words, your body, the body of your text, your mouth, your tongue, when you’ve ditched your motherland, your mother tongue, the Holy Mother and maybe even your own mother?

And so, the speaker, we learn, has become a translator, or: “a vessel, like a translator, haunted by ghosts and languages.”

Half a world away from her South Texas family rice farm, she has rented an overrun plot in a Tel Aviv community garden; potatoes and okra and pumpkins and peas take root in her poems.

The gaps, holes, bare spaces, and silences that fragment these texts remain as evidence of any futile attempts at erasure. And if we pause here for a moment, within these spaces, inside these silences, and listen hard, then sounds and images begin to reappear, recurring like the undead, banging on our doors. Like ghosts.

***

Because a clean cut is impossible.

The “crucified, bloody body of a man” whose image induced “nausea”, “sobbing” and perhaps even the speaker’s break from Catholicism, continues to haunt her, re-surfacing a few pages later, during wedding chit-chat with a Jewish man, a priest she had just met. “The naked bloody man hanging on a cross” hovers above them at the wedding as the priest picks apart the flawed status of the speaker’s ”now-Jewish female” body, rambling on about how her conversion is, in fact, “making something whole, repairing.”

This is the book’s movement – echoing the speaker’s own trajectory: a departure, a rupture on one page, but a re-appearing, often in some other form, later on. Perhaps this is also what, in later pages, the speaker apologizes for: “Sorry about the haunting.”

***

There is also a crime scene embedded in this book.

Early on − not nestled between the texts which up till now appeared in prosaic form, but piercing through, in fragments like broken shards scattered across a floor − is evidence of a real-life felony, which Sulak manages, with few words, to invoke.

Perhaps, like me, you immediately recognize the story that emerges from these fragments.

Perhaps, like me, you are obsessed with cases of religious figures who betrayed the most sacred, intimate trust and you followed this specific case, online, from afar, with growing horror.

Look: I’m not going to rehash the details of this story here, the way I encountered them, in newspaper articles. Partially because in Cell, Sulak’s poem, enough evidence is planted for you to piece the story together yourself.

But mostly because my retelling of the story would become, in a sense, just a reenactment of that same trespassing gaze − the eyes that “entered forbidden bodies unbid” − while Cell, through its very form, not only tells a story, but becomes, itself, a body shattered by a gaze. A body frozen on film. A body trapped in liminality, outside of time and space, “year-missing” statutes, uncertain if holiness was “washed on or off in that room.”

Even the words here are broken, creating new, dual meanings –

               Across the lap / top of the rabbi

               In the courtlight, bare / ly visible

               Thus what you saw was / ’nt me.

All that remains, at the end, is a cell: the one in which, fittingly, says the speaker, the perpetrator of the crime is “bound”, and also: “the smallest part of a woman’s sacred body.”

All that remains is a cell: the only component still complete, pure, unbroken - long after the body has been reduced to its most basic unit.

All that remains is Sulak’s poem, Cell: perhaps the only way to tell this story.

***

But this story comes back to haunt us too, of course, as these kinds of stories are wont to do. In a later fragment entitled The Pigeon, the Washing Machine, the Laundry and the Folk story, the speaker has just purchased a washing machine and is translating 19th century Czech folk stories about “the dangers that lurk for beautiful girls near outdoor washing sites” – like the one about the girl who goes to wash her clothes and gets swallowed into the lake by a water sprite.

What price must a woman pay to purify, cleanse herself?

Who lurks in wait for “those of us that symbolically do fall prey, for example unintentionally single mothers,” along this treacherous path we take to make ourselves whole, to repair?

“What freedom of spirit you must have!!” The speaker’s mother exclaims, after asking her question in the book’s opening lines.

Perhaps the greatest freedom lies in the safety of owning your own washing machine.

***

But often freedom comes at a price too steep.

                   I don’t want to be a bird.

 – says the speaker in Getting a Get, in which she recounts how, during the Jewish marital severance ceremony, the rabbi folds the Get document like a bird and instructs her to place it under her arm, walk the room and come back.

                   Nobody wants to be a bird.

Because although birds can fly, they are “removed from human company”. They “lack speech.” Yet, despite her reluctance, the speaker does it anyway, she tells us. She actually “becomes the winged creature.”

And then Sulak herself goes even further. She sets the bird free inside this book, where it resonates textually within the next sections (“…we were two feathers tumbling over each other, missing the same bird”;  “I'm only one word away, one word out of you, one bird or another bird”).

***

Echoing its opening, Mouth Full of Seeds concludes with a question as well, asked after the speaker has been struggling with the gaps, the “slippages” she negotiates between languages in translation:

                    How does one escape this condition? 

She then leaves open some empty lines, takes, perhaps, a few deep breaths, and offers an answer:

               

                    I'm not sure one can.

 

I am reminded of this image from Anne Carson’s Decreation: “I dreamed /of a page in a book containing the word bird and I / entered bird.”

Perhaps − as Sulak’s book seems to suggest − there is no escape, no accurate translation, no real redemption from our former selves, no true cleansing, no conversion, no making ourselves whole, no repair.

Perhaps our only way forward is by entering. We enter cell, we enter bird. Inhabit them. And then, like Sulak does here so mesmerizingly, we set them free inside the pages of our books.

What is it about you that allows you to pick up, with your little daughter and leave all your former life behind? Your background, your family, nationality, religion, friends, siblings, parents, your roots. And just start a new life in a new country?

Enter Bird

a reading of Marcela Sulak’s Mouth Full of Seeds

Layered with questions throughout, Marcela Sulak’s Mouth Full of Seeds opens with one asked by the speaker’s mother: