Taking a Look at Some Kind of Shelter
A Book Review by Carlo Matos
In her first full-length collection of poems, Some Kind of Shelter, Sara Tracey describes a gritty and vibrant working-class Ohio—a muscular, calloused and labor-hardened place that is reflected in the timbre of these steely poems. I must admit, although I am not originally from the Midwest, that the world of these poems was so eerily familiar to me that I kept experiencing wild shocks of recognition as if the story Tracey was telling was my story, as if the devastatingly wounded cast of characters were my friends, as if the
small magic, spark
plugs and copper wires, bird bones
in the cat box (“One Thing to Forgive”)
belonged in my bag of tricks. This is quite a powerful illusion, maybe poetry’s oldest and most enduring one—making readers believe the story is their own.
The book is organized in three relatively symmetrical sections and contains a variety of lyric and prose poems. In the second poem we are introduced to the major players: the cousin-twins, Carla and Stella. Shortly after we learn about the third member of the group—Stella’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Harper, who
never made a promise not to leave—
but if he had said wait, she would have
stood in one place until
the grass died beneath her. (“Stella Gives Up”)
Harper, the local burned-out bad boy, “insisted his first name (Eugene) never be spoken” (“A Place She Should Stay”); “Bird-Witching” Carla was said to have “a coven of blackbirds [a]sleep inside her” (“Ornithology”), and Stella was “too young for a lot of things, / but old enough to like a man / in uniform” (“Delta Flight 318, Tucson to Cleveland”). In “Two Wombs,” Tracey establishes the basic plot arc:
When they took us home,
we wouldn’t sleep apart. By Thanksgiving,
Aunt Jill was living on the couch.
However, five years later, “Uncle Ted took a job in Tucson.” But in an unexpected reversal of fortunes, “Uncle Ted quit his job, moved back to Ohio, / but Stella and I couldn’t remember sharing our beds.” The great tragedy of their relationship is that the gap seems to be unbridgeable, the time lost unrecoverable. “I couldn’t convince her that Ohio was a place she should stay,” says the speaker, “but Harper made her believe in one star-dark night” (“A Place She Should Stay”).
The perspective, interestingly, is always shifting and fluid, never settling too comfortably into the Carla/Stella narrative. The characters tell each other’s stories at times, tell their own stories at other times, and sometimes it’s not clear who the speaker actually is. Although these three dominate the book, they are far from the only action in town. The book spends a great deal of time in Ohio, to be sure, but there are many poems that take place in Chicago and seem to be in the poet’s voice. For example, there are two roller derby poems in section three (my favorite of the three sections because of its increased variety of subject matter), which are clearly influenced by the fact that Tracey is a former member of the Chicago roller derby league, The Chicago Outfit. In “Stella Teaches Me the Body,” the speaker says, “I have no interest in a body free from scars.” Throughout the book, Tracey intimates that love as these people know it seems to include an element of abuse, and this is her clever way of thematically connecting the Stella narrative to roller derby because the next two poems are explicitly about skating. “We all confuse violence with affection / from time to time, don’t we?” she says. “Here, the harder I hit, / the more they love me” (“When the Jam Starts”). Like fighters, derby girls often forge bonds by testing the body’s limits through what outsiders might perceive as nothing more than senseless violence, but it is far from senseless. In “Derby Wife,” Tracey says,
The night we met,
I knocked you off your feet.
This is not a metaphor.
I sent you sprawling, made you
test the mettle of your knee pads.
But when she breaks her leg, it is the derby wife who takes care of her, who makes sure she receives proper care at the hospital. There is a time for pain and courage and there is a time for care and comfort:
I knew you were the one
the night I snapped
my ankle like a twig. No,
like a glow stick. . .
You spoke for me,
said I needed morphine,
and more of it.
Here physical pain leads to a profound bond with the girl—the derby wife of the title—she literally knocked down at an earlier practice and leads to love that is stranger but also stronger than conventional love. Although Stella and Harper’s relationship is far from ideal, it teaches the speaker how “to say cunt, to say touch me here.” It teaches her not “to be afraid to say no” (“Stella Teaches Me the Body”). This is no apologia for domestic violence, of course, but a reclaiming of strength and personal, physical power—an acknowledgment that love is complex and adversity unpleasant but not without value.
Ultimately Some Kind of Shelter begins with a map—“Give me a map . . . [and] follow me across this / cartographer’s sketch” (“This Paper Landscape”)—and ends with a map—“you study / my palm to find the way home” (“Chickfire”). These poems about work, love and Ohio are always searching for the path back, for the map inscribed in the palm of a hand.
Sara Tracey is also the author of the chapbook Flood Year (dancing girl press). Her work has recently appeared in Vinyl Poetry, The Collagist, Passages North, and elsewhere. She has studied at the University of Akron, the North East Ohio Master of Fine Arts and at the University of Illinois at Chicago Program for Writers. Originally from Ohio, she has lived in Chicago since 2008.
Carlo Matos has published five books: A School for Fishermen (BrickHouse Books), Counting Sheep Till Doomsday (BlazeVOX), Big Bad Asterisk* (BlazeVOX), Ibsen’s Foreign Contagion (Academica Press), and The Secret Correspondence of Loon and Fiasco (forthcoming Mayapple Press). He has also published in many journals like Menacing Hedge, HTML Giant, Cleaver Magazine, and The Rumpus. Carlo teaches writing at the City Colleges of Chicago and is a former cage fighter. He blogs at carlomatos.blogspot.com.