Reviewed By Susan Donnelly Cheever
- Penguin Books (2016)
- 176 pages
Doctors speak of the viability of human survival under certain conditions, for example, the likelihood of the fetus to survive outside of the womb. Economists evaluate the viability of a business to thrive and succeed. The distinction between the two uses of the same term comes in the value we place on the subject of each context, i.e., the survival of a human life presumably outweighs that of a business. But what if human life is, in fact, the same as a good from a factory? A product of the womb? A means of profit and increase? Something to be measured and valued by a given index? And if human existence is simply an output like any other, what does this mean for human love, sacrifice and suffering?
These are questions Sarah Vap pushes us to confront in Viability, a collection of prose poems published by Penguin Books and winner of the National Poetry Series. Assuming a group of voices ranging from an economist, to a journalist, to a Catholic saint, to a mother, Vap demonstrates how language can be as expansive or as limited as our own imaginations. Like links of a heavy chain, the words and images in these poems connect and overlap, stretching connotation and meaning in prophetic and dangerous directions. The poems challenge us by measuring and valuing human experience and love as objectively as we do the wealth and success of a business. Under these conditions, we discover that the viability of humanity is more threatened than we could have imagined.
One of the voices in the collection is that of a mother who speaks frankly and intimately about her experience with sex, childbirth, and love. This speaker often describes dream-like visions, as in the opening poem about childbirth:
And growing—growing, the emerald was blood. The stones in the water were eyes and I was not recognized by either the givings or the killings that will make a woman a mother [. . .] We looked down at them through thick ice while they ripped him from me in the single, performed loneliness.
On the very next page, the speaker changes to a textbook voice defining economic bloodletting. “A period marked by severe investing losses. Bloodletting may occur during a bear market, in which the value of securities in many sectors may decline rapidly and heavily.” While the text itself is cold and removed, words like period, loss, securities, rapidly, and heavily take on new meaning in light of the poem on the preceding page. Again, the mother speaker returns on the next page saying, “The body below my head is exploded, memory bloodlets. Remembrance, rapidly and heavily.” Such juxtapositions of language happen rapid fire throughout the text in often disturbing, but equally brilliant ways. Like trying simultaneously to read each side of a coin as it flips through the air, the poems take words and turn them over and over on themselves, forcing us to see connections and relationships we may have missed or may have simply chosen not to see.
The historian speaker, like the economist, is objective and direct, and focuses on the economics of slavery in the American South, rather than the human experience of the slaves themselves. Without apology, the historian says, “From the standpoint of the entrepreneur making an investment in slaves, the basic problems involved in determining profitability are analytically the same as those met in determining the returns from any other kind of capital investment.” Human slaves were costly but presented an opportunity for profit over time. The historian accurately points out, therefore, that owners had to consider the fact that “slave investments, like the forests or wine cellars of classic capital theory, produced a natural increase with the passage of time.” While we might soothe our collective conscience by noting such sensibilities were part of the past, the voice of the journalist interjects and draws our attention to present-day overfishing in the Gulf of Thailand and the resultant impact on that industry’s human capital. “Coupled with mounting petrol prices, this overfishing has led to ever-decreasing profit margins for Thai boat captains.” As a result, a spokesperson from Human Rights Watch is quoted as saying, “‘What motivates is not concern for fisherman’s welfare, but rather maximizing catch and ensuring profitability, and that means 18- to 22-hour work days and martial discipline to keep men working.’” Here, in plain terms, Vap shows us that human suffering is simply the cost of profit making.
Can we really look at human life so coldly? To answer this question, Vap uses yet another speaker, the sixteenth century Catholic saint, John of the Cross, who advises in the book’s epigraph, “Where there is no love, put love—and you will find love.” Vap proceeds to intentionally misquote him throughout the text by modifying this algorithmic declaration, replacing love with other terms, thereby stretching the meaning and impact of the equation. For example, the economist in one poem describes Lady Godiva Accounting Principles, which require companies to fully disclose all information to investors. In the next poem, John of the Cross says, “Where there is no God, put full-disclosures. Where there is no circle, put full-disclosures, full-disclosures so tightly that you cannot move.” By replacing love with economics, Vap reveals the realities and risks of capitalistic priorities. As the poems progress, love is replaced with more terms related to financial increase, slavery and human trafficking, thus stretching the algorithm in new and untenable ways.
Thematically, the poems place heavy emphasis on the bearing of children, both from the perspective of the mother and the historian, who examines the value of southern female slaves over their male counterparts. In this historical context, we see the close connection between human beings and production in the marketplace. The historian says:
For a male field hand the returns considered will be limited to the sales of products realized from his field labor; in the case of a female hand, an addition must be made for the returns realized on the labor and sale of her children. Because of these basic differences in the production functions for the two sexes, they will be treated separately.
Both males and females have production functions and in this light their relative value is determined. Such economic reductions of child bearing are in direct contrast to what the mother speaker describes near the end of the collection in a dream about giving birth.
Daydream: The infant’s head, softened, pushed down through my torso and out my vagina. Then the neck turning. My brains flowing. My bones softened and split apart. It is the gesture of utterly reaching.
We see the reaching between mother and child, the feeling of loss as the distance between them grows immediately after birth. John of the Cross in the next poem links the ideas of human production and emotional reaching: “Where the natural increase is shipped off, where the infants are shipped off, where the people are shipped off, where the animals are shipped off, where there is reaching.” In other words, the economics of slave production and distribution do not eliminate the reality of human loss felt between mother and child.
The poetic force of Viability comes from the control and manipulation of language in different contexts. Vap layers and links words and contexts, highlighting how we are ultimately bound by the language we use to communicate our experience. In addition to quoting John of the Cross in her epigraph, Vap also includes a quotation from German philosopher, Theodor W. Adorno, who observes, “The more torture went on in the basement, the more insistently they made sure the roof rested on columns.” In this collection, Vap sets out to prove that truth is not in columns of wealth and abundance, but in the human experience and suffering that support them. But measuring viability is not a matter of either humanity or economics because, since at least the Antebellum era, humanity and economics have been one in the same.
Susan Donnelly Cheever is an English teacher and poet. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts.