If you haven’t already fallen in love with the work of Sabrina Orah Mark, I scarcely know how to tell you where to start. Everywhere, I know, would hardly be a helpful answer. Mark’s three books (The Babies, Tsim Tsum [Saturnalia], and Wild Milk [Dorothy]) are independently and collectively remarkable, as is her monthly Paris Review Column on Fairy Tales, motherhood, and recently, living through a global pandemic. Her poetry, prose poetry, stories, and essays (if we can meaningfully sort her language into these loose piles—I’m not yet convinced) are united by her singular imagination, humor, and seriously delightful strangeness.
The pieces in her three books seem to expand like matryoshkas in reverse, swelling from some very small prose poems in The Babies, to the unruly stories in Wild Milk. Mark describes this process of growing her own poems best:
My prose poems have exploded into stories wearing ill-fitting gowns. I call them poemstories now. They are prose poems that have grown so gigantic security must send them through the door marked “Fiction” for more detailed screening. (Neon Pajamas)
Lately my poems seem to be bursting out of The Poem. Now there are pieces of bone and scraps of cloth everywhere. I sweep all the time, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. (Women’s Quarterly)
One of the really interesting things about the prose poem is that it becomes like a little haunted house, this small container, this little box, a kind of snapshot. (BWR)
I find that the poemstories in Mark’s collections are as expansive in their language as her forms. Because Mark writes prose poems/poemstories, the sentence, rather than the line, is the driving force and unit used to deliver surprise. Her sentences remind me a little of those little dinosaurs that came out of coin machines to grow in your bathtub. But her work is really much better than those dinosaurs, as I find her images and narratives do not reach a certain set size and stall. They continue to haunt me long after the last sentence’s last period. Consider how these Mark poemstories begin/ blossom:
“The Babies” (from The Babies):
Some thought it was because of all the babies I suddenly seemed to be having. Others, that I should pay for the damages. Fact is, I wasn’t getting any older, so I bought a small aquarium, and skipped town.
“The Ruse” (from Tsim Tsum):
Beatrice was deciding whether or not to include her name on the sign-up sheet when it occurred to Walter B. there’d been a ruse. “There’s been,” said Walter B., suddenly out of breath, “a ruse.” “Look!” said Beatrice, signing her name very carefully, “Isn’t’ my slot first-rate?” “Didn’t you hear me?” asked Walter B. “There’s been,” he coughed, “there’s been a ruse.”
“The Stepmother” (from Wild Milk):
“You smell like Florida. We hate you.” The Stepmother knows from the crushed handwriting this note is from The Stepchildren. At the bottom of the note is a drawing of a mouse. The Stepmother wants to know what does the mouse mean.
Ultimately, I think Mark’s expansive language is itself the best kind of recommendation to her work. No paraphrase I can make of these sentences would be as delightful as I find the sentences themselves. Mark is often a wonder to read, even as she prompts serious thought, reflection, and carries a heavy history. Her work is thoroughly haunted, even as it surprises and astounds. I hope that you’ll have the opportunity to read more of her explosive poemstories, who probably don’t mind whether you usually prefer poems or stories. And anyway, as Mark says:
Labels, in general, are a bad idea. I once found a slip of paper affixed to the bottom of my foot. Though I am certain one of the words contained the letter “O,” I never was able to make out what the label read. This was a huge relief. (Women’s Quarterly)
Sabrina Orah Mark
is the author of the poetry collections, The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. Happily, her collection of essays on fairytales and motherhood which began as a monthly column in The Paris Review, is forthcoming from Random House. She is serving as the judge for phoebe’s 2021 Greg Grummer Poetry Prize. You can find her at sabrinaorahmark.com.
is an MFA poetry candidate at George Mason University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Sugar House Review, Rock & Sling, Cimarron Review, Ninth Letter, Juked, and elsewhere. She serves as the Assistant Editor for Best of the Net and Poetry Editor and Social Media Manager for Phoebe. You can find her on twitter @millie_tullis.