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What We’re Reading: Wildlives

2015 June 18
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What We're ReadingWildlives_-_CoverWildlives by Sarah Jean Alexander (Big Lucks Books, 2015)

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 words

I am frightened of

and you are at its peak.


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.


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.

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 religion

comes with many footnotes

and complicated annotations

and weaknesses

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[.]

These 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?

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?