Review by Claire Farley
In 1996, Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues premiered in New York City, Alanis Morisette had the top single on the Billboard chart—“You Learn,” followed closely by The Smashing Pumpkins’s “1979”—and the last episode of the Mr. Dressup show aired to Canadian audiences. Sara Peter’s first poetry collection, 1996, ferries Generation Y through an emergence into adulthood and into the dark corners of desire, sex, and beauty. The coming-of-age in this collection is not the mourning of lost innocence but the recognition that the angst of youth is perhaps as honest as we get in grasping the complexity of our social and spiritual selves. In “The Last Time I Slept in This Bed,” the final poem of the collection, Peters writes, “I was involved in the serious business / of ripping apart my own body.” As if to slowly impale the stereotype of the female poetic journey of sentimental self-discovery, Peters opens wide the door to young womanhood, a place inhabited by cruelty and romance—our real and illusory demons. “Your Life as Lucy Maud Montgomery” is written in the collection’s characteristically frank tone as an address to the archetypes that have shaped our relationship with womanhood. For those of us who grew from girls reading Montgomery, Louise May Alcott, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, this poem and the collection itself voice the tug of war we play with these femininities.
What I love most about this collection is Peters’s ability to bring the stereotypical Canadian penchant for the quirky local into a complex discussion with life’s esoteric truths. This collection belongs to the legacy of the Canadian Gothic, it is filled with what Alice Munroe, in Lives of Girls and Women, called “deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.” In “Mary Ellen Spook” Peters spins a tall tale of a young girl who would have been an inspired woman elsewhere, but in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, her talents (chief among which is the ability to set fires with her brain) are akin to possession. The ghosts of the small town are personal demons but also the ghosts of a collective past of provincial Catholicism, like the bi-annual anti-abortion protest described in “Abortion.” Rabble called 1996 “one of the most important Canlit of 2013” and it really is a refreshing book to enter the Canlit landscape because it writes the local with conscious avoidance of regionalism, and also composes the reinventions of the self that elude our relationships with the places we grow up.
At first, 1996 reads fantastically, like being invited into an alternate dimension of the writer’s imagining, as all good books do. But slowly it emerges not as an alternative but as a portrait of our very own inner landscape. 1996 is a dark book and darker because what it reaches for is not the unrecognizable sadism of the other, but the truths that we whitewash with age. Cruelty is common and Peters captures this with stunning accuracy:
When I was eleven, I watched my cousin cut open a gopher
with a serrated top of a tin can.
I see this cousin now: straight shoulders, straight hair.
Each eye bright and sharp as rhinestone.
up the driveway, behind a parked Subaru, to a square
of dead November grass. The wind was fresh
and sweet as an apple, as she brought the metal down
with a calm hand, teeth denting her lower lip.
And she steadied the animal, saying
shhh, stay still, don’t worry, my dad’s a vet. (“Cruelty”)
Peters asks us to resist simplistic condemnation, both of ourselves and others because,
everyone, when small,
has come in from the river with something half-dead
in the bottom of a bucket, and no one expects that to become
their defining moment… (“Cruelty”)
The possibility—indeed, the probability—which Peters explores is that these often unspeakable desires and acts do define us, and we have a lot to learn by approaching them with candour.
Sara Peters was born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. She completed her MFA at Boston University, and was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University from 2010 to 2012. Her poems have appeared in Slate, Maisonneuve, This Magazine, B O D Y, The Threepenny Review, The Walrus, and Poetry. 1996 is her debut collection. She lives in Toronto.