Sarah Marcus’ first chapbook, Backcountry, is a lovely and frightening narrative strung together by a series of vignettes. Evocative and lyrical, these poems tell the story of addiction in many forms: addiction to narcotics, to other people, and to a wilderness full of fire and animals both dead and feral.
In the title poem, the speaker portrays a couple at odds over the man’s desire to strike out into the wild on his own. The woman works hard to convince him to stay:
You need a permit, she says. He nods, considers the map and two
weeks without poker. Bear country, where packs of wolves
follow their weakening prey. It is important to make noise
on the trail, avoid carcasses, stream crossings
are always deeper than they seem, faster, rougher.
Throw me in, she says, and leave me there. You know I want
to be there with you more than anything in the world, he tells her,
it’s just not possible. Animals die in geyser basins in the winter,
she tells him, their carcasses eaten by grizzlies emerging from
winter dens—killed by the heat they thought would save them.
In tackling the issue of addiction, the speaker makes frequent reference to drug abuse. In “Recovery,” for example, we learn, “Meth free for nine years now, she looks at herself // mirrored minus eight. All she’s ever wanted / was for someone to be angry for her.” In “Register,” the speaker tells us, “Him banging intravenous / injections, she wants to know what happens // when there are no registers left. She wonders how / he could stick the needles into his hands, arms, legs.” In the poem, “Abscess,” we see the couple in a room at the Hilton. “In the morning she carefully fingers his track marks— / once abscessed, still dark and delicate.” In this way, the speaker deftly weaves us through a perilous terrain of addiction, love, and recovery.
One fascinating aspect of this book is the perspective of the speaker, which switches near the end. The majority of the poems are in the third person, but the final five are in the first, which is jarring in the best sense of the word. For most of the chapbook, the speaker is detached, is the person telling the story, not a person in the story. With the introduction of the first person, the reader feels suddenly face-to-face with the speaker, drawn into an unexpected intimacy.
When this occurs, the slight shift in tone is notable. “She’s grown quiet when making love,” the speaker reports in “When you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart.” “She’s always out riding // and never at home. She’s annoyed they’ve hiked all these / miles to have the same conversation they’ve had at their kitchen // table hundreds of times before.” By the time we reach the final poem, which I include here in its entirety, we are confronted by the speaker’s beautiful and sad vulnerability.
But Mostly They Were Bears
We linger near the mouths of caves,
track footprints till dusk descends—
people have followed these trails
for thousands of years and from you
all I want is a few words.
I am rock sheltered
and the carvings
that read me to sleep
and I dream of
following the bears
the way we’ve lived
as if the land bridge isn’t long gone.
A skinned bear
looks like a human corpse.
I am as much bear
as you are.
If we don’t make it down
I want to make sure
our bones are interred together
in the same grave.
I want you to tell them
I was a bear and I am
laid with bears.
And you were the one,
strapped with meat,
so pregnant you crawled back.
In Backcountry, Sarah Marcus knits together brief scenes from a troubled relationship and creates a narrative that is as harrowing – and as heartbreaking – as it is unforgettable. She depicts this relationship very much as she depicts the natural world: in all its terrifying violence. In doing so, she reminds us that love is a place to which we often wish to escape, but when dark and tumultuous, it’s a place from which we may never crawl back.
More about this poet:
Sarah Marcus is the author of BACKCOUNTRY (2013, Finishing Line Press) and Every Bird, To You (2013, Crisis Chronicles Press). Her other work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Cimarron Review, CALYX Journal, Spork, Nashville Review, Slipstream, Luna Luna, and Bodega, among others. She is an editor at Gazing Grain Press and a spirited Count Coordinator for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She holds an MFA in poetry from George Mason University and currently teaches and writes in Cleveland, OH. Find her at sarahannmarcus.com.
Note on Formatting: In the poem “Backcountry,” included in full at the beginning of this review, the lines run a bit long. In a few instances, a single word ends up alone on a line. This is not the intention of the poet.