Sara, or the Existence of Fire by Sara Woods is not a book that gives itself over to you. Each poem is a story that seems simple, then unsettles itself. It’s tempting to try and puzzle out who the author-speaker is (a lover? the character of Sara herself, pre-transition and projecting herself into the future?), and also perfectly satisfying not to. People, animals, objects, and experiences interview one another, but nothing is proven, only suggested. Most things take a long, long time to run their course.
The world of these poems works mysteriously, and Sara does what she can within it. Its logic is emotional (and it is often very sad and very funny): her distant mother is a body of moths and must be drawn to her with light; a dude at a party who takes up way too much space is a mountain holding a solo cup whose base she has to balance on just to mingle. Sara’s experience is of coping with sudden, surreal transformation. She’s always letting-happen, going-with, and then, with abrupt limits surpassed, she sets fire to everything methodically and takes off to live on the beach again and again, but the changes she tries to make never seem to stick.
There is a sense of deep and abiding wrongness throughout. Rain reveals the broken rhythm of the world, “Like morse code, but not. It was telling her her life was wrong.” Sara has a need for constant transformation, even if it’s senseless and destructive, like torching her own homes house after house after house. Towards the end the book, she writes a story about a village of people who change forms together from time to time. Now, no changes have been coming for them; they are all stuck in bodies that have “hung on too long.” Trapped in a horse body, her story’s speaker gets the general sense that everything could go to pieces, which means that before long she will probably literally turn to bones and collapse in the sand. Sara is kind of always falling apart (not sleeping or washing, lying on the bathroom floor in a cold puddle of coffee), but she intuits how to navigate the strange world she inhabits. Nature breaches the private, urban space of her apartment, and she deescalates when bears appear in her bathroom by waiting until she disappears into her own reversing timeline: “She rewound it all until nothing was left but empty space and she was just another thing along with every other thing that wasn’t there. No one was eaten.”
The sadness she lives with wracks her body and makes the world at turns vast and empty with portentous waves crashing just beyond her sight, and then so smotheringly close in its conditions of poor visibility and isolation that she can’t reach anything further than her own hands. This is a book about that sadness and about the breadth and limitations of intimacy between Sara and her dog and the author, who die or leave or lose each other over and over. In all their trying to connect, they are, in their simplest forms, only capable of the most perfect love that Sara can imagine: two opposite shores lapping at each other expansively and never coming near enough.
Not long ago, I had a dream that was terribly sad to wake up from. In this dream, Dana Scully was my professor of Trans Literature, and she sat on her desk, flipped her hair, and recommended books I have always wanted to read, but which don’t exist. Reading Sara Woods’ poems, I felt a surge of recognition – I think this is one of those books, and how good to have found it here in this world too.