Vol. 25 No. 2 – Summer 2020
Lynne Sachs – Year by Year Review
By John Bradley
“Everything that surrounds us becomes part of us,” wrote Fernando Pessoa in his The Book of Disquiet. In the author’s afterword to this book of poetry, Lynne Sachs refers to Pessoa’s statement as “an eight word distillation of my endeavor.” On turning fifty, Sachs decided to compose a poem for each year of her life, and that’s what Year by Year provides: fifty poems, beginning in 1961 and ending in 2011. For many of these poems, the book offers an early handwritten draft, adding an extra layer of depth to this intriguing project. Sachs, a filmmaker as well as a poet, wisely avoids trying to encompass every event that transpired in a year; rather, she distills one key moment. Here’s “1969,” a poem that provides an eight-year-old’s view of an historic event that year, in its entirety:
Our telephone rings.
Neil Armstrong on the line.
He knows I stole the Earth’s only moon.
“Give it back,” he says.
I watch him step across the lunar landscape.
I thought we could be friends.
He turns to look at all of us
(from the moon)
I am the only one who sees his sadness.
The poem feels like a combination of a young writer’s diary, a scene from a short story, and a dream. The end-stopped lines convey the sense of a writer used to composing prose, and the last line of the poem surprises the reader with its unexpected perception.
The most intriguing poems are those juxtaposed with the handwritten early draft, as with “2002,” for example. In the top right corner, we see a list of notes for that year: “security/ Anthrax/ gloves/ Susan w wears/ gloves.” The opening lines of the poem quickly remind us of the national panic that year: “Welcome to the department of homeland insecurity./ I’m with my friend in her car, not far from the Pentagon.” This is the year white powder was found in various envelopes, creating widespread fear; wearing gloves (as indeed Susan does in the poem) was a way to protect oneself, or at leastto create the illusion of protection. The ‘heart of that fear is revealed in the second stanza:
Here you’ll find inscrutable dust,
under your tongue, in your nails, your nose,
even the folds of your labia.
Dust that pushes past security bars and screen doors.
Her imagery brings to mind not only the white anthrax powder, but also the dust from the destruction of the two World Trade Center towers.
In the introduction to this book, poet Paolo Javier informs us that the poems of Year by Year led Sachs to create a “feature-length hybrid documentary” called Tip of My Tongue, an indication of how richly resonant these poems are, with their skillful intermingling of private and public.
– John Bradley