In reading celebrated poet Ira Sadoff’s latest collection, “Country, Living,” an overwhelming maw hovers over the reader. In the jaws of this unsettling is an excellent example of the old guard of American, that is to say, white cisgender male, poetry.

Cover courtesy of Alice James

Sadoff, a professor of literature at Colby College, has an impressive resume that includes several published works in poetry and prose and many awards. The language in “Country, Living” is measured, its syntax and imagery both melodic and sharp. Sadoff’s reverence for jazz music is explicit in many of the poems here, and embedded in his propensity for riffing using a variety of styles from short couplets to meandering paragraphs. Indeed, this collection will find many fans, especially among those who enjoy, as Sadoff writes, a glass of “wine, all floral and mineral,” and “the tulips I planted last fall, their bouquet/was bounty for my Chinese vase.”

Sadoff’s poetry is beautiful, expertly crafted, and entirely within a world of the white male gaze. This is to the detriment not only of its position in society, but the necessary cultural reckoning that society is undergoing. The poem “I Apologize in Advance” will, with its title alone, immediately raise the blood pressure of anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of the phrase in life, and the first line of it spectacularly fails at whatever attempt it might be making at subversion. There is also a startling level of possession present in these poems, from “my Chinese vase” (implying a cultural possession) to this jarring stanza from “Why Do We Make Up Things:”

Why do we make up things when there’s so much to savor
on our block, where the five-star jasmine scent
is tropical and inescapable, and the gardeners, Hispanic

and Ethiopian, are on their knees for us, pulling
and tugging at the earth, speaking several languages at once,
so far from home they double-time their dreaming?

The idea of “the gardeners… on their knees for us” is troubling, and within the collection brings up the notion of intent vs. impact. Sadoff seems to be trying to reckon with his position as a white, straight, cisgender man, but it comes across as hand-wringing. “Why do I colonize their thoughts and labor?” he writes, only to continue, “Must every gesture be accounted for? Must it be ‘held up/to the light,’ and by held up I mean stopped at the border,/frisked, photographed, detailed, approaching/the suspect as you might a stranger?”

The theme of possession, embodied in the word “my,” appears on nearly every page; the first two sections are titled “My Design” and “My Country.” Of course writing exploring one’s interiority will always include this pronoun, but there is a self-centeredness here that belies the writer’s awareness of what is happening outside himself. The narrator of “Deathbed Confession,” for example, laments the work of protesting in the face of what seems like an unstoppable machine, and yet, in the end, still stakes a claim over a Black woman, centering himself in the mourning of her loss:

You know how many years I walked in circles
holding up signs? This war, that war, this Dow,
that Walmart? Pfizer, you’re next! There are sharks
that sing to me of their extinction.
Those gardenias by Billie Holiday’s headstone,
they’re mine.

“Country, Living” also touches on the complicated grief of mourning a parent with whom one had a fraught relationship, with universal themes of love and loss and hope or lack thereof.

It also grapples with the idea of God. Religion is an arena in which whiteness has done some of its greatest damage, in the sense that Judeo-Christian conquests are tied to colonialism and a host of other oppressions. Sadoff is Jewish, and his religion has over millennia been on the receiving end of such damage. But in this particular corner of exploration, i.e. religion, Sadoff stays in the playground of his own interior (“My gods were frenzy, ruckus, and delirium./My sin: loving the tongue too much”).

But for the reader, it is time to leave the maw. In their 2017 poem “dear white america,” Danez Smith wrote, “i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving too near a black hole. i’ve left in search of a new God. i do not trust the God you have given us… take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent.”

Sadoff’s latest collection is full of songs that are beautiful to a certain kind of ear. But his miracles are also inconsistent.

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic. They can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote, Instagram @readrunsea, and on their website, sarahneilsonwriter.com.

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