ferrous wheel: a chapbook
Author: Natalie Sharp
Hide and Seek From the Top of the ferrous wheel
It’s morning in the world of ferrous wheel by Natalie Sharp. It’s early and humid, and the speaker has managed not to end her life. We stand with her as she works through the struggle of living. Even though the poetry is hindered by masking language and a need for secrecy from the speaker, the pieces come together honestly through a uniting desire for a clean perspective.
Sharp’s first chapbook of poetry walks through the pain of existence as complicated by religion—the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses, to be precise. This isn’t introduced right away, though—no, first we get to know the speaker as suicidal and politically infuriated. In “the morning after,” the collection’s first poem, the speaker offers a how-to on surviving “[t]he morning after / you don’t kill yourself.” From there, we learn the speaker is black, a woman, a dancer, both in love with her Southern environment—“kudzu arching up tree lines”—and terrified of it: “Sometimes I wake to the taste / of blood in my teeth, / especially on nights when / I’ve kicked and screamed, / arrested / by the ghosts sojourning through the white / sclera of stupefaction.” We learn more as we move through the poems, moving up into the skies on the Ferris wheel Sharp’s designed for us.
An introduction to family in “Orange” springboards the speaker into a search for legacy, asking herself and the reader: Does where we come from define where we’ll end up? The poem “Edgar” describes a family tree that points to the source of the speaker’s search for “intergenerational black magic,” a sort of spell that will keep her family safe from themselves. “My family is full of handsome / alcoholics, gilt-tongued abusers, smooth-skinned narcissists. / We are people with problems,” and yet, we understand that they are not wholly responsible for the speaker’s current troubles. The speaker doesn’t explain how she reached the realization “that shame and guilt are terrible / reasons to stay alive,” demonstrating again how the speaker withholds information from the reader purposefully.
The language within the book both emphasizes and hides the speaker’s trauma. Lines like “Balanchine, abhorrer of gyrating / hip swells and crash-boom-shake waistlines like mine” in “Heels” and “won’t feel its rhizomatic grasping / parsing marrow from bone” in “Parse” speak to not just the poet’s love of language but to the speaker’s insistence that the reader pay attention. These poems demand we slow down, that we address the definitions of words that we might not recognize right away. It’s impossible to breeze through this book, partially because of the content but also due to the surprising word choices. Her attention to detail within the lines demonstrates a need to tell these stories while simultaneously showing her fear of revealing too much.
A latent fury rests just under the surface of these poems, derived in part from the speaker’s own fear, but also other sources. Some anger is directed at Jehovah himself, as defined by his witnesses who cruelly cast her out of the Kingdom Hall (“tuesday 1,” “tuesday 10,” and “sunday 14”). In “stay/woke” and “Edgar,” the fury comes from a distrust of the police and the government. When the speaker finally finds herself safe in the arms of a lover, she still seems angry that this lover may leave her, as seen in “Exoneration” and “Coaxing paroxysm from the round.” Following a through line of a search for family and identity, the poems burn on the edge of never revealing everything. This constant hiding as demonstrated in language reveals itself in the chapbook’s content. “Leaven” requires multiple readings to discover its origins in sex work. “Coaxing paroxysm from the round” is both a love letter and a breakup note, demonstrated by the form and language. At times, it appears that the author doesn’t trust the reader with these secrets: a slain father, a lesbian relationship, a disfellowship and a season of desperation. This characteristic of Sharp’s poems comes up frequently within the chapbook, causing the reader to wonder why even tell such secrets if we’re not worthy of keeping them.
It’s not until the final poem, “I Am From,” a form that by default asks for personal truths, that we discover just how scared and forthcoming the speaker can be. It’s here that we learn the truth of the speaker’s history of abuse—emotional, religious, and even sexual—and how that history contributes to her current state of being: “I’m from being paid twice, burning counterfeit bills in the / kitchen sink, applying for credit limit increases while my roommate / asks god to provide, for once. // I am from addictions to liquor and love, my mother’s broken toes and my father’s grave.” The honesty of the speaker, forced by the form but also by the poet, resonates and helps us better understand why we’ve been forced to watch scenes from backstage. By the final line—“This is what self-love sounds like.”—any doubt about her withholding is gone. The speaker breathes freely, and so can we.
A true ride on the “ferrous wheel,” Natalie Sharp’s chapbook embraces both the cyclical nature of the carnival ride as well as the rust-colored ground from which the speaker hails. Once exposed, this iron-clad book suggests we learn to clean off the rust to get ourselves moving again because we can only gain perspective from the top.
Reviewed by Monica Prince for The Quarterly.
Monica Prince recently received her MFA in Creative Writing with a focus in poetry from Georgia College & State University. Her work has been featured in The Rain, Party & Disaster Society, MadCap Review and the Sula Collective, and her choreopoem, Testify, was performed by the Cutout Theater in Brooklyn, NY this past December. She currently writes, performs, and works in Denver, Colorado with her pug, Otis. You can find her on Facebook here, on her Twitter @poetic_moni, and at her website www.monicaprince.com.