by Sarah Kay
134 pages—Write Bloody Publishing, 2014
Reviewed by Melissa Adamo
Sarah Kay’s debut poetry collection, No Matter the Wreckage, showcases her already well-known talent for connecting with her audience. Kay is most widely known for the 2011 TED talk in which she performed the poems “B” and “Hiroshima” (both included in this collection) and discussed the power of spoken word poetry and Project VOICE—a series of workshops and performances she co-created and brought to schools worldwide. Now, in No Matter the Wreckage, Kay’s honesty and excitement for poetry grace the page with the same liveliness and charisma that have been the backbone of her performances. Her sincerity can make one feel as nervous as a schoolgirl navigating a first crush, or as loved as a sister through the satellite eyes of a younger brother. Her use of straightforward diction and direct address when discussing enduring topics solidifies her voice—creating a poetic presence that is as powerful and necessary on paper as it is on the stage.
In her TED talk, Kay informed the audience, “It’s not just the adage: write what you know…I use poetry to help me work through what I don’t understand, but I show up to each new poem with a backpack full of everywhere else that I’ve been.” Each of the nine sections of No Matter the Wreckage offers a unique glimpse inside that backpack as Kay takes the reader to places such as India, South Africa, Japan, the subways of New York City, and the beaches of Montauk. Relying on her own firsthand knowledge, Kay’s poems often seem to use empathy as an educational tool; she asks readers to try on her experiences, to step into her shoes and explore the potentially unfamiliar.
Always, Kay aims to balance her desire for accessibility in poetry with a drive to tell a truth that is distinctly her own. Merging images of hands with solar systems, she turns a cliché into something unexpectedly original in “B”:
And I’m going to paint the solar system on the backs of her hands,
so she has to learn the entire universe before she can say,
Oh, I know that like the back of my hand.
Thus Kay’s lines provide a visual of a swirling sky tattooed on skin, and the play on the common phrase “the back of my hand” allows us to pause in our everyday, to question what our universe is. “B” resonates because of a collective hunger to offer children—whether our own or simply future generations’—new ideas and images that will provide them with the strength and knowledge to carry them further. As in much of Kay’s work, the heart of this poem lies in its ability to understand and depict the complexities of voice. When performing “B,” Kay adopts the persona of the young, know-it-all teen for her line “Oh, I know…” On the page, however, Kay relies on italics to indicate this shift in voice. Similarly, Kay uses italics later in the poem when referencing a song: There’ll be days like this, my mama said; when performing, she sings this line. It is interesting to consider that while the sung line offers its audience a strong and clear intention, the use of italics creates a more open effect, allowing readers to make their own interpretations when noting this shift. Perhaps a reader can hear her own voice playing the part of a daughter or even her own child’s inflection and cadence, thus adding another dimension to her connection.
Kay’s work has always emphasized a need for honesty and vulnerability in poetry in order to connect to readers in an original, tangible way. This could be the reason why performances of her poems “The Type” and “Private Parts” (also included in this collection) have between 600,000 to 700,000 views on YouTube. Emotion and earnestness lie at the center of Kay’s relationship to poetry, and these particular poems are filled with a hope that sends chills down one’s spine. In “The Type,” she writes:
some men will want to hold you like The Answer.
You are not the answer.
You are not the problem. You are not the poem
or the punchline or the riddle or the joke.
Here, Kay uses direct address to be just that—direct. These lines are simple, even curt. One by one, she knocks down the building blocks of human insecurity, dismissing standard social clichés. And then, after this razing, she reconstructs both reader and herself: “You are a woman who can build it yourself. / You were born to build.” Kay’s clarity—with its simple syntax, its unswerving imagery—creates its own mounting, cycling rhythm. Her tone becomes an architecture for her poems. Her use of repetition, short sentences or lines, and fragmentation strengthen her colloquial and thus inviting tone, constructing a conversation between the “I” and the “you” that takes place both on the written page and in performance.
No Matter the Wreckage also includes new poetry from Kay beyond what already resides on YouTube. The first piece in the book, “Love Poem #137,” encapsulates her stunning ability to create concrete images to produce new statements that read as if they are beloved proverbs:
I will love you with too many commas,
but never any asterisks.
There will be more sweat than you are used to.
More words than are necessary.
Here, Kay asks readers to consider the physicality of both language and emotion. Flesh becomes a text. Sweat and skin coalesce with punctuation, constructing a language of sensuality and embodiment. As the first poem in the book, the piece also serves as a crucial introduction, presenting readers with her stylistic and tonal preferences, essentially creating a guide for what is to come. She takes care to ensure that her readers understand the world they are entering for, as she writes later: “Trust me. You don’t want to miss a thing.”
The poem “Ghost Ship,” which includes the book’s title, reminds us that “our model ships look perfect in their bottles, / but we do not know if they are seaworthy.” The poem ends:
despite the cruddy metal. Your ruin is not to be hidden
behind paint and canvas. Let them see the cracks.
Someone will come to sing into these empty spaces.
Their voice will echo off your insides like a second-grader
and her little brother—four years younger, two steps ahead.
Singing ‘til the metal vibrates. ‘Til the ghost ship rings.
Once again, Kay establishes tangibility in language. Through touch and sound, she paints a clear visual of the ship and its literal and metaphorical presence, as well as the speaker’s relationship with her brother. Kay’s short sentences emphasize the “cracks” and “cruddy metal,” perhaps nodding to Adrienne Rich’s notion of exploring a wreck: “the thing itself and not the myth.” Throughout the poem, her meter and heavy use of vowel sounds blend together to create a rolling sensation like that of ocean waves. Additionally, the fragmentation and repetition of “I” sounds in her last line serve to enact the very singing it describes, creating a music that lingers long beyond the poem’s end.
In No Matter the Wreckage, Sarah Kay’s fans will be excited to read and reread some of their favorite works, as well as to enjoy her new poems. New readers will have the pleasure of learning Kay’s voice—her musicality and rhythms emerging on the page with the same clarity and grace that she employs in stage performances—as she solicits everyone to experience love and art in any way he or she knows how. For, as the speaker tells students in the poem “Mrs. Ribeiro,” “Show me how many colors you know how to draw with. / Show me how proud you are of what you have learned. / And I promise I will do the same.” And No Matter the Wreckage makes good on the same promise—writer and reader showing one another what they have learned, together.
Melissa Adamo received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University and is currently a contributing staff writer for English Kills Review. Her poems, essays, and book reviews have previously appeared in journals, such as Per Contra, Mezzo Cammin, and Modern Language Studies, among others. Teaching various English courses at Rutgers, Montclair State, and Ramapo College whilst working as a writing tutor at Brookdale Community College, she gets to enjoy the best the NJ parkway has to offer due to her love of language and try-hard students. Follow her word-thoughts on writing, feminism, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Twitter @adamopoeting.