Review: Honey Month
// Joellen Craft
Main Street Rag, 2022
Remember those pastoral poems force-fed to captive high schoolers, full of daffodils and pathetic fallacy? In Sadie Shorr-Parks’s book Honey Month (Main Street Rag, 2022), the speakers feed on a steady diet of gorgeous landscape, but the result isn’t bucolic (of course, neither is Wordsworth, removed from a high school teacher’s curriculum). Honey Month’s title conjures languorous, amber light on an August afternoon, but the cover shows black cicadas layered like a stucco roof. This disconnect is our first taste of the self-conscious, though often playful, juxtapositions at the heart of this collection.
The landscapes in Honey Month are various: Philadelphia, Harrisonburg, West Virginia, and the Midwest are all name-checked. Unsettled geographically, many of these poems deal in how the speaker sees and is seen, though the tones shift frequently. “Like the sea, I’m thrashing. / I’m lapping at your ankles. / I have nothing else to give you. / Just look at me” and “Was I not promised to be healed by love? / I watch you recoil, and my heart is breaking” cozy up with lines like, “You recognized yourself in me. // All I did was exhaust a barrier, / like a cloud breaking into rain” and “I’m coming up in palms/ and looking cute, by the way.”
The speaker’s interest in looking extends to the self outside of romantic relationships, too. In “Said the Girl to the Mirror,” the speaker sits on a bus where,
Feeling fat, I became forgiving
and wanted some space from my reflection,
but my face sat plastered on the windowpane
ahead of me, hovered above the landscape.
This discomfort with the body’s depiction, or how the world reflects it, also comes out in how often minor players have fat bodies. A sidewalk-sofa is obese in “Grace’s Vineyard,” an “obese teen sing[s] on her porch,” “a big woman gets into [the flooding holler] like a steaming bath,” “fat neighbors are convening again,” and a poem near the end of the book is titled, “Fat, I’m relieved.” This hyper-awareness of when bodies don’t align with society’s standard is one mark of Shorr-Parks’s work to engage with mental illness. Body dysmorphia and anorexia thread through many of these poems, and often offer the technique I found most engaging in this book: Shorr-Parks’s knack for switching tone to defuse, or reposition, an idea. An excellent example of this technique is “Diet Home,” which begins with an angular, sound-rich stanza:
In my home,
the girls go all-bone.
At home, our girls
reduce to the bone
and ends with the flighty, perhaps dissembling,
I do sort of see
myself regaining. I do
somewhat see myself again.
This tonal shift is reflected in other ways in the book, like in “Rome,” when the speaker notes “The sky looked pewter from light pollution, / from the mix of Zara’s and lit cathedrals.” However, I found it most effective in poems like “Lunacy,” a poem in which the speaker looks to the landscape for answers but finds
pen marks across the sky,
black, from a laundry accident.
I’m in my backyard hanging clothes on a line.
No, I’m online, imagining hanging laundry.
This mental play surprised and engaged me, and I found more engaging play in “Hospital Alphabet Book,” an abecedarian chronicling patients like Frank, who “inhales so deeply that sometimes he strips the stuff around him of color. What’s dear to him shows patches of black & white” and Nate, who “tried to plant potatoes in his rental. They sprouted into hot air balloons, so he popped them, never tried again.”
As the book progresses, landscape comes to the forefront, and the speaker herself ruralizes, saying “I stopped for breath / when I got to West Virginia. // Now I’m marked by my inertia.” She seems to only feel settled when she finds a physical space that matches her own self-perception (“a teensy bit trashy,” as one poem’s title points out), and she finds safety, or perhaps rest, being a setting. “I Will Become a Cold Sky,” reads one title; in a love poem, the speaker’s hands “Like ivy now able to climb…angle toward the plot of light on your shoulder”; she is “most aware I’m landscape / when my dog crosses me for crumbs,” a poem that ends,
bravo, snow, you sweet, itsy moons.
I, too, am winter expressing its mood.
Becoming setting may sound disenfranchising, but in this book, it’s a way to gain language and agency through deemphasizing the body itself—an optimistic, positive move. In fact, the book, regretful and self-interrogating though it can be, relies on an undercurrent of optimism. Just like cicadas can’t help but emerge from time to time, the speaker keeps looking out and around at whatever show the world puts on, as though against her will, to see if things have gotten better. Shorr-Parks’ juxtapositions and tonal shifts play a major role in this upbeat undercurrent, because they show just how much power we have over our own perceptions. The book ends on such a note, returning to the full moon face the speaker disliked in “Said the Girl to the Mirror”:
Fat, I’m relieved
to see my full moon face each morning.
I use to sneak under my cheekbones:
ramble meanly, composed of hooks.
I’m different now.
I’d point to my bin of sewing projects
under my super modern table.
This engagement and reengagement is a timely reminder: We must emerge from whatever dark holes we’ve found for ourselves so that we can feed and grow. Transformation is nature—ours, everything’s. It’s how we survive.