Review of Sarah Gorham’s Bad Daughter

Sarah Gorham. Bad Daughter. New York: Four Way Books, 2011. Paper, 80 pp., $15.95.

Reading Sarah Gorham’s poetry brings to mind perhaps the most memorable and oft-quoted lines from Philip Larkin: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad, / They may not mean to but they do.” That analogy, of course, is a humorous oversimplification. Gorham’s work deals with family dynamics and the fact of human imperfection without Larkin’s ironic snideness, but with the wisdom, mature playfulness, and genuine pathos of Larkin’s most compelling work. In her previous collection The Cure (Four Way Books, 2003), Sarah Gorham told us the story of a family bowing under the weight of the father’s alcoholism. Her new offering, Bad Daughter, explores the complex and often fraught relationship between mothers and daughters. In “Homesickness,” the speaker tells us, “Genes are a kind of blue letter from a mother / to her daughter: Good news, bad news.” These are indeed poems of “bad news” and “good news”—of pain and joy—and, as in the best work of many poets, the two work together to form the powerful emotional landscape of this collection.

In Bad Daughter, that landscape is never an easy one—never black and white. There is an exhilarating darkness in poems like “Immortality,” in which the speaker says of a baby, “Remember when the names for little things weren’t sickening? // Touch that fantastic little foot. The baby is an implant, a fresh cutting. / She will take. She will take you away.” The play of violence and wonder in these skillful lines makes plain the irony in them without veering into sarcasm. Even darker is the poem “Barbecue,” which employs a less subtle violence in one of the collection’s most evocative metaphors. Here, the speaker compares four sisters to the four tines of a fork:

    […] Sisters—they were that close,
  jockeying for love in a cage
  with silver bars. The origin of the fork

  was a spear in an animal’s heart.
  You’ve heard of knife scars
  on a plate? Blame it on the knife,

  though the fork held the weakling down.

The metaphor is complicated. The knife here is not the parents, as one might expect, for the speaker will “mind / her parents’ appeal for peace” and “place her knife back on the table.” There is no easy, moralistic reading for poems such as this, and that is the power of Gorham’s work; she investigates the difficult, often unsettling nature of family dynamics without self-pity and without pointing fingers. Bad Daughter reminds us that family is not static but, rather, an ever-evolving relationship: “To my child I become my mother,” Gorham says (in “Accommodation”), “and her mother, and hers.”

The joys of Bad Daughter are not to be found only in these questions of family. Gorham, with the skill and confidence of a master artisan, crafts poems in an array of styles and forms that never impose themselves on the work, but seem always necessary: from prose poems like “After Pindar” and “Bob White” to rhyming, shortened-lined sonnets like “Compost” and “Pond in Winter” to the free verse of “Our House” and “The Sacrifice,” whose lines move elegantly around the middle of the page. Each poem, whether directly addressing the complexities of daughterhood announced in the title or not, plays an integral part in constructing Bad Daughter, a collection that is gracefully made, challenging, moving, and unquestionably whole.

Nick McRae is the author of Mountain Redemption (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), winner of the Black River chapbook competition, and of Moravia (Folded Word Press, 2013). His recent work is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, Hayden's Ferry Review, The Southern Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. He has recently been a Fulbright fellow in the Slovak Republic and a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. He is now Poetry Review Editor for The Journal.