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Daniela Olszewska on Sabrina Orah Mark

Tsim Tsum by Sabrina Orah Mark

Saturnalia Books, 2009

Review by Daniela Olszewska


Tsim-tsum is the process of a creator removing its vowel-less self from the time and place of a pre-world in order to make a world.  Sabrina Orah Mark’s latest collection exists in this intentionally creator-less world where time and space are alluringly negotiable. From the very beginning, readers are slyly advised that “You do not know anymore what is real” (“The Departure”), and it quickly becomes clear that, though this place is delighted with horses who give gift-giving advice (“Forgiveness”) and eggs filled with red sugar (“The Definition of a Thief”), it is also a place where “The soldiers dressed like children opened their mouths as wide as they could, but there was no more candy.  There would never again be more candy” (“The Traitor”). 


The book follows the returns, revenges, and redefinitions of Beatrice, her cohort Walter B. (of The Babies fame), and their sometimes-foils, The Collector, The Healer, The World’s Oldest Animal (who writes atrociously spelled letters to his “That Mutter and That Fodder”), and a group of men referred to as The Unlikelies.  The relationship between Beatrice and Walter B. is ambiguous; depending on the poem, one is always the other’s sidekick and there is very little sexual tension between the two.  Tsim Tsum is a place where sex is impossible to remember.  Though Walter B. wants “very much to unbutton her blouse” and “touch her thighs,” it is only when it is in a way in which “neither Beatrice nor Walter B. would later remember” (“Beatrice Takes a Lover”).  It is also a land where, as Walter B. patiently explains, “babies come from rubbing babies together” (“Where Babies Come From”).   Though Beatrice and Walter B. love each another enough to appear in poems together, theirs is a distant, abstract affair. 


On Mark’s planet, definitions are devastatingly important and elusive.  Carefully, Walter B. asks what the word “thief” means and is assured by Beatrice that “to be a thief means to be a person who is only able to be an existing idea if he or she carries away and then dwells in another”(“The Definition of a Thief”).  He doesn’t know what a birthday is, save for the fact that it requires him to make Beatrice a machine that “except for the wires…would be nothing like Poland” (“Birthday”).  And the closest Beatrice can come to a definition for “housekeeping” is “time travel” (“Long Ago and Far Away”).   Walter B. recognizes that any influence Beatrice works over him, over herself, is tied up in the dictionary; in “The Name,” it is observed that:


If he could find for Beatrice a name thought Walter B., he could empty her out.  If he could find Beatrice a name, a name that would last, he could go on without her.  A name like Poland.  Or Abigail, for example.  But first he would have to remove Beatrice from Beatrice.  But how?  How does a Walter B., wondered Walter B., remove a Beatrice from a Beatrice so that he can find for her a name.


Beatrice, too, senses the weighting, rooting influence of definitions. She asks Walter B. if she is a Jew but he tries to distract her with “a standing ovation.”  Beatrice persists but is ultimately thwarted.  In the end, she reflects that “if she could multiply the sum of her parts…and sell each part for feed, maybe someone would tell her the answer one day for a very high price” (“The Word”).   The name, the definition, isn’t just worth everything in Beatrice’s world, it is Beatrice’s world.  And the cruel beauty of the whole set-up is that Beatrice doesn’t have, will probably never have, access to her names and definitions.


Space, too, is often set just out of reach.  Walter B. and Beatrice get close, get “right before we get there,” to their destination  (or away from their destination, in this universe, to is synonymous with from), only to have to watch Beatrice’s imagination zoom about in a white fur coat, somersaulting as it overtakes them (“On the Way to Mist Must”).  Arrival is always being frustrated by an absurd lack of existence.  Beatrice asks Walter B. to “Hold me here while I am still not in Poland,” but, as Walter B. comes to realize, Poland “never really was” (“Poland”).  “Parshas Acharei Mos” describes a world where “Prayer excites me, asymmetrically” because there is no such thing as symmetry. 


Since Tsim Tsum takes place on a timeless, spaceless plane, its words cannot fit into stanzas with intentional line breaks.  Almost all of the poems in this work are presented in the form of a prose poem.  Mark possesses the increasingly rare talent of being able to construct a prose poem that feels at least as tight and concise as “perfectly” metered verse.  Her lines turn quickly on their heels:


We take three steps and we are where they are cutting up smocks.  For luck, we figure.  He is up to her knees in rust and mink.  She is up to his knees, as per his instructions.  If we could fold the document up inside her pale mouth.  If we could remove the black canister from her arms.  If we were kind we would.  (from “The Delivery”)


and are never in danger of stalling, much less flat-out stumbling.  This kind of attentive architecting renews faith in the possibilities of the form of the prose poem in a style reminiscent of Aase Berg’s recent classic, With Deer


Tsim Tsum offers glimpses of the weird, beautiful world of the indoor carnival, a great-aunt’s chipped music box, those lacey vintage undergarments that no one can say for sure whether they are on right-side-up or not (I suspect that Beatrice would insist that there is no right-side…).  The book gifts readers with the presence of “The Reality Testing Booth,” but only with the understanding that the results, if they come at all, will come in the form of an affectionless, affectation-less definition.  Such is the awe-ful nature of a creator-less world undertaking the painful, sublimely complex process of self-creation.

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