Of Melancholy in the Garden: A Review of Sarah J. Sloat’s “Heiress To A Small Ruin”

In Sarah J. Sloat’s Heiress To A Small Ruin (Dancing Girl Press, 2016), household objects and common domestic scenarios breathe, grow, and make choices on every page, but there is nothing common about them. Objects are infused with yearning and other worldliness. The poems themselves are Escher paintings of twisted stairwells and deformed black and white faces: the reader begins a journey through a wooden doorway in point A only to end up in a rainy forest at point B. It is a lovely, surreal, and urgent journey that we want to begin all over again by the end of the collection.

Sloat sets us up in the first poem “Salem,” where she borrows the painter Magritte’s famous phrase: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This phrase painted under a picture of an actual pipe in the French painter’s most often duplicated phrase and copied for many different memes on the Internet.)

Sloat writes:

Because inhaling creates short estrangement

and exhaling is a way to put something back.

Sloat depicts breath as a way of making a room smaller, a way of decreasing the bond and space between two people. The idea of exhaling (when it has been alluded that the individual is smoking and would exhale smoke into the room) in effect “putting something back” replaces something that is lost— but with a deadly poison, a toxin. There is a darkness to this poem, a warning: don’t get too close.

The yearning is most prevalent in the poem “Seven Postcards From Solitude,” which is a magnificent list of writing text likened to short postcards. Sloat begins by acknowledging that it is too difficult to even write a complete letter “from the slow country of summer,” and also mentions a “brooding lawn chair.” (Already, the objects are taking over in sorrow.)

Here are some lines from the poem separated by asterisks, indicating each as a separate post card:


Meanwhile the garden breaks down.

The lawn wrenches the trees apart.

The clock gets relentless;

the clock comes passing the hat around.


Dear Saturday,

Take heart. The roses have dropped their lawsuit.


Sloat personifies the garden, the lawn, the trees, the clock with human catastrophic emotions. The lawn is hurting the trees. The clock (time, of course) never ceases (“relentless”) – but the clock is also “passing the hat around,” looking for a hand out or a donation, some help. The roses decide to drop their lawsuit. By depicting these everyday objects with human motives and actions, the reader identifies with these losses, their struggles. The end line is everything:

That’s all there is to it: rupture,

and rapture, all the livelong.

Surrounded by clocks and rose gardens we struggle, we wrench, we soothe, we break free. We lose, maybe we win.

In the aptly named poem “Bloodshot Cartography,” Sloat depicts distance through a map in direct correlation to a mother who is “an ocean away” spending “your inheritance.”

She spends it on:

whatever’s on sale,

and you can’t control her

or stop the phone ringing;

you fold the damp map

back into its cage.

The feeling of distance indicates a loss of control and power. The map is a direct object relating to a bad mother. It is the map that is put into a cage. It could be a prisoner, yes, but more than that, more than safe keeping, or protecting it from its own bad habits, the map feels dangerous. Sloat manages to create this feeling of danger and unease in very few lines. It doesn’t seem right that we would feel scared by chairs, maps, cages, cigarettes, yet we feel trepidations.

A sense of isolation continues in “I Will Now Eat a Loaf of Bread.” The title is comical in its statement, but the progression in the poem from steadfastness and confidence to loss of memory and crumbling away is paramount and creates unease.

The speaker states, “Lunch will be followed by dinner,” then devolves into not knowing what to think about or what their previous thoughts or actions were. The speaker questions:

I was thinking of something, only what?

The ocean, or Monet?

The complaints department?

A loaf of bread is the quintessential symbol of home, hearth, familial love, and this poem crumbles into anxiety. The speaker is distracted by the ocean or the painter Monet, maybe even forgets to eat.

This poem showcases how life precariously splits apart in a breath of air or a swallow of food.

Two of the poems at the end of the collection showcase objects that are defined by movement: “Self Portrait with Lava Lamp” and “Electric Singer.” Sloat discusses the idea of “flux” and “falling apart,” and feeling betrayed in “Self Portrait…” The lava blobs chew space up, spit it back out different and lonely. In “Electric Singer,” blood is alluded to: “with a shock of red.” The needle is violent.

It’s almost as if the stagnant objects, the ones that hold yearning and frozen urgency inside their skeletons for so long, can stand it no longer, and now they have to break apart into the universe overtake these feelings, if only for a brief instant, if only to feel something sharp and meaningful for a nanosecond. Sloat catapults the daily and desensitized into the colorful ether, one filled with bright new auras of a newly envisioned future.

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of eight chapbooks and two full length poetry collections (forthcoming from Yellow Chair Press and Stalking Horse Press). Her chapbook Clown Machine recently came out from Grey Book Press. Her chapbook Dixit: Every Picture Tells a Story, or, The Wrong Items is forthcoming from White Knuckle Press in 2017. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, concis, Sea Foam Magazine, and decomP. She also has poetry reviews published in The Infoxicated Corner, The Rumpus, Horseless Review, and Ploughshares blog.

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