“Whose Bones Are These, Seahorse?”: A Review of Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk

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Wild Milk
Sabrina Orah Mark
(Dorothy Project, 2018, $16.00, 168 pp.)

Wild Milk, Sabrina Orah Mark’s new story collection, contains an epigraph from Samuel Beckett’s novel, The Unnameable. It reads, “dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself in the end.” The quotation suggests that incomprehension, a thing we typically strive to eradicate in life (and literature), can paradoxically bring self-knowledge, ego fulfillment, sanity. As the entry into Wild Milk, it braces the reader for a sojourn into the unexpected and the difficult. Beckett’s work was famously difficult, dealing as it did with ignorance, partiality, loss and failure, not simply in life’s affairs, but in language itself. It is an intriguing sign-post to start this collection of stories told by Mark in a carefully realized style, so unlike Becket’s language of omissions and interruptions. Beckett was labeled an absurdist; Mark is more of a surrealist, and these twenty four compact writings introduce weirdness into the fabric of their narratives, creating an interplay between oddity and the conventions that drive their telling. It is in this oddity that we encounter incomprehension, and our struggle as readers to make something of these images and situations brings us to understand the narrators’ worlds more fully, and, perhaps more importantly, who these narrators truly are.

Readers of her two previous books, both collections of prose poems, will find themselves in familiar territory with Wild Milk. Techniques found in her poetry—dreamlike settings, charged images, physical transformation, motifs, word play—are found throughout the Wild Milk stories as well. Indeed, if the writing, say, in Tsim Tsum, her second book, is poetry, then in what sense is the writing in Wild Milk prose? Mark recently addressed this question in her essay, “Cracked Fairy Tales and the Holocaust,” published in the Paris Review. She writes, “For a long time I wrote prose poems. Strange, sealed little boxes…After I had children, the boxes started to grow oversize, turned unwieldy, showed lumps, tore at the creases. They began to resemble stories.” Mark makes a fair enough distinction here (somewhat poetically) between the refined quality of language we expect from poems and the more expansive methods of prose writing. While her description does provide a interesting perspective for approaching Wild Milk, Mark leaves the matter unsettled in the stories themselves, making reference to the conventions of poetry in a number of places. “Clay,” for instance, is written in paragraphs that contain forward slashes, which stand in for poetic line breaks. In “Father,” the characters put a mundane message into line breaks and are “pleased” to call it a poem. Such comic, metacritical asides don’t poke fun at poetry or prose so much as they draw attention to Mark’s project, one in which she sets aside some of the conventions of contemporary creative writing in favor of language that is simultaneously dense and undecorated, eschewing traditional setting development and exposition in favor of blunt presentations of action that are often somehow impossible or supernatural. Is this prose or poetry – what difference does it make, as long as it’s good writing? And the stories in Wild Milk are good writing.

A key aspect of Mark’s dreamlike (or nightmarish) narratives is that all characters experience or enact the events with equal matter-of-fact acceptance. No one is astonished to find an ocean inside a purse, or to have father shrink to the size of a doll. There is, in effect, no sensible person in the room to call out the weirdness or indicate that we’re going to get a break from the present reality. Moreover, Mark constructs paragraphs in which these surrealisms bump up against each other and interact, leaving the reader to puzzle through how they help tell the story. But rather than leaving us to transition from one impenetrable moment to another, Mark’s creations resonate in clever ways with everyday life and the many commonplace experiences and points of contention it contains. An emblematic example of this is found in the title story, in which the narrator, the mother of a baby boy, comes to retrieve him from daycare:

In the hallway, I pass a mother covered in daughters. I count five. I hold up my bundled son, like a form of identification. Like he will provide me safe passage across the border. “No daughters?” she asks. “No,” I say. “No daughters.” “How come?” she asks. She seems to be blaming me, unfairly. “By the time they arrived,” I explain, “the daughters had turned.” “Rotten?” she asks. “Not exactly rotten but gigantic.” I hand her my boy so I can spread my arms wide. To show her how big. I take my boy back. “Gigantic,” I repeat. “And mealy. I sent the whole bin back. The whole bin of daughters back. The brave thing would’ve been to keep them, I know, but they seemed so impossible to name.” The mother nods. She still seems to disapprove, but before I can be certain her daughters lift her up, hungrily, and carry her away.

Why is the other mother literally covered in daughters, and why do they carry her hungrily away at the end of the interaction? Perhaps it expresses how young children treat their mothers—or how the narrator feels about such treatment. And why does the narrator hold up her son “like a form of identification”? It implies that the narrator considers the mother an authority figure, and that the children covering her indicate her authority. It also may be a tongue-in-cheek reference to how cliquish and judgmental parents of young children can be. The passage takes a marvelous turn when the narrator describes why she has no daughters. Mark conflates the explanation with a traditional relationship to food. The result is a weird and grotesque (“Mealy” daughters. Did she take a bite out of one?) but somehow fitting treatment of the daughters as produce. Mark blends a mother’s dispassionate consideration of fruit from the store with a core question all young parents experience: will I have a boy or a girl and how will that affect who he or she will become? It creates an odd tone that touches on the business-like decision-making parents go through while raising children they deeply love. How could she send back the daughters, the reader asks? The impossibility of naming them seems to stand in for the impossibility of actually having them, either because she can’t or she won’t. More permutations of meaning arise the more the reader contemplates the elements in this passage that are then taken forward into the remaining story.

Mark creates this kind of surrealist tension over and over again in Wild Milk. The title of the collection is fitting: milk is that most domesticated and domesticating of substances. Wild milk is…what, exactly? The unlikely pairing makes the mind race. Wherever one goes to settle (if possible) on a meaning for wild milk, the image originates, at least in part in the context of family: the mother nursing the infant who will grow into a child and then an adult surrounded by parents, siblings and spouses. Family in fact is the framework for nearly all the stories in the collection. As the reader progresses through the stories, the ideas of family—and the reader’s own knowledge of same—provide an interpretive point of reference with which to make sense of the strange content upwelling from the unconscious to the narrator’s world. Nearly all of the stories have this concern for family, which is not to say that Mark relies exclusively on family for her interpretive scheme. For instance, the families in these stories are often Jewish; famous writers and celebrities sometimes appear; comic one liners and situations pepper the narratives. All of these elements work to characterize the stories as belonging to our common world, and give a dimensionality and flexibility to the stories they might otherwise lack if they were more straight-ahead fables.

In these stories, family dynamics and first person narration are frequently paired. These narrators tend to exist in the margins of family, not making sense of surreal developments so much as moving through them, for better or for worse, absorbing the tone and emotional cuts that accumulate and complete these stories as deftly as they begin. Among the most compelling of Mark’s marginal family member-narrators is Judy in “Sister.” Mark alters reality here with subtlety and grace as Judy relates the cruel harangues of her sister while barely contributing to the dialogue herself. The unnamed sister calls Judy “Mumford,” a name, Judy wryly notes, “[that] sounds like the name you use if you don’t have a name.” The narrator steps through several episodes involving Sister, Mother, and Dad, with all of them showing a grinding disregard for Judy’s feelings and dignity. At one point, Sister says,

“Pick me up and carry me. I am too thick with ennui to walk.” I pick up Sister. Her expensive legs dangle everywhere. Sister has never before allowed me to touch her. I feel like a hero. When I return Sister to Mother, Mother punches me in the face. And then Sister punches me in the face. And then Mother. And then Sister. And then Mother. And then Sister. In the distance, I can hear Dad whistling.

This passage, it seems, contains something of everything about family relationships gone wrong, all within the absurd progression of the narrative. Told in mostly plain language with a flat tone, the violence of the entire series becomes more impactful, while leaving the narrator, to a degree, at an emotional remove. This detachment battles with the present tense of the story that makes the prevailing feeling very immediate both for the reader and, more importantly, for Judy. The overall effect is of a twisted reality, both emotionally and narratively. The juxtapositions here don’t shock so much as they add up to something sadly familiar that is happening to Judy. Stories like “Sister” rely on our common background narratives of family while exploring the less conventional, domesticable aspects of these characters’ experience. In the final scene of “Sister,” Judy stands on an (imaginary?) battlefield and remarks, “If only Sister and Mother had stayed. I really think they could’ve loved it here.” Concluding this way, Mark displays her poet’s gift for both closing down and opening up meaning in a single phrase. Is Judy sarcastic and bitter? Sincere and brainwashed? It could be that the answer to both questions is ‘yes.’

Even given Mark’s inventiveness, family as a subject risks becoming pedestrian. While Mark doesn’t embrace the commonplace qualities of family life she certainly doesn’t avoid them: parents fret that their son is unmarriable; a father recounts his role as provider; the family maid may or may not be more than a servant; the mother struggles to embrace the stepchild as her own. However, Mark’s surrealism and its wildness create thought experiments that twist these commonplace situations into new shapes and new consideration for the self’s often lonely path through the relationships around it. Many of these narratives could not have the impact they do without the first person narrator—the credible witness to incredible events. These narrators lend an intimacy to the telling that not only make the stories believable, but also put something at stake in the telling. The “I” of these short stories, so quickly appearing and disappearing, provides a conduit through which new insight into the self’s experience of family life can be communicated. Mark as a fabulist is indeed more of a descendant of Beckett than, say, Lewis Carroll. The quotidian, it turns out, is exceedingly strange. And reality may be mundane, but the self is not: the reader can find much to learn about its mysteries in these stories.