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Sara Michas-Martin


Sara Michas-Martin


Lake Michigan is growing smaller. Each time I go home more of the beach
shows its ratty, pocked face. I dream the Greeks are responsible, I see them-
climbing the old peeling stairs. Each man carries a piece of lake up past

the gold shops, steaming bakeries, rows of fish and unpronounceable cheese.
Back home the neighbors struggle to get their boats in the water. My father
cuts open his toe swimming. When a new sandbar appears, it's flagged

and named for its uncommon shape. Working faster and all the time now, the men
are moving Lake Michigan. In a room I don't remember, although
the floor is familiar, I've surrendered to infection. Fever spreads

under my skin, concentrates at the tonsils. All the time the men marching-
what looks like thick glass tucked under their arms. The hostel owner
places olives on his tongue one at a time. His wife prays near the cash box.

When the doctor comes he kneels by the mattress I've made hot with fear,
a silk curtain floats between his shoulders. He says go home. Your throat is closing.
It's not the lonely descent over Detroit that's stale and grim, it's what happens

to the northern woods. Everyone sleeping when I get there. The flag waves
on the sandbar and Lake Michigan is gone. There are no sounds
in the canyon. No sounds pass through the fields of bleached elk bones.


I walk to make certain I was ever there.
To find the car I once discovered

buried in the pines as if it were left
for the mushrooms to affix for crows

to pull batting from its seats. Small
when I see it body rubbed free of paint

roof caved like a chocolate egg left in the rain
and the myths are gone the witch

I thought placed it here the silver horses
that drag cars off many roads.

Now I imagine before trees filled in
someone drove just this far and parked.

Up here the water
driving against the northern shore

just one layer of silence
spread thin inside another.

                                   -from Gray Matter


Currently stationed in Denver, Sara Michas-Martin writes, teaches and occasionally designs. Her book Gray Matter (Fordham University Press) was chosen by Susan Wheeler for the 2013 Poets Out Loud Prize.  Her poems and essays have appeared in the American Poetry Review, The Believer, Best New Poets, CURA, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, jubilat, Prairie Schooner, Threepenny Review and elsewhere. She is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University and has also taught creative writing and interdisciplinary studies at Goddard College, University of Michigan, and continues to teach courses for Stanford's Online Writer's Studio. Other awards include a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize, a creative nonfiction grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, residency fellowships from the Hall Farm Center and the Vermont Studio Center, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf, Squaw Valley and Napa Valley Community of Writers' Conferences.

Sara earned a BFA in visual arts from the University of Michigan and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona, where she was twice awarded the Poetry Center’s Poets-in-the-Schools teaching fellowship. She has also studied at Naropa University and Scuola Leonardo Da Vinci in Florence, Italy. Since leaving Ann Arbor, she has lived in eleven cities and backpacked through countries including Greece, Ireland, Laos, Portugal, Thailand and Vietnam.


A Review of Sara Michas-Martin's Gray Matter by Dawn Leas, first published at Poets' Quarterly

Since my son is an undergraduate student at Fordham, I usually find my way to the Fordham University Press booth when I attend the annual AWP conference, and this year in Seattle, I was able to speak with Elizabeth Frost, who is the Poets Out Loud series editor. During our conversation, I mentioned that I write reviews for Poets' Quarterly, and she suggested Gray Matter by Sara Michas-Martin, which was selected by Susan Wheeler for the 2012-2013 Poets Out Loud Prize. I agreed, and then since Sara happened to be right near the booth, I had the rare opportunity to meet an author prior to reviewing the book. When I asked her to describe the book, she said that it is about science and philosophy and community; that it moves from the personal I to the community I and back again. I walked away looking forward to reading the collection (even more so when I saw a blurb from a neuropsychologist on the back), and I was not disappointed when I began reading it on the flight home and then when I recently finished a second reading of it while sitting on a beach during vacation.

For this debut collection, Michas-Martin becomes an artistic chemist, head bent over a formula for a new elixir that not only enlivens the exterior world and animates personal experience, but also opens the interior world wide open helping readers wend through the vast landscape of gray matter where seeing, hearing, remembering, emoting, speaking, deciding and self-controlling reside. And she shows us the gradations of gray by exploring the science and art of the mind – how it works or sometime mis-fires; how it processes memory, experience, images and words.

Michas-Martin writes in beautifully tight language, making just about every word carry weight. There is a litheness to her economy, one that you know does not come easily, but only with serious focus and practice on the part of the writer. Many lines lead readers quickly across and down the page. Others stretch their legs and arms lengthening the time eyes are on them, allowing brains to decipher  meaning.

“Olfaction” is punctuated with long and short lines, its phrases separated on each line by white space. They spill and tumble over each other like salt and pepper from shakers:

            …brain sprouting
            around the olfactory bulb       it's impossible
            to name directly          a scent that opens on you
            like a fire alarm           carrot yanked clear out of the ground
            or the whisper you inhale        from a few rooms over...

Some poets jumble into a crumpled piece of paper what seem like disparate images and ideas, and then in the un-balling of the paper create an exquisitely executed poem. Michas-Martin is one of them. The dance of details within many of the individual poems is a force to be reckoned with, a artistic display to be contemplated.
From “Since He Asked:”
            They saddle me with flatware,
            I let the plants die
                                    on purpose.
            A music stand does not belong in the field.
                        Materials arrive
            in oversized boxes;
                                       I should want this
                                       and a white dress.

Writing in a formula laced with personal experience, Michas-Martin gives us vivid images of Lake Michigan, the comfort and angst of summer camp and home, the love and grit of marriage. These are poems that are relatable and reachable.
From “Elegy:”

            ….When a new sand bar appears, it's flagged
            and named for its uncommon shape. Working faster and all the time now, the men
            are moving Lake Michigan...

Michas-Martin does not shy away from exploring the workings of the brain, the science behind its successes and failures; from blending philosophical questions with tiny tidbits of daily life in a poem; from questioning a lot. Sometimes she arrives at the answer, but she is also not being afraid to leave the question open-ended.

From “To Know It Again:”

            The mind has some idea
            of what to do
            because it's always been invested
            in the enterprise of seeing,
            keeping track
            of how something feels
            and how it operates and if
            it's been here before, certain
            about the death of many cells
            or the time in line at the bank
            you hugged the wrong mother.

In “Trichotillomania” the reader travels back to a summer camp cabin, the sting of being singled out for being different even when it is due to a disorder beyond the cabin mates control:

            ...Because of your ugly-making habit
            we don't share our lip gloss.
            We don't like your strange
            brooding weather, or your face
            without eyelashes...

“Capgras Syndrome” and “Cotard Syndrome” also portray stunning images of what happens when the brain misfires, when human biology goes astray.

In a short 60 pages, Michas-Martin covers a broad landscape  - marriage, childhood memory, place of origin, travel, nature, psychological disorders, to name a few. Throughout most of it, she succeeds in making the interior accessible, the exterior more alive, and the abstract more tangible. This becomes more evident the more time a reader spends with the collection's poems. I recommend making the commitment to dive into it more than once. Each time you do, the deeper you will sink into meaning and understanding; the author's thought processes will become more vibrant each time; and the world of each poem will become multi-dimensional. 

Click here to read a review of Gray Matter at Publishers Weekly


Click here to read a review of Gray Matter at TriQuarterly

Click here to buy Gray Matte

Sara Michas-Martin

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