REVIEW | Sheila Sanderson's Ok By Me
Sheila Sanderson’s second collection Ok By Me (Stephen F. Austin University Press) draws us into landscapes both familiar and foreign. The first section includes poems such as “Written on the Back of a Topo Map of the Alaska Range” and “Doorway at Chaco Canyon,” while later sections include poems such as “In a Walled City of Transylvania” and “Turkiye.” In the prose poem, “Old Kentucky Home,” the speaker contemplates the “brown lifeline of the Mississippi” from the air, aligning her notion of home with her great grandfather’s. Kentucky may be Sanderson’s ballast, but we don’t have to have been there to understand how a place teaches us ways of knowing the world.
One marvels at Sanderson’s ability to lead us well beyond our expectation of what “place poem” might look like. Consider the envoy, “Slipshod.” Its first line, “Call me slipshod,” echoes the famous epic on the sea as the speaker surveys and accounts for the disheveled mess of her household:
I did inherit
attitude toward tinfoil,
jelly jars and rubber
bands, and all on my own
have taken to saving
lottery tickets past due,
for who knows
what adds up to luck?
From the “black hole of letters, /coupons and other/important documents…” to the kitchen where the speaker’s lover finds “leavings from the four basic food/ groups on his footsoles,” Sanderson gives life to micro spaces before seamlessly linking them to the speaker’s origins in “the so-called dark and blood ground of Kentucky:”
Maybe I am as I am
because I am half-trash
to begin with
Having eluded greater pitfalls she associates with conventional life in that place—mistaking cleanliness for godliness or remaining in an unhappy marriage—the speaker redefines the pejorative often used to describe her, so that she may embrace it. Ultimately, “Slipshod” becomes a poem of inheritance and identity:
and may I add that yes,
maybe on occasion
my domicile is my ashtray
and maybe I am fallen
low into the snares of harlotry
and maybe put me down
for pagan idolatry
just to round things off
any half held notion
in an unkempt world
is ok by me.
For this poet, the exploration of place also involves meditation on the species that populate them. Poems throughout the collection are infused with plant and animal life, and several touch on the human desire for the “good life continuing.” This sentiment is made particularly lovely in “Written on the Back on a Topo Map of the Alaska Range” as the speaker, ascending a glacier, contemplates an Athabascan jawbone found at the site, and how easy it would be to die in that unforgiving landscape:
…A number of easy ways to do it.
To lose the way, to stumble, to slip.
It is possible to be taken down the throat of ice.
Possible to be taken by other animals.
To be taken ill. To be taken.
The poem guides us to a thoughtful conclusion where, like the speaker, we revel in being alive, in the opportunity to feel small in the vastness of tundra and time:
Maybe that’s what I love about this country—
It keeps offering me chances to feel tiny
and I keep taking them.
“Looking for the absence of wildlife,” one of Sanderson’s more overtly philosophical and humorous pieces, considers the human delusion of control. We see the narrator realizing that she’s subject to the whims of the universe no matter how hard she tries to wrangle, that her “waiting for nothing” mode will one day be “answered” by the universe:
here’s your nothing
and here’s some nowhere
to go with it.
Several poems in the collection consider not only how dialect and language function as indelible aspects of the experience of place, but also as cornerstones of identity. “Language of the old People” and “Turkiye” explicitly call our attention to words and phrases while “My Love Is to Me as Water in the Desert” and "In the Temple of the Bulrushes” reveal essences of biblical phrasing from the poet’s Kentucky upbringing as she evokes her later edenic experience in riparian pockets of the Southwest.
Sanderson’s language is nuanced, precise, and palpable, and her voice is engaging; consequently, the big questions come to life on the page. Ok By Me (Stephen F. Austin University Press) is a book that employs place as a springboard for considering homeland and origins, antiquity and myth, love and loss. It is an ode to place, surely, but it is also an ode to friends, lovers, and family, to the stories imbued in artifacts. And it is still much more than this.
Sheila Sanderson’s work has appeared in journals such as Arts & Letters, Cloudbank, Hubbub, Miramar, Nimrod, North American Review, Room, Southern Indiana Review, Southern Poetry Review, and Spillway as well as in anthologies such as Language Lessons (Third Man Press) and One for the Money (Lynx House Press). She is the author of Keeping Even and Ok By Me. She is the editor of Alligator Juniper and teaches at Prescott College.