Summer reading: Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower

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1519_lgby Eric Ginsburg

There are two haunting lines in Sarah Lindsay’s book that cling to me like a remora on a shark.

“But without her… every/ seashore would be barricaded by skeletons of whales. The tides/ would rattle.”

It is, coincidentally, an excerpt from the poem from which the collection draws its title, but I have the bad habit of skipping the headers on poems and diving directly into the meat.

The poem, about bone-eating snotflowers, is characteristic of the compilation — rapturously worded, achingly beautiful and bizarrely scientific. Some are imbibed with humor, including a set with names such as “Aunt Lydia and the Cosmic Turtles” and “Aunt Lydia’s Junk Drawer and the Day of Judgment.”

Lindsay, who holds a creative writing MFA from UNCG and works as a copy editor at Pace Communications in Greensboro, has received plenty of acclaim for her craft. She’s been published at the top, including the New York Times, the Paris Review and the Best American Poetry, and won prestigious awards including the Pushcart Prize. She was also a finalist for the National Book Award.

Some of Lindsay’s work in this book is staggering in its precision and quick flourishes of pain, and the unusual combination of emotion and dry science make startlingly good bedfellows.

“Crinoid, ammonite, wasp,/ a puppy-sized dinosaur, Compsognathus,/ with undigested lizard in its belly,” one portion of “Lithographs: the Solnhofen limestone” reads.

The most memorable section may be Part 2, Octopuses and Others, for the poignant love that she douses on each cephalopod piece. This is where we find the title poem, as well as other triumphs including “Carnivorous Sponges of the Antarctic Ocean.” The poem’s matter-of-fact tone, accompanied by alternating italicized paragraphs that read like mantras, is gripping.

I’m typically one to breeze through poetry, regardless of its depth or darkness (common traits in Lindsay’s work), and this collection is easy to get on the other side of shockingly quickly. But numerous pieces, including “Carnivorous Sponges,” refuse to be shaken, requiring an immediate second read due not to a lack of clarity, but because of an unbelievable, raw power.

I don’t make a habit of reading poetry, something that no doubt disappoints my mother who is a published poet. The lack of fiction and poetry on my packed bookcases was a source of tension with one girlfriend — at the time a UNCG MFA student — who bought me a book of Langston Hughes’ work in the hopes of turning me around from a strict non-fiction prose diet.

Things didn’t work out.

And though I’ve found work over the years, including Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, packed with a vitality and urgency that demanded to be read, I still strayed from the medium. Strong recommendations from two friends brought me to Lindsay’s latest work, and while I can’t say it’s caused me to reach further into poetry, the strong pull of her words keeps yanking me down to the depths of the ocean, where her narratives take place.

I would eagerly venture into any of her three other books, and I’ve already started crawling through Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower again. I can’t recommend it enough.

Our family is repeated self./ Our house is columns of water./ Our spectrum of color is dark and less dark,/ our music, water against itself,/ continuous fizz and percussion. We are/ enveloped in movement or dead./ Firm in our grip or dead…/… We hold to life as though it is dear to us.