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"Dear Outsiders" by Jenny Sadre-Orafai. A Review by Anthony Procopio Ross

Set beside an unyielding sea, Sadre-Orafai’s newest collection “Dear Outsiders” waits for you with the patient gaze of someone staring far off, at something once forgotten but just in sight—the past: a vision of home paddling with all its might to swim to shore.

The past, a force of nature, carries the often-plural sibling (we) speaker of her poems. The speaker trudges forth through memory as if walking weightlessly, waist-high, in tall water. Often, when reading this collection, I felt the eerie presence of a place that seemed as animate, if not more palpably, than the humans at the constant mercy of the elements. As the speaker in “Learning Weather” asks after a hand-measuring of nature’s whims, “Who wins?”, and replies, “The house. Nature always wipes us clean.”

The sublime magic of an often mystically grounded childlike perception of the world is at odds with a cast of forever tourists encroaching on the way of life a family tries against all costs to preserve. Tensions and annoyances with visiting tourists flare but are negotiated with the cool demeanor of a family skilled at navigating a life of dealing with outsiders, or risk becoming one themselves—a candor required of siblings surviving in a world that makes readers question who the true outsiders are, really. The poem “Lost & Found” considers just this:

“You can tell who the locals are. Our eyes are closed. We’ve watched the ocean breathe our entire lives. Sometimes the wood storks ride the water and sometimes it’s blank. It’s not new. People who visit take shells, fractured to almost dust, back home.”

These poems reminded me of Monet's “Impression, Sunrise,” not as a gentle beginning, but as an explosion of azure and fury; there’s a primal power lurking beneath the calm. A town is painted and sung into existence in this collection, but it's a town on the edge, filled with unnamed siblings, elusive bears, watchful guardians and relics of the sea.

Boundaries blur in Sadre-Orafai’s lyrically brimming world. You and me, parent and sibling, home and harm—these are not mutually-exclusive in her work, but they are part of a continuous ebb and flow that reshape the distinctions of the dynamic world these poems capture, and more broadly, the world we live in.

Buoys, ripples, kinships: they all cascade, overlap, and weave into one another until the careful lines of differentiation begin to blur. Poems like “Boat Call,” “Souvenirs for Locals,” “The Swap,” deviate from an otherwise consistent prose poem form found throughout, populating a shared town with its cataloged excesses, some nautical, others second-hand garment, and all shimmering in the careful wreckage of memory. Every poem feels microcosmic, expanding and contracting like a parachute shook by children, jettisoning color with each ripple as seen in the poem “Casting.” Their enchantingly consistent variety was reflective of a deep knowledge one would have for a childhood hometown, the tour guide both reverent and sorrowful for what once was.

If our only hope of returning home was in a brief flutter of wings, Sadre-Orafai’s poems would have us chart the drowned bodies of spring butterflies within still water. Poems such as “The Way Home,” and many others in this focused body of work, seem lodged in a past we all know too well. That is to say, mimesis takes a back seat to impressionism, and the poet’s sketches honor the first-person plural past as tightly orchestrated strokes upon a canvas growing more intricate with each sweep. Consider the poem, “Outlines”:

“We are sailors glowing in pilot lights. We pick valerian that sings us to bed before atlases beat themselves against the glass that doesn’t belong to them but to the sinking house. Their migration surrounds, and we come out with our hands open, grabbing at nothing.”

This collection reveals a family lineage of artistic penchant: the mother's song, the father's brush, the wisdom and weight of traditions. In “Healing Response,” we get a sense of the dual speakers’ relationship to their parents while young. How some traditions are passed down not through words but through actions, or even their absence.

“We’ve seen our parents on their knees. Our father after showers. Our mother before traveling. It was private and they never showed us how to believe in anything but them. We knew they would save us from a riptide, from a drowning.”

I hesitate to dub the sentiment the speaker shares for this place as mere nostalgia. It’s more realized as a feeling of vuja de, where one believes none of this has ever happened before, when in reality, this sequence has played out many times over in the hearts and minds of the people who’ve lived there. This isn't about longing for a past that's gone; it's about experiencing the familiar as if for the first time. The town doesn't just exist in memory, it feels continuously lived in, waiting for the right readers to bring it to life again and again.

In the surging waves and stagnant pools of Sadre-Orafai's "Dear Outsiders," we find ourselves adrift and then astonishingly found, tossed by the wake of memory, tradition, and the omnipresent pull of nature. This collection instructs us to look closer, to see the fine fractures in the coastal shells, to hear the roar of a wave that both is and was. Whether outsider or local, we are all, in the end, at the mercy of forces much larger than ourselves. “Dear Outsiders” reminds us of this, rendering its poems as timeless and as haunting as the shore.

—Anthony Procopio-Ross

Jenny Sadre-Orafai is a poet and essayist and the author of four poetry collections. Her prose has appeared in The Rumpus, Fourteen Hills, The Los Angeles Review, The Collagist, and others. She co-founded and co-edits Josephine Quarterly and teaches and mentors creative writers.

Anthony Procopio Ross writes, breathes, and teaches in Kansas City, Missouri. Anthony's poems appear in The Inflectionist Review, The McNeese Review, Laurel Review, and others. An MVICW Poetry Fellow in 2021 and an Andreas Creative Writing Fellow 2021-22, he graduated with his MFA in poetry at MNSU, Mankato. He has led creative writing workshops for adults with developmental disabilities, high school creative writing students, and people in coffee shops.


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