Review of Marcela Sulak’s Mouth Full of Seeds
Black Lawrence Press, 2020
120 pgs, $17.95
by Maia Elgin Wegmann
Tinderbox contributor Marcela Sulak’s lyric memoir is a hypnotic masterwork of content and form. Mouth Full of Seeds hinges on boundary-lands: the spaces between earth/sky, home/away, physical/divine, and self/other and overlaps the roles of woman/translator/immigrant/convert. Sulak plants seeds in the soil of the first vignette and develops them precisely, eloquently from root to fruit into the varietals featured in Ordinary Earth. One particularly resonant sprouting, the construct of identity, is embodied in the author’s own journey of relocation, spiritual growth, and gendered trauma.
Sulak explores the boundaries we’re born (drawn) into—those of space, religion, and gender. Her claim in “Weights and Measures” to have “never been able to maintain placement in time or space,” rings true as she exchanges her family farm in the U.S. for a garden plot in Tel Aviv (19). She untangles herself from religion in “Drawn That Way” when she tells us that a convert to Judaism was always a Jewish soul in a non-Jewish body (6). The only social construction she seems unable to cross is gender: “maybe the most important thing about my body is the genitalia” (7). A root of violence takes hold as Sulak situates herself in a female body othered by the male gaze. Her grad student’s claim that “The female body [is] the receptacle for all the pain and flaws and sins of the world,” connects with fairy tale heroines who suffer for the redemption of their communities (11; 59). The threat of violence hovers even over Sulak’s daughter, who, over the course of the collection, breaks a pane of glass with her head, has no lock on the door from her bedroom to the balcony, and, along with her mother, does not “belong to anyone” (11).
As Sulak questions the social construction of gender, she literally punctuates rulemaking into being, such as when her mother chastises her for moving to Israel. What might be a compliment is transformed into disapproval through the use of double exclamation marks: “what freedom of spirit you must have!!” (3). Likewise, Sulak drowns the lost woman Viktoria from Nemcova Bozena’s agrarian Romance The Grandmother in the text, reigned in and pulled under by punctuation as Viktoria “plunges into the black-inked waters, between commas, expanding rings, now she is everywhere” (51). In other translations of the Czech story, a lightning strike kills Viktoria (Viktorka). By drowning her instead, Sulak links Viktoria to the folk tale tradition of maidens (and purity) lost while washing clothes in rivers.
The punctuative “expanding rings” of Viktoria’s tale, an echo of the “no” of the markedly unpunctuated “as we settle into our lives like beasts in their ample stalls,” appear again in “The Pigeon, the Washing Machine, the Laundry, and the Folk story.” In this poem, Sulak translates a few stanzas of the Moravian folk tale “The Water Sprite,” in which a young girl is abducted and forced to wed the titular character while washing her family’s laundry at the river. After she is taken, the perspective of the tale shifts to the riverbed looking up at the image of a ring “spreading wide and thin” (44). The hymen-shaped ring becomes a stand-in for unspeakable trauma as Sulak describes it: “the newsreel blank, for it’s too awful to write what just happened and too late to do anything about it” (45). The ring is also the “lost mouth” of Viktoria, the voice of victims whose identities are lost to trauma.
Punctuation and line breaks also mark the breakdown of language in “Cell,” a poem about contemporary trauma in a communal washing place. The lines and stanzas of “Cell” become continuously decomposed as meaning making in the face of trauma fails before our eyes, revealing a truth that is deeper than language. The poem tells the story of an illegally filmed post-birth mikveh. The poet’s form reflects the trust broken by the rabbi. She breaks sense, “and I hate to be / fixed on film…,” and words, “…but you, the ex / pert of…” over lines and stanzas on page 21:
holds knows holy means
reserved for special use, off
-limits to the pub
lic, as in: a
body in a sacred bath.
Meanwhile, as the speaker breaks free from the constraints of language, the perpetrator is placed literally and metaphorically in a cell, “the smallest part of / a woman’s sacred body,” imprisoned in the very bodies he violated, rebuked and yet also bound to their identities (22).
Sulak creates an unlikely echo of defiled fairy tale heroines in the figure of avant-garde fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who as a child, allegedly tried to fix the problem of her plainness, as attributed by her mother, by swallowing seeds in hopes of blooming a new face of flowers. Had it been possible, her attempts at beautification would have rendered her unable to speak (at best) or suffocated her (at worst), not unlike the voiceless, drowned Viktoria or the girl from “The Water Sprite.” The heroines of Sulak’s second form of fairy tale, the women who become birds, also lose the ability to speak, something Sulak fears as she holds divorce papers neatly folded into a bird by a rabbi and redeems her marriage by ending it, “passively” (62). Sulak further conflates her identity with fellow single mother and boundary-pusher Schiaparelli in “God Box.” On page 33, she prophetically dreams her grandfather died, an experience the author has in common with the surrealist designer. She also associates herself with the drowned women and girls as one who “fell prey” (49). Selfhood dissolves similarly in Sulak’s depiction of motherhood, “the sheer physicality of the Mother’s Body as a receptacle of life, sure, but of impurity” (7), and the transformative poem “The End of Venezuela.”
The root, the stem, and the vine of identity weaves through Mouth Full of Seeds, dismantling the binary of self vs other. As she passes freely through the constraints of her birth, an immigrant in space and a convert in faith, Sulak marks and breaks down the social order binding us to gender formally through the use of punctuation, line breaks (and lack thereof), and the very hybridity of the text itself: a memoir that isn’t, a collection of essays that are poems and poems that are stories. Using references to fairy tales, Roger Rabbit, fashion, Czech romance, medieval Hebrew poetry, and more, Sulak has gifted us with the translator’s art: compelling and authentic meaning-making in a world in which no meaning can be made.
Maia Elgin is currently distancing in a creaky old house in the Mississippi Delta with her partner and their animal family. She has poems recently published in journals including Feral, Honey & Lime, Delta Poetry Review, and Cordella and forthcoming in Trampoline; and her chapbook, The Jennifer, was published by Birds of Lace. She’s an Assistant Professor at Delta State University with an MFA from LSU.