review by Nadia Gerassimenko
There is still whole here: a review of Sarah Sousa’s Hex
In Hex, Sarah Sousa writes in “Fount of Tears,” “I fell from the sky / everywhere and all at once. / I wept a pestilence.”—something so ominous, horrifying, and unimaginable yet also rather familiar, relatable, and cyclical—it has happened before and may happen again; be warned. Although “Fount of Tears” is not the first poem in Sousa’s dystopian chapbook, it can set precedent for the world whose environment has fallen, burned, and collapsed and can also be read first, or even last. In fact, each poem, a dismal glimpse into the barren and unpromising aftermath, can be read in any order as standalone entity while all together the pieces restore a complete and cohesive narrative of a shared disorder. The readers may feel as if they have the privilege and freedom to choose how they can approach Hex, how they can interpret it, how the story can end, perhaps even continue, for them.
Besides the collapsed and seemingly uncultivable environment in Hex, there are other outside and internal forces that shape and make or even break that environment and its despairing and desperate inhabitants: scarce raw materials for scavenging, growing, and harvesting yields; Mother, the human but also divine matriarch of the post-apocalyptic society, who can give or take away in a blink of an eye; human hubris and frailty that impact what can be given and taken away collectively as well as individually; and, of course, nature itself that either walks away or brings forth more austerity independent of Mother.
The lines from “Garden Canticle” brilliantly encapsulate these aforementioned challenges: “This is the life where I learn / even water must be earned if we’re to reclaim the garden.” In this second chance at life, it’s not enough to just build a fishing boat, set to sea, catch that fish; the resources are limited—albeit there’s also creativity in that (because of this limitation, people find other ways of making use of these resources)—and can easily break. A sensible rule of thumb is imparted in “Loading the Boat:” “If the wind has the scream of wolves or women / in it, carry less than the capacity of your boat.”
It’s terrifying to imagine living like this, worrying transportation or housing may turn to ruins tomorrow after a windstorm, rationing food as the only soil that yields may become infertile next season. Even nature and its creatures may desert the inhabitants as is implied in “Winter Solitaire:” “She imagines this season abandoned / the way the many-pointed stags / have abandoned her”. Those of us who live comfortably are fortunate we aren’t in this situation. Even during this collectively endangering and exhausting pandemic and yearly hurricanes and wildfires or other natural disasters, we have safe shelter or insurance to find another home, we have vocational security or can get unemployment or disability benefits, privileges we oftentimes take for granted, privileges that make us ignore the living conditions of those who are less advantaged than us socially and economically, even more so now, in health and wealth. We the lucky don’t think about lack of resources, nature turning its back on us, some entity regulating our earth and our lives, we the lucky can weather these tumultuous times, while others can barely get by or had unfortunately already perished. That’s a terrifying inequity that still exists today in our society that appears to be free and equal on the surface level.
As terrifying—if not more—is Mother, a divine, almighty essence or powerful, imposing human, perhaps even personification of nature—whichever way the readers wish to construe her—who seems threatening and punishing as is chillingly palpable in “Mother Most Hollow:” “We thought our brains wiser than our bodies, / our bodies cleverer than Mother. So, / one by one, Mother took the food away.” But is she truly merciless, or has she given enough chances that now one must tread lighter and weigh every decision? In the same poem, the preceding lines read, “We shunned the sweetest of mother’s / fruits as too sweet” serving as indication of Mother Earth’s bountiful, giving fruitfulness with a tinge of rot as we come to know later on she takes it all away. Mother, whether she’s corporeal, spiritual, or personified, acts as warning of a more crumbling, if not crumbled, world. Her ominous omnipresence and omnipotence urge the readers to reflect on their shortcomings as humans and humanitarians, as well as on the fragility and ephemerality of life, and how every day they can make a choice to add to its prolongation or further take from it. Mother bestows just enough for the people in the world of Hex to—hopefully—appreciate and value what they have now, what they can make use of, what they can change over time. She keeps the sun as an essential everyday promise, she even grants the poetic magic and mayhem of the moon, as is lyrically painted in the titular poem with the lines “Mother conceives the sun in the dark hours / before morning, grows large, and births the sun / at dawn.” and “the moon, that which the old farmers called / a waxing and waning poem, the moon is vexed / and swells monstrous.”
There’s certain fairy-tale hopefulness and enchantment in both these symbols, a compelling impetus to go on, unravel the collapsed present, and rebuild an enduring future. Nothing is forever, everything is elusive; therefore, all things and beings have the potential to transcend and transform. Such heartening notion is best reflected in “Charm for Making Net:” “The earth is an island / which once was a mountain. The earth is a sea which once held a lake.” A mountain can grow into an island and then revert back as a mountain again to be later transformed into an island, again—how freeing, comforting, and fortifying!
As the world is collapsed—and collapsing further if not for a radical transformation—in Sousa’s Hex so is our world burning and changing during our own natural cataclysms, global pandemic, and civil revolution. There’s a lot of relevant and foreshadowing parallel to be found and deliberated upon in this striking, nuanced, and penetrative chapbook, considering what we’re undergoing communally and may even have to face in the future where our lack of humility, empathy, and forethought are concerned. As “The Other World” says, “What is broken here / there is whole.” As bleak as the future of the world in Hex may be, as uncertain as the future of our own world, there is still a possible whole. What is broken might still be unbroken.
Nadia Gerassimenko is the founding editor of Moonchild Magazine and proofreader at Red Raven Book Design. She is a freelancer in editorial services by trade, a poet and writer by choice, a moonchild and nightdreamer by spirit.