It Might Turn Out We Are Real

By Susan Scarlata

Horse Less Press
February 2011
82 pages


Reviewed by Candy Shue


For all of our claims to the contrary, we humans are still a superstitious bunch. Though we tout our every advance, be it medical, technological, or social, an undercurrent of the unknown is truly our only constant. The good news is that poets are still searching for omens and portents amid the bytes and bits of the natural-and cyber-world.

The poems in Susan Scarlata's It Might Turn Out We Are Real meld these worlds in Sapphic stanzas, acknowledging that the traditional forms can still hold value for us, even as microchips and text messages begin to fill our lives. Technology, far from lifting us above ritual, often immerses us in it by giving it a new boost, as in the poem, "My Augur, My Backslash":

Poaching this slow connection,
I read that my avatar screwed around with my augur.
While the machine is

            always saying: You

cannot connect this. Someone
left their malt out by the pay phone,
and we stop and think, some body's moon. 

            Curb wreck, bumper rub.

We dream of long boar teeth,
so the red behind my ribs is stacking itself
to climb away. But we will have

            to have a boar in this,

so posthumously people can float
the term "heroic," about us,
so my avatar can go down as

            loose with soothsayers.

Scarlata's poems depict the many sacrifices we are willing to make in order to maintain our vision of ourselves as "heroic." There are "false prophets" offering "a thick-legged cow; a//barren cow; a black cow," and a list of Hindu Vedic rituals advising us to " the juice; mix the juice//and ferment the juice for 216 hours//in 720 brass pails." All to no avail. In her poem, "Phantasmagoria," the poet suggests we offer "a wreath of dandelion pollen" on one hand while pleading with us on the other to "procure that dime bag" as she finds her heart "crawling//back toward what it needs." The body and the soul inhabit a Pandora's box of desires.

Entertaining paradox is one of the overriding pleasures of these poems. Scarlata tells us that the title of her book comes from a line in Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget, and the difference between the declarative syntax of Lanier's title and the conditional syntax of Scarlata's pervades this book. If indeed we are real, why do we have to work so hard to prove it? Or to look at another possibility; what if our "real" selves turn out to be avatars too? Are we like Rachael, the character in Ridley Scott's classic film, Blade Runner, who is devastated to discover she is a replicant and not a human? The truth, as harsh as it is, ultimately allows her to form a real relationship with Harrison Ford's Deckard. No longer based on an illusion, he can stop hiding Rachael's true identity from her. What if we could accept ourselves as avatars? Would that have the same effect on us? Scarlata's poems both assume and question the assumption that there is a difference between our real selves and our avatars. 

These are twisty poems, but Scarlata is a generous and conversational companion, laying out her aesthetic concerns as well as her concrete interests in the first piece in the collection, titled "Proem":

"...these poems show their cracks, accept their ruin, and get on with it. They are strung, one to the other, lined without attempt to present any sum total. They burgeoned along side investigations of: Ritual sacrifices; Species extinction; Economies of metaphor; Lyric as method of tracing/tracking/absorbing experience; Cyber-spatial identity; Repetition as ritual; and The potentiality of recording."

With this framework, the poems can unfold as the different strands of exploration unravel. Do not worry if you aren't able to catch all the references to Communist Party mottos, Greek mythology, Biblical quotes, and scientific research (bee lore being prominent)—Scarlata cheerfully lists her sources in a section of Notes at the end of the book. I was delighted to stumble upon these—to be accidentally relieved of the task of researching—though soon I had succumbed to flipping back and forth as I read the poems. I do not recommend doing this. I fear I've opened another Pandora's box by even revealing that the Notes exist, but I hope, being as well acquainted with desire and ruin as Scarlata is, she will empathize with my plight. The Notes were there, I discovered them, I was tempted, I surrendered—but ultimately I surrendered to the poems themselves. As she writes in "Adjacent Bits Used to Represent A Unit Of Data,"

My agapanthus is blue or is white
but is always clustered like
the violets in the lap of she who

            mostly goes astray.

The poems in It Might Turn Out We Are Real were my agapanthus, clustered like violets, and I what can I say? I went astray.