Dara Yen Elerath
86 pages; Print, $14.95
Reviewed by Esteban Rodríguez
In some shape or form, we all grew up with folktales, myths, and stories unique to our family history and culture. While we no doubt shredded the comfort they may have provided when we were younger once we became adults, we also might not have ever paused to consider their backstories and meanings, questioning exactly why they were told in the manner they were. For Dara Yen Elerath’s debut collection Dark Braid, myths are constantly invented and interpreted, but the speaker throughout these poems doesn’t merely sit back and accept the realities they have been placed in; rather, they challenge them, and through clear language, lyrical concision, and images that are both humorous and haunting, Dark Braid explores how one can move beyond the status quo and create a reality that is fair, true, and liberating.
For Elerath’s speaker, there is always an attempt to navigate what is expected and what is given, to look at the history of things and wonder how they’ve forged a greater complacency. In “The Lyre,” for example, we find a wife taking a microscope to her relationship with her husband, and we see how one-sided things have become:
My husband asks forgiveness. I say yes, always yes. When he bends his head I think of unction, the act of announcing a man king with holy oil. Long ago I anointed him. I was his queen but time proved me less than vassal. I poured his ale into a wooden vessel as he pressed his lips against the next of another woman. I skimmed the thickening skin from his evening milk. I embraced him and he dragged my body across a grass-thick field. I began to believe I was an ox. I believed my only purpose was to haul water. I believed that if I faltered it was his right to flog me.
Characteristic of all the poems in the collection, there are fabulist elements that make the narrative timeless. But like all things that have no incentive to change, the dynamic between husband and wife remains uneven given that the husband, despite every nice and honest gesture toward him, seeks to impose greater authority and violence upon his wife. Ultimately, as the marriage progresses, the husband no longer has any need to ask for forgiveness since he knows he can easily impose his will on her. While there might not be any explicit resistance toward this by the wife, there is a recognition that the nature of their marriage has gone awry, and the speaker can now see that her “wedding ring is the head of a tuning peg,” one that causes her to “scream higher” the more that he tightens it. All fables are meant to bestow a lesson on their audience, and while one interpretation here might be to avoid marrying a person who doesn’t value their partner in a meaningful way, the larger and more pressing lesson is to be wary of how institutions, such as marriage, sanction one to demean and devalue another.
The recognition in “The Lyre” becomes action later on, and in a poem like “The History of My Body,” the speaker turns small acts into powerful statements:
I have given up the act
of kissing. It is a task
most taxing and involves
tongues and the passing
of saliva, which calls to mind
the motions of the sea—
motions too unseemly
to be described.
Look, here is a box
of lips I meant to use
before I learned the frisson
is a myth meant only
to sell lotion and perfume.
The act of kissing may seem rather mundane, but when it is withheld as a form of resistance, when one doesn’t participate in kissing another person because they understand the more sinister implications of what their gesture means, then we see how myths can be deconstructed, and we start to question even the simplest of acts. This is not to say that the speaker is condemning everything about kissing, or acts similar to it; instead, she is seeing the way it relates to her and how destructive it can potentially be, especially if it is used to advance another entity’s agenda and bottom line. None of this is reserved strictly in the private sphere. It extends into the public domain as well, and further on the speaker elaborates on her body in relation to society:
Here is the history of my body
in three parts: I was born;
I wore a red dress;
I was not caressed.
Moreover, there is a law that states
no body may touch another
without crushing to death
a handful of innocent cells,
and who can find this
The speaker followed the societal norms (wearing a red dress) expected of a woman, and she waited for love (being caressed), although it didn’t come, at least not in the way it was expected. But even if it did arrive, there was no guarantee that she wouldn’t get hurt, that her cells (physical body, emotional state) wouldn’t have suffered in order to be in line with a skewed version of desire. It is almost as if this suffering is codified in law, and if it feels that way in such a public manner, then why not resist it in order to protect one’s body and heart?
It would seem that the only way to protect oneself is by becoming something completely different, and nowhere is this idea more explicit than in “On the Transformation of a Woman into a Frog”:
If, one day, a woman’s limbs become frog’s limbs, she must find her proper place—underwater, in pond or river. Her lips will blow bubbles filled with pictures from a world she once knew. She will always look to them—glass bottles of amber perfume, a bathroom mirror smeared with soap, a dress of dark fabric, the soft stones of her lover’s palms. She will slip through her new habitat with ease, her head soon forgetting her body.
Such descriptions and instructions may seem comical, but they become less so when we realize how much a woman must lose herself to be seen, appreciated, and valued in society. There are constant forces working against women (limiting reproductive rights, the discrepancy in equal pay, etc.), and once a woman has slipped into a new skin, she must also think about the “new foods she must eat” (the new ways of interacting with a world that has already shunned her true self). Think about the history of the treatment of women. Some people may wear different hats at different times, but in the world of Dark Braid, a woman must always wear different hats all of the time, and if they do find themselves with a new set of limbs, then they must be prepared to embody them fully for survival.
Elsewhere, a pair of hands with restorative powers are found, a method for measuring pain is invented, the sweaty scent of a body is contemplated, and everyday objects like pencils and erasers are viewed with both caution and reverence. Dara Yen Elerath’s unforgettable collection examines the most pressing contemporary issues as well as the most seemingly innocuous, as all great books do and should. In style and thematic approach, the range in Dark Braid is expansive, and with the microscope on everything from wounds, potatoes, and dolls, readers will put down this book feeling nothing short of enchanted and enlightened.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Ordinary Bodies (word west press 2022), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press 2021). He is the interviews editor for the EcoTheo Review, senior book reviews editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and associate poetry editor for AGNI. He currently lives in south Texas.