High Visibility in the Queer Polar Vortex: A Review of Sara Goodman’s Starfish

Sara Goodman’s Starfish begins in a polar vortex. The speaker lives in Chicago where, “The Northern Lights cast orange on a/network of lakes in Northern Finland.//Dip the entire thing/into an ice cold lake.//That new new.” I am reading the book on a park bench in Miami. It’s late July, humid. Green parakeets squawk above. Here in South Florida, many of my friends have never even seen snow, but I grew up in the Midwest, so I can feel the heft of Goodman’s chilly scenes in my bones.

“The shape of my life has changed again./The arctic caps have melted, only a matter/of time  now.//All things move/but this is a lot,/considering the span.” A major theme of Starfish is loneliness, apartness. The polar vortex itself is a metaphor for isolation, contemplation. A polar vortex: so cold that work is cancelled, so cold that you shouldn’t even step outside.

The poems in Starfish spill into one another fluidly. There are no individual titles, perhaps because the book is a single, extended poem. Sometimes it seems a scene is a memory or flashback. Goodman cues at least a few dream sequences. Some poems seem to take place in the present. 

A polar vortex is often preceded by a blizzard, but ironically, a polar vortex can render an atmosphere of full visibility. A vortex isn’t necessarily an active storm the whole time it’s around. A vortex can be, simply, terribly cold and terribly clear. “Visibility” is a meteorological term—the heavier the precipitation, the lower the visibility. I wonder what visibility could mean as a metaphor for Goodman’s poems.

“Queer visibility” and “lesbian visibility” are other relevant terms, but ones we use when we talk about gay people moving through a straight world. Using the term “queer visibility” is an acknowledgement of the straight gaze. I don’t need to think about “queer visibility” when I read books like Starfish, because gayness is like a polar vortex—all-encompassing with crystalline clarity, not an active storm, but very present. Queerness is right at home.

The main narrative is about loving and losing someone named Beatrice. The speaker is finally coming to terms with what started, it seems, as a teenage love. After a decade or more, she realizes will never be completely fulfilling. The speaker is losing something of herself. In the realization is the losing, and this is one way in which losing can be healing. Goodman writes, “I always thought I would grow back like a starfish/but the starfish are dying, you know.//The sky is still blanket white in Chicago. Heavy.” Starfish typically have five arms. These arms compose most of their bodies. Some species of starfish can regenerate limbs after they lose them. “I am nothing if not chasing you./…I am nothing if not here,” Goodman writes.

There is a lesbian subjectivity here that is refreshing. The male gaze is absent. As in Eileen Myles’s work, the poems exist in fragmented hybridity, queerly centered. “All the women I have known/and none of them stay too long.” The speaker is searching for with-ness. Of a person named Lee, she says, “Sometimes we spend all afternoon in silence. At night, words gush out, a tsunami of memory and color, all thick texture-like and thrown around my skull like a finely crafted net. I float there, sifting through chunks.”

I have seen a starfish in the wild once, here in Florida. I was walking with three other gay women on a beach very early in the morning. You are not supposed to take the starfish out of water for very long or it will drown, of course. When you put the starfish back into the water, it sinks into the sand. 

“I tell her, ‘I miss you.’//She says, ‘I live in your belly.’” I finish Goodman’s book in one sitting. I put the book down, let it sink back into its sand. Wind ripples the arms of my t-shirt and I forget I ever was cold. 



Freesia McKee is author of the chapbook How Distant the City (Headmistress Press, 2018). Her words have appeared in cream city review, The Feminist Wire, Painted Bride Quarterly, CALYX, Gertrude, Tinderbox, So to Speak, Nimrod International Journal, Bone Bouquet, Flyway, and the Ms. Magazine Blog. Freesia’s poetry is forthcoming in The Hollins Critic, The Antigonish Review, Virga, and The Grabbed Anthology. Her book reviews have appeared in South Florida Poetry Journal, Gulf Stream, and The Drunken Odyssey. Freesia was the winner of CutBank Literary Journal’s 2018 Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry, chosen by Sarah Vap.