By Sarah Messer
New Issues Poetry and Prose
Sarah Messer's Bandit Letters is a wild ride, a compilation
of poems that deftly and energetically mine American history for its
gems. Although much of her source material is tragic-witch trial transcripts,
suicide notes, newspaper headlines-Messer's forceful imagination gives
voice to the forgotten or sensationalized rebel, whether it be a mutineer,
a cross-dressing outlaw, or a suburban teenage girl. In this book,
love is violent, death is beautiful, and betrayal somewhere in between.
The poems are full of charms, cocked and loaded with vivid imagery
and exciting language. Especially in the first section, much of the
diction is archaic, borrowed from the lives of her period characters,
but Messer gives them a strange urgency, describing "that three-legged
dog in the road" in the poem "What it is like to be an outlaw"
as "teetering like a birthing chair," and reveling in the
possibilities of words like "holsters," "hay lofts,"
The poems are all narrative, but so graphically charged and sonically
interesting that they skitter delightfully away from their story before
turning tightly back. In a poem that borrows its title from Anne Sexton,
"Some women marry houses," Messer describes what would have
happened had the speaker's mother "married / a gas-station:"
with the drawer to the register open
under ghost Esso, flies licking
lip-corners, a wide-wale
only to then note that "this / did not happen. She married /
a meat-shop owned by a prominent / butcher. He puts a neat bullet/in
the temple of every yearling." These lines, besides illustrating
the power and vivid imaginings of Bandit Letters, also demonstrate
Messer's agile ear for assonance, as in this opening stanza to the
poem "After wildfire,"
after the firestorm, some prairie
spared the flame
still grows north of the split-rail
fence: Fowl Mama,
Big Blue, Little Blue, the long bone-fingers
Although these poems are all over the temporal and geographical maps,
the voice is entirely consistent, and if this book has any flaw, it
might be that Messer's style is so taut and sure that the work occasionally
feels repetitious: many poems take place in flammable interior spaces,
the words "dark" and "coiled" appear frequently,
and the images of mouths and disembodied dresses abound.
But one could also choose to see this as a sign of focused attention,
with the longer poem in the second section of the book, "I am
the real Jesse James," as proof. In this prose piecetruly
a "cycle" of poemsnarrative elements (a doctor, an
arson, a horse "pinned down") occur and recur, building
up and striking down their own legends.
The final section of the book both begins and ends with a bullet.
The first poem, "Look," is a moving account of a woman,
"a young Cherokee guide" named Look, gazing at the decimation
of her country, and in the last, "Song," every line is a
sharp shooter, starting with "This house is a cyclone, / but
I have a trap door / inside my throat." In between, there are
great poems about contemporary Americaoften shocking, always
twisting, like in this move in the poem "With this change to
When I was sixteen, my father built
a disco in the basement
with speakers that flashed lights
the color of grenadine, maraschino
cherries, while in my mother's kitchen,
a bowl of oranges
covered itself with a green shawl.
It isn't so difficult to understand
why women over the centuries mixed their
Colorful, aggressive and potent, Bandit Letters is remarkably
gripping, another in a windfall of first books by women that bravely
walks the tightrope between accessibility and danger without missing