NOTHING YOU BUILD HERE, BELONGS HERE by Sara Cahill Marron | Review by Jonathan Harrington

Nothing You Build Here, Belongs Here
Sara Cahill Marron
Kelsay Books, 2021

The title of this book of poetry by Sara Cahill Marron suggests not just the provisional nature of our gig-economy servitude and the impermanence of late-stage capitalism where everything can be swept away in a moment, but also the alienation of contemporary urban life and the impotence of those not connected in some way to the system. Not only can workers find themselves homeless overnight but even the employed might look up to see their lives flash before them as some guy with an unfathomable grievance starring as hero in his own private conspiracy theory bursts into Burger King and starts blasting away with an AR-15.

This is not a stable world we’re living in, folks. And Marron makes that abundantly clear in her Beat-generation-like, jazzy volume of largely unpunctuated verse.

Despite the humour of “Dear Hiring Manager” the poem underscores the desperation of those struggling to survive in our unhinged world.  The speaker of the poem frantically pleads for a job at Denny’s adding that she would:

love to bring pancakes to your customers and to refill the syrup bottles and I would especially like to note that I would not mind cleaning them and in fact I noticed they are very dirty and I would make that my first task—to clean the syrup from the outside of their bottles, if I should be selected for the open position.

Although the speaker regretfully admits that they cannot provide a resume or references (other than “Sandy” whose phone number is included) nevertheless adds: “…my case manager…says I am doing real good.” I confess I found the poem funny but this is humour at its most corrosive and speaks volumes about the state of our dysfunctional world where “Computers code our love…”

With frequent references to the pandemic, her most poignant line regarding the life-changing nature of COVID-19 comes from “Kissing Now” when her children, giggling behind masks, “…say I must have lied / when I tell them we used to touch mouths to show we are happy.”

Much of this slim volume articulates the alienation and the intransigence of our postmodern world. But Marron does this not with nihilism but tenderness as in “Slovak Smelling Salts”: “…Felipe disappeared because I’ll never be able to describe what he smelled like.”

As casually spontaneous as these poems appear to be, Marron also provides helpful footnotes in some poems such as “Applying For EBT3 in California” where she clarifies for clueless readers like myself: “Electronic Benefits Transfer; sometimes still called food stamps, no longer distributed as coupons, EBT is used like a debit card.” This minor detail in the poem (literally a footnote) provides a certain irony and underscores the estrangement different sectors of society have from one another. If (like me) you didn’t know what an EBT is, then there is probably a lot more that we don’t know about the lives of the most marginalized of our fellow citizens.

If this makes it sound like Nothing You Build Here, Belongs Here is a depressing rehash of all the illnesses of our world (from racism, war, alienation, crime, hunger, poverty, pollution, global warming and the actual infection of COVID-19) that “…no amount of Clorox, hand / washing social distancing can sanitize,” then I have misled you. There is actually something uplifting about the way she presents our contemporary dilemma. The book is leavened with humour and a sense of deeply felt empathy for her fellow human beings.  I would rather get my news from this jazzy volume of verse than from the nihilistic doom and gloom mongers who seem to be saying that as long as everything is so utterly broken we might as well just throw in the towel and party ’til the apocalypse.

In these idiosyncratic poems, Marron, through her empathy and compassion provides a flicker of hope.  If even one poet can hold up a mirror to our tortured world and suggest through her tone alone that we might still have the capacity to make things better, then maybe all is not completely lost…yet.

Reviewer’s Bio

Jonathan Harrington lives in Yucatán, México.  His latest full-length book of poems is Lift Up the Stone: The Gospel According to Jonathan. In addition to fifteen books (novels, essays, short stories and poetry), Jonathan has published non-fiction in everything from The New York Times to Metro Magazine. He received a M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1983. His translations of contemporary poets writing in the Maya language have been published by New Native Press and Ofi Press.