Arielle Greenberg

Bandit Letters
By Sarah Messer
New Issues Poetry and Prose
October, 2001
ISBN 1-930974-08-6

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," and "corset."

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:"

             almost slept
     with the drawer to the register open
     under ghost Esso, flies licking
     lip-corners, a wide-wale
     corduroy skin

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

     of Panic.

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 piece—truly a "cycle" of poems—narrative 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 America—often shocking, always twisting, like in this move in the poem "With this change to indoor lighting:"

     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 own medicine.

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 a step.



© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review