What Can Make This Matter: Down by Sarah Dowling

This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.

DownSarah Dowling’s Down is a book that draws us in with the intentional failure of its imagined voice. Not the failure of the book, mind you, but the failure Dowling forces us to confront with her fractured verses.

Down is primarily comprised of pop song lyrics Dowling has broken and reassembled. Imagine a child clumsily dropping and shattering a plate and then trying to glue it back together in hopes the grown-ups won’t notice. The grown-ups notice. You can’t fake China repair, and the pieces aren’t in the rights places anyway.

Down functioned for me as an image of what it is to never quite be able to play ball socially with the ease with which others seem to. Pop songs are a form of cultural language, and when we hear or see fragments of songs almost everyone knows well – My Girl by The Temptations is one of Dowling’s…victims? patients? muses? – we want to sing along, which serves as a functional metaphor for the societal rhythms and melodies we are intended to pick up and sing along to in daily life.

But Dowling refuses us the pleasure of singing along to those lyrics or keeping those beats. She warps and chops these meters and lines we know so well so that we constantly trip over ourselves. The My Girl section, titled Sunshine Honey, is separated by paragraphs, each one beginning with an almost full line from the song, then devolving into a stream of internal discord and angst that nonetheless continues to weave in hints of the original material:

“I’ve got the month. I may by relentless excesses present the explicit. I’ve got their lives of us. The month of method and talking. The month of this it. Of course their energy would. The month it were day. I must refer. I’ve got disarray. My inherently. I’ve got the month to do a thing described.” – page 10

It is a myth held by normal people that abnormal people don’t realize they’re behaving abnormally. I know, I know – normal is itself a myth, a construction, and I’m using it as a vast oversimplification. What I mean is that those of us who deal with anxiety issues, or those who deal with depression or other mental illnesses, or those whose disorders prevent them from easily recognizing the unspoken emotional and social cues the rest of us navigate without thinking, or those of us who grew up home-schooled in a trailer park and found out upon attending a real school for the first time at a double-digit age that no one – no one – still called their parentsmama and papa or hit themselves rapidly in the head in public as a coping mechanism when overstimulated (just to pull a hypothetical example out of thin air, cough) – in short, those who do not form the center line of the pop songwriter’s target audience – we know when we’re being awkward, or anxious, or weird. We know when we’re not singing along to the right social melody or keeping the right rhythm. We know when we’re faking it well and when we’re not.

Dowling’s book resonates with this feeling for me. It is unrelenting in its failure to sing along, to keep the beat. We get the point pretty quickly, but the book has a lot of pages left. We keep getting the point. We get frustrated by the point, numb to the point, then frustrated by the point again. The persistence of alienation is unrelenting. Socially trying but tripping is not an affectation that can be surrendered at will. It carries with it an ongoing cycle of frustration, numbness, and acceptance.

This theme is certainly not the only thing Dowling is going for in Down. It’s a curious project, to dismantle and rearrange and augment such commonplace and often banal words as pop lyrics, and the result allows for numerous interpretations and reflections. One such angle might be the deceptively thin line between profound and trivial when it comes to creative expression, and the role perspective plays in parsing that line. I’ll leave that to another reader.

Down is not an easy book, and often not a downright enjoyable one. This isn’t a poetry of stunning lines. It’s a poetry that stuns the lines themselves and drags them into the light, propping them against the microphone stand to see if they can still sing along. Not everyone can, and Dowling knows it.

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