Review of Sabrina Orah Mark’s Tsim Tsum
Saturnalia Books: Ardmore, PA, 2009, 80 Pages, $11.25

By Claudia Lündahl

Sabrina Orah Mark’s Tsim Tsum is the follow up book to her 2004 collection The Babies, winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. In the same vein as The Babies, Tsim Tsum is a collection of haunting prose poems chronicling, in a series of anecdotal fables, the lives and interests of two characters: Beatrice and Walter B.
Through the eyes of Walter B. and Beatrice the world is transformed into an unsettling place marked by its coldness and obscurity. Mark writes as if stationed at the bottom of Alice’s rabbit hole, we the readers voyeuristically peering in trying to make sense of the bizarre exchanges taking place between a host of recurring characters in places ranging from the very real i.e. Poland to the exceedingly abstract i.e. The debacle. Discursively the poems in Tsim Tsum are comprehensive, reading almost like children’s fables or nursery rhymes; however, a subversive aspect pervades each scenario lending to the poetry a cloudy, disorienting quality. Adding to this mystique, parts of the book read like riddles:

“What is ‘giving up your hope’?” asked Beatrice. “It is when,” explained Walter B., “you have to ask.”

From the dark spaces between Beatrice and Walter B. the reader bears witness to all of the cruel intensity hovering between the two characters. It is hard, from this perspective, to classify the relationship between Beatrice and Walter B. We stumble upon them at first in the midst of a dialogue as though we were dropped onto the scene.

“Weren’t we once,” asked Beatrice softly, “a little like a banquet?” “You do not know anymore,” sighed Walter B., “what is real.”

It’s as if we come upon Beatrice and Walter B. in the wake of an event that has drastically altered them from their past selves. They speak to each other as if they, too, do not understand the change that has taken place and grasp for strands of their past lives to tie them to the world they must now occupy. Were they lovers? Are they now struggling to regain love in the aftermath of a disaster? Has their estrangement from the world brought them closer together? Mark’s elusive lines laden with symbolic gestures evoke a feverish desire to comprehend the nature of this seemingly irrational relationship. Beatrice and Walter B. speak to each other as though their isolation provides them with a discourse only they can understand:

Beatrice’s imagination zoomed past them in a white fur coat. “There it goes again,” sighed Beatrice, “running wild.” It somersaulted twice, and then charged into the distance.

In such a world, what else is there to do but to redefine the order of the universe so that it accepts abstractions as truths? Indeed, the characters are more than just confused; they are completely stripped of their understanding of the real world. In “The Definition of a Thief,” Beatrice tries to explain the term “thief” to Walter B. Her explanation naturally falls back into the abstract:

“It is an instance, Walter B., of carrying away something that is not yours to carry away.” “For example,” she continued, “if I am carried away by an idea, this idea becomes for me a thief.”

The trademark of Mark’s talent lies in the way she works with syntax throughout the book. By experimenting with sentence structure Marks disorients the reader, causes the reader to consider how a reexamination of language can open doors to new ways of looking at the world that may be necessary in to recover a sense of oneself in the aftermath of a tragic experience. However, the book’s language is haunting and spectral. It hints at a certain inherent level of isolation between language and the abstractions words represent. Her own poetry is in essence toying with the idea of the malleability of perception as it is dependent upon language to give the world meaning.

Mark is a a weaver of tales which will undoubtedly appeal to readers of both fiction and poetry. Her ability to make the reader question certain perceived truths is what places her, in my opinion, in that category of authors who write the works, as Kafka would say, “that act as an axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Claudia Lündahl studied English Literature and Criticism at Hunter College. Hailing from New York, she has worked in publishing in Brooklyn and now lives in France teaching English and, of course, writing.

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