Book Review: Borderlifer (Sara Elizabeth)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
For disabled writers, getting a book published is a challenge. There are a few lucky authors who have their work accepted by major presses to immediate success but for most the path is not so easy. Some are picked up by independent presses like Handtype Press that are dedicated to publishing writers with disabilities or like Finishing Line that have proven receptive to the work of disabled poets, even though that is not their primary mission. For others, though, the best way of getting out that initial book is self-publishing. That is the certainly the case for the author diagnosed with borderline personality disorder who writes under the pseudonym Sara Elizabeth in Borderlifer.
In her "Preface" to Borderlifer, Sara says, "This was not ever intended to be a book, until the writing kept coming and coming. Over time, I just amassed a huge collection of writings." She made the decision to publish what she produced both because she felt that the general public needed to know more about what it is like to live with borderline personality disorder and of Borderline Personality Disorder and because "maybe what I was going through could help someone else know they weren't alone in the darkness."
In keeping with this purpose, Sara retained the original dates and sequence of her poems so that readers would have some sense of what the roller coaster ride of borderline personality is like.
Two poems near the beginning of the book give the flavor of Sara's work at its best.
SHE DIDN'T MIND
Both combine a directness of language and sense of lyricism that draw the reader in. In the first poem – the more intimate and personal of the two despite the third person pronouns – the poet is able to capture a sense of peace and respite from the world that at the same time is palpable enough that it is shared with the reader. In the contrasting second poem, she is able to offer an attempt at solidarity with the reader through the use of the pronoun "you" which in English is able to function at once as a singular and plural, in effect saying, "your struggle is my struggle." In both poems, she positions herself as the outsider. In "She Didn't Mind" she embraces her difference. In "Maybe," she challenges the ableist perspective. What makes both poems work is that they eschew metaphor and sophisticated poetic wordplay to speak unadorned to the reader while at the same time rescuing themselves from being prosaic – a liability for many "plainspeaking" poets – by a rhythmic use of the sounds of language. It's a balance that is more difficult that it seems and, in fact, is not always achieved in Borderlifer.
At almost three hundred pages, Borderlifer is enormous for a first book of poetry. The author herself warns us that "It may seem all jumbled and disorganized to anyone who doesn't understand what it is like living with Borderline Personality Disorder," yet this is necessary to her project of trying to giving the reader some sense of what her life is like and that cannot be accomplished through simply offering a few carefully wrought poems. In his book, The Crafty Reader, literary critic Robert Scholes attempts to define a literary genre that emerged during the 1920 by christening it "the monstrous personal chronicle." It was a form that took a kitchen sink approach to personal writing that was necessary as an expression of the times. Without drawing too fine a parallel, one could look at Sara's book as the poetic counterpoint of those prose chronicles.
On the level of narrative, the reader learns that the poet was adopted, that she has a volatile relationship with her adoptive mother, that from early on she was a cutter who used self-abuse as an antidote to mental pain, that she has difficulty in personal relationships, and that she sees things in black and white terms:
I'm a weird sort of cookie shape
On the level of poetry, the book's structure means that the reader is in for a lot of redundancy. Many poems are essentially a repetition of previous poems. Language that had the virtue of being fresh and straight forward the first time is undercut by successive uses. Moreover, as the poems reflect Sara's fluctuating mental state their length and relative control of language follow suit. If poems like "She Didn't Mind" seem to play a small cluster of consonant keys, there are also places in which poems unwind like a long stretch hallway carpet as "These Walls" does or simply spill out as in "Silver Hills." All of this, however, is necessary to her project of trying to recreate her own experience for the reader. As she says in "Contradicting Rational":
Being like me
Among the varied reactions that Sara's poetry might elicit from a reader, ennui is unlikely to be one.
The likelihood of a manuscript like Borderlifer getting accepted at an independent press, even one sympathetic to disabled writers, is minimal. Self-publication has its critics, yet books such as Sara's need to be made accessible to the public. Even if does not sway every reader to a new perspective, there are those for whom individual poems, and even the book as a whole, will resonate strongly. Sara has taken upon herself the task of publishing her story and, in this light, the ability to self-publish serves her well. Now comes the harder task of being able to get it out to readers. A Wordgathering review is one step. We hope readers will take the next one.