‘Dress Made of Mice’ by Sarah Messer
“each movement stacked with meaning”
Epigraphs often seem ornamental, but the two in Sarah Messer’s Dress Made of Mice make fine entry points into this elusive book. The first, and most salient, comes from a Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue entitled Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination: “…in the distant past mice could speak. Their natural proximity to the earth’s surface and their ability to burrow beneath it permitted mice to gain access to the ancestors, thus enabling them to foretell events.” The quotation is part of a commentary on a gbekre, a Baule vessel containing sticks in which mice were placed; their movements disordered the sticks, whose new arrangements were interpreted by diviners.
These are the voices resounding through Messer’s second collection: mice and mediums, the haunted and the haunting. She relocates the mice from early 20th-century Africa to the United States at various points throughout its history. Many of the poems function like the gbekre, summoning emotionally urgent prophecies from unlikely mediums. What drives people to seek impossible answers? Dress Made of Mice argues the reasons are obvious but devastating: love and death. The book begins its sustained examination of these motivations in the second poem, “Mouse Oracle:”
So afraid of death, you’d trust the mouse
with your future, marking which way
she weaves her nest, shucks seeds, arranges
plucked belly hair into a cushion for bright pink.
Each movement stacked with meaning, and you
are looking for signs.
This reveals a desperate side of things:
your roof is fixed yet rain comes in sideways
through windows in a room where someone
you love lies dying. You are afraid that you too
carry that sickness[.]
This burden of witness, this specter of mourning, shrouds the collection: “For eventually all of us will watch someone we love die” (“Resuscitation of the Apparently Drowned”). These are elegiac love poems, even when chronicling the beginning of a relationship, as in “Marriage Proposal:” “Did I say forever? Yes, you’d better bury me beneath you, our hands / and feet tied. I want to be trapped by the cage of your ribs / as it slowly sinks into mine.” Tellingly, the poems never feature the beloved’s voice; contrast Messer’s first collection, Bandit Letters, wherein poems trade perspectives between a Wild West outlaw and his former girlfriend, each chronicling their violent, erotic relationship. Here, silence emphasizes the permanence of loss.
Dress Made of Mice is divided into three sections, each notable for its density: sprawling lines reaching for the right margin, thick prose poems, and a poem spanning 12 pages. These stylistic decisions reify the poems as testimonies, rich with recollections of lost relationships and personal failings. Read together, they evolve into a private mythology drawing inspiration (and borrowing language) from a variety of sources: early American educational and religious texts, Wampanoag legends, Tibetan folklore, dime novels. The poems also allude to fairy tales via dark surrealism, domestic settings, and the occasional witch or anthropomorphized dog.
The book’s visual language comes from the natural world. Moons, birds, and rivers abound. The images could not be more familiar, yet Messer continually renders them anew, especially in comparison with the human body: a tree’s silhouette is “a dress burnt into skin” (“The Spirit Medium Recounts Her Experience”); teeth marks on a thigh are “a forest clearing / where deer crushed ferns” (“The Right Manner of Speaking”). These metaphors are the result of long, meditative looking. They feel earned.
If, like a painting, a poetry collection can be said to have an underdrawing, then lingering beneath the love poems in Dress Made of Mice are sketches of another kind of power dynamic — political life in America, past and present. The first poem in the book, “Stump Speech,” begins by issuing commands (“Never wear mouse skin”), transitions to a startling confession (“It’s true I slept with Abe Lincoln”), and concludes with a pitch (“I promise to give up this gigantic barge of sadness. / I will keep your secret my entire life”). It is as if the speaker is campaigning against his/her/its own trustworthiness, and in a way, the book does the same. Doubt undercuts many of the poems. Witness “Poisoned Mouse,” where Messer juxtaposes the United States with a dead field mouse that found its way into the speaker’s house:
Outside, America tries to climb out of its hole and most
believe in a God who created everything
only ten thousand years ago.
[…] How I long to leave this country.
I look down and the mouse hasn’t moved. I could never
leave this country.
Grief is a type of bewilderment, a disbelief both in finality of death and the prospect of moving beyond it.
What Messer pulls off in Dress Made of Mice is gutsy: she invents a believable world from an implausible premise; she creates a visceral sense of personal loss and extends it to the country itself as a form of critique. The question of what will become of us, this collection argues, can only be answered by looking back at who we were with an unflinching gaze. From the title poem: “There is no harm in love, we said lying in each other’s arms — / There is no harm in love. There is no harm, we said.”