A woman haunted by a dirty house, a seventh wife’s inferiority complex, an adjunct professor hoping her student Emily Dickinson will speak up in class. Each of the 24 svelte fairytale-esque stories in Sabrina Orah Mark’s sublime debut collection Wild Milk pulls at the thread of some incessant nagging. “Often the story comes out of something that's bothering me,” says Mark, and a good number of these stories reckon with the domestic grind of motherhood.
In the title story Wild Milk, Mark writes: “The strange thing about being a mother is how often I’m interrupted. Like something is happening and then something else is happening. It is difficult to get a good grasp on things.” Granted, this mother is interrupted by her child’s teacher combusting into snow, but Mark says that she too struggled to enter a new relationship with the world when she became a mother. “I was always able to hibernate and keep the world at bay and with kids you can't really do that…you're in the supermarket and your kid is crying and people are looking at you and suddenly there's all this exposure,” she explains. “I had to gather those pieces of the world that were exposing me and that were being exposed to me, and I had to bring it into my stories to make sense of what was going on.”
Through this subverted reality of supermarkets—or rather dentist offices and daycares—Mark hints at some greater mysticism in the mundane. The author of two previous books of poetry, Mark’s inclination for connecting language with a spirituality was ingrained early, starting in first grade when she began attending Jewish school and spent half her days immersed in the Old Testament. “All those stories were spoken out of a higher being and seemed very magical to me,” she says. Not only was Mark enraptured by the possibility of miracles, but she also learned to regard writing as a spiritual act. “As a kid we wrote the name of God on top of everything we wrote.…Books were like bodies—if a book was ruined you had to bury it, or when you closed a book you kissed its spine,” she explains. “When I'm working with language I feel like I'm working with a holy material.”
Like many Bible stories, Mark’s stories often turn to the trauma of survival: an orphan searching for a parent or a bully on a playground. Yet shining beneath all the human misery is the acute awareness of the absurdity of it all. “Cycles are essential to life. Without patterns our bodies would wander off into the middle of a parched field and just stand there staring up at the sky. And so everyday at five on the dot I wash my sons’ feet,” Mark writes of a mother whose beloved sons transform into daughters infested with lice.
On dreaming up these absurd and often hilarious scenarios, the writer credits not an active imagination, but real-life circumstances—Mark is a Jewish woman raising two black sons in the South. “Anything that I could dream up in terms of like an absurdist vignette, the world has already made something way crazier,” she says by phone from Athens, Georgia where the longtime New Yorker now lives. “Especially these days—like with babies in cages—that should be a surrealist image, but it’s not.”
In one of her most politically charged stories “For the Safety of Our Country,” an omniscient woman guides various presidents through the White House, one of whom is a president named “Huh,” who doesn’t know the name of the country. “Something about Huh makes me want to throw a stone into the sea, but there is no sea anymore,” Mark writes. She actually wrote this piece before the current administration when she thought the concept seemed more ludicrous. “Writers, artists, poets are needing to figure out what is the balance between the real and unreal,” she says of the current political climate.
Fortunately, in Wild Milk, which Kirkus calls “a necessary book for our perilous age," the stories often find respite from the present when the absurdities are blindsided by spectacular moments of pure revelation: “Soon the mountains will end. And the snow on the mountains will end. And the sunshine will end, and the moon will end. And soon the very, very last President will arrive and then Presidents will end too. And then it will be just me. The very last citizen. Standing quietly in the dark. Knowing I did everything I could to make this country a safer place.”
Bridgette Bates’ poetry collection What Is Not Missing Is Light is the recipient of the Black Box Poetry Prize.