by SaraEve Fermin
A Review by Kevin Barger
The first time I remember seeing the words that make up the title of SaraEve Fermin’s book, You Must be This Tall to Ride, I was probably around eight years old. My parents had taken me and a couple of my friends to the state fair and I stood in a line with tickets in my hand for what felt like hours to be able to ride this massive pirate ship that rocked back and forth like it was being tossed around by waves at sea. It was basically just a giant boat shaped swing, but it would speed up and go higher and higher until it eventually would flip upside down and go around in a circle a couple of times before slowing back down and stopping. I remember pretending to be a pirate and saying “Arr!” a bunch of times while standing next to my slightly older and slightly taller friend. I remember getting up to the gate, standing beneath an outstretched wooden hooked pirate hand, and being an inch or two too short to ride. I remember my friend barely reaching it and the excitement in his eyes as he was let in the gate–and I remember the crushing disappointment I felt as I stood outside the fence watching him rock back and forth scared and laughing and turning slightly green.
You Must be This Tall to Ride reflects that sort of crushing disappointment of having to stand outside while watching the world go on around you. Here, though, having to stand apart is due to physical and mental illnesses requiring medications and surgeries. Split into two parts, it’s the poetry of the caged–the shaking of the bars. If you are not prepared it will wound you in the most beautiful of ways. Fermin does her due diligence, though, and prepares us for the journey ahead with the first several poems. She lets us know that, no matter how bad things seem, light can be found in the darkest of places. She lets us know that, even though we will be caged with her, there is beauty and love and laughter here. In the first poem, “After you think you are going to die and instead live…” she paints a picture of her lover who
…will preempt your every stubborn refusal
with a reason to live.
He will hang your wind chimes,
install a new showerhead so you are safe after surgery,
pay the stylist to fix your hair after you’ve cut it off to spite your face.
In the second poem “This is How I Own You” Fermin seems to define what the rest of the book is about stating:
Call this coming clean. Call it my start over,
my claiming. These scars. This drawer of
medication bottles, watch me fantasy them
into hope. Into holding on.
This is a fight song, and one of my personal favorite poems throughout the collection. Fermin reminds us to embrace what wounds us and celebrate our own survival. It’s a call to heal through bleeding. It’s a reminder that no matter what we have our breath. That we are all a “maker of star magic.”
The first half of the book also deals a lot with family. These are some of the darkest poems in the book, highlighting highly complex strained relationships between a mother and daughter and siblings. These are the poems that will wound you if you are not prepared. Here we see glimpses of the interplay of addiction and abuse and illness. We are told of the pain of having an absent father. We are told of the guilt felt for not being able to cure an addicted mother. In “For My Sister, The Youngest, Earnest Apologies” Fermin apologizes for these interplays even though she is just as much a victim of circumstance as her sister:
Sorry about the cops and EMTs that huffed and puffed outside the door like a bad fairy tale, sorry you knew the smell of hospitals well before you knew the smell of a classroom.
But, again, through these dark poems are moments of love and laughter. In “We Get Ice Cream, 2013” we see a family that, if only for 30 minutes, can ignore their demons just long enough to laugh. In “Sia Explains How My Mother Loved Me Like Singing” we see what motherhood should be with lines like:
Tough girl, pulled the thorn from
all your bad days, uncovered a better
version and a waterfall hook.
If the first half of the book deals with the external, of being caged and examining the people outside and the effect they have, the second half deals with the internal. These are more cerebral, focusing on the “I” instead of the “you.” In “But What You Could Be” the speaker asks what would happen if she got rid of everything she sees as a flaw. In “When I Tell Him ‘I Think of Dying Every Day’” we’re faced with the reality of fighting depression:
What I mean is,
I swallow these pills because
I love myself too much to let go,
I love the dark and sharp and red
because I enrage myself enough but
don’t know how to let go.
Music plays a big part in this collection with song lyrics peppered throughout along with quotes from tv shows like [H]ouse, m.d. and Doctor Who and authors like Stephen King. No one plays more of a role than enigmatic singer Sia, though, whose music is the subject of three poems. “Sia Teaches Me How to Fight My Way Through a Panic Attack and Get to the Bus on Time” is a semi-found poem brilliant in how it perfectly mimics the stuttering kind of speech one might experience during a panic attack:
quick step/ stop paying attention to everyone else/ I don’t care if you don’t look pretty/ us what you got left/ teeth/ giggling eyes/ a wig/ your entire range
The second half, while dealing a lot with mental illness, are also where poems of healing are found. Fermin showcases the moments when we have realized that life is never going to be perfect, but we strive to make it as good as it can be anyway. “How To Be Something Other Than” highlights this process by focusing on the little things only to learn to surrender:
…To cry with the door
open, to cry with abandon. How to learn
to love a plum again, to taste it sweet
and still warm from the tree. To surround
yourself in something other than damage
This is the message of You Must Be This Tall To Ride. That we will all continue to grow. That eventually we will be tall enough. That even if we don’t conquer our pasts or various demons completely, we have the capacity to live with them in ways where we can at least contain the daily damage they do by turning to face them–by surrendering to the fact that they are there.