In her debut collection, Sarah Ens pulls the reader into a very contemporary world grounded in the natural but wonderfully tuned to the metaphysical. The book’s first section evokes a prairie girlhood of fields and silos, and games that signal dawning awareness of both intimacy and mortality: “we tore mittens thundering / up icy bark” (“Always Trees with the Almighty”). Through the eyes of Ens’ speaker, abuses come to light, and we begin to feel the pressures young women face: “desperately wanting to dig it even deeper” (“Straddled”).
From there, the poems open into a wider world, still “mostly sky” but also diving deep into the ocean or ranging to an island off New Zealand where a gannet falls in love with an artificial bird and, despite the speaker being “warned against / anthropomorphizing,” she wants the reader to “see it too” (“Early February & He Built Her a Nest”). Ens evokes the highs and lows of relationships such as an ex’s remembered tenderness: “the roof of his arms / leaning me through / those carpeted rooms” (“When Cohen Dies”). Interwoven with embodied images are riffs on films of Alfred Hitchcock and Marilyn Monroe, on Leonard Cohen, Gregorian chants and Greek myths. Emily Bronte (and possibly Kate Bush) are echoed in “Wuthering Heights: A Comprehensive Guide,” one of several multi-part poems in the collection, and for me among the most lyrically and sonically memorable. In it, “the body” interacts with a “you” in nature and in domestic and city settings: “At a bar, a band / plays so the body / leans into you & likes the feeling, / flannel at its neck.”
Friendships, particularly women’s friendships with elements of ritual, feature throughout, especially in the third section. For sympathy and support “I put a wet washcloth on her forehead, / fed her milk chocolate from a china plate” (“A Boat Is Not the Whole World”). Exuberantly adventuring in “Powerful Millennials on the California Freeway,” the speaker and her friend are “waving iced coffees / to the sun” in invocation. There are girlhood rituals in the poem “The Sacredness of Sleepovers” where “we filled / our mouths with ancient magics, spoke / our scriptures in candy-fuzz tongues.” Later in life, the augury might involve astrology, crystals or the ashes of a friend’s hair “caught // on fire at a Gastown bar” that permit the speaker “to blow her DNA out around us like snow, like / we were always meant to lose these small parts” (“This Bridge Symbolizes Hope”). In “Something Good,” originally published in Arc’s 2016 “Art in the End Times” issue, existential questions pass in a phone call as the speaker does yoga “phone screen-down and pulsing” while “snow cracks white against the window’s dark mouth” and the world ends amid artifacts of the everyday.
A large cast of women—sister, cousin, sister-in-law and many identified by name—coalesces to a “we” in “Communion.” In this poem, rituals with cats’ claws and dead birds, hair-dying and kombucha making, are talismans against “crouched & confessing” figures who haunt sleep. Sitting on the floor, drinking red wine out of mother-crafted mugs, “We tell each other some of what has happened to us. Something has happened to all of us, our telling teaching us this. It helps to say it happened, to do this in remembrance. It helps to say: this body, this blood. To say: me too, me too.”
In The World is Mostly Sky, Ens gives us rite and sacrament, space to spread wings, expanses to “measure us / immense” (“Astronomical”). The world of sky is one that is breathtaking, and heartrending.