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Sleeping in the Dead Girl’s Room by Cynthia Bargar

Sleeping in the Dead Girl’s Room

Cynthia Bargar
Lily Poetry Review Books
2022, 76 pages,

“You know we are miracles, don’t you? Don’t you?/Are we? Are we?” questions the speaker in the poem “After Infinitely Polar Bear at the Coolidge Corner Cinema.” Are we worthy? Are we capable? What is the meaning of our existence and what does our existence mean when we are born into a family following a terrible loss? Especially when we are named for that loved one lost. Not just the first initial as this author’s Jewish culture would allow, but the full first, middle, and last name: Cynthia May Bargar. In the best of circumstances, it would be an honor, but if that namesake died tragically, how does one carry what is unspoken? Cynthia Bargar’s poems poignantly, painfully, and with great honesty, navigate this journey with probing direct lines throughout her intense and familial debut book Sleeping in the Dead Girl’s Room.

Bargar wastes no time letting the reader know this story is not an easy one with the opening poem, “Creative Nonfiction.” Divided into eight sections, she gives us a spectral reflection of what it feels like to be an “other,” to feel entwined, yet abandoned:

The She who is not the I         haunts & blesses.

The use of these pronouns is deliberate, but also not. It feels intuitively inherent within the speaker to decipher who is who. If this confuses the reader, it can be utilized as another way to enter her sphere. Quickly, we learn that the truth about her namesake was kept secret. In an interview with Doug Holder for the Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene, Bargar recollects this may have had something to do with her Jewish heritage. The embarrassment added onto the already societal shame living in a predominantly Christian country.

Bargar chooses visceral language to connect the reader early on to this closeted humiliation, repeating “—shh—  —shh—” throughout the collection. This reader can see the finger upon the lips hushing, denying, mourning. The voice presented in the opening poem and in all the poems to follow, sets a humble yet unapologetic tone, allowing us to enter her world, to feel her torment, confusion, and loneliness. We see ourselves in the child eating cookies all day long, and the mother berating that child. More shame. What further entangles the verse is mental illness.

The poems within this book explore the speaker’s mental illness along with a close-up look at the horror of institutional treatment. She references two orderlies in “Locked Ward,” Winston and Sterling, who sound as if they could be named for (pick your substance). Are they friend or foe? Bargar reports she considered them her kindly guides, showing her the ropes during that most difficult time, which she admits she thought of as an “adventure.” A few poems later, “Water Cure” reveals, despite their guidance, she was raped by another orderly when moved to a private room. The use of parentheticals, slashes, and greater or less than equal signs, in addition to white space, italics, and single word lines all evoke the discordance and disturbance experienced. Bargar uses the slash in other poems as well to this similar effect, as in “Breakfast at Glenside”:

soggy toast/weak
yelling/time for tv
/time for tv/devours…

Also found in “Cynthia”, the slashes function to disjoint while also blend:

When they call/my name they are calling/hers/calling her/

Beyond the hard facts, Bargar lyrically employs the natural world to balance the bitterness. The flow of water imagery, with multiple references to the beach, clams, and tides, speaks to the shifting of the speaker between the She and the I, between lucidity and mania, between acceptance and self-doubt. “Tidal” names it as such: “the end/piling at the end//what is tidal.”

We are with the speaker at the beach, the carousel, the cinema, the hospital, but one of the most acutely sad places we go to is the cellar of 245 Main Street.  The finely-tuned details of laundry “flung,” “draped,” “sprinkled,” and “pooled” in the poem “Cellar” make palpable the family’s locked-away grief, and the irony isn’t lost in the descriptive of the “dirty tea towels decorated with smiling housewives & strawberries.”

KPrevallet, author of I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time, remarks “Bargar shows us how healing happens at the soul level of language.”  Poetically, Bargar is grounded, even when some of the poems (purposely so) are not. It feels deliberate, the choices she makes, in choosing what parts of her story to share. Her memory of being taunted as a young girl by her cousins with a story of serpents, hints at her lifelong fear of snakes. In doing so, she permits the reader to identify with fears and secrets that run deeply. Bargar recounts how writing these poems shifted her fears and hauntings. We see this most clearly in her poem “To Cindy, Is This How I Will Resurrect You?” Where once the author, too, wished to escape, healing has occurred through language, and she can imagine her ghost as “a lily in my garden.”

At first glance, the addition of the two visual poems, which include an erasure of the news article announcing the aunt’s death (apparently by a gas leak.) and the aunt’s death certificate, may appear out of place, but they are strikingly effective. The erasure of the news content paired with the typed-over, added information on the death certificate speaks to the duality of the speaker’s subconscious. A foretelling can be found (coincidentally?) in the bottom margin of the death certificate. It reads “VOID WITHOUT WATERMARK OR IF ALTERED OR ERASED.”

Bargar is upfront and personal right from the beginning, and she journeys us through her psyche with grace and humility. The reader will appreciate the bookend poems “Creative Nonfiction” and ‘A Fiction.” Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge for knowledge is limited to all we know and understand while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand”. Ending the book on three different imaginary paths the speaker’s life could’ve taken is a choice a gifted poet makes. This astounding collection is a tribute not only to the women & girls whose stories were buried with them as the book’s dedication reads, but to the celebrated poet, Cynthia May Bargar.

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