Pinwheeling: J. Michael Wahlgren on Sharon Bryan’s Sharp Stars


Sharon Bryan, Sharp Stars, BOA Editions

In Sharp Stars, Sharon Bryan is concerned with the use of language and its boundaries. She tackles certain concepts and analogizes them by comparison: one of which is the concept of “erasures” compared with former lovers as disappearing in a poem. The simple comparison of a star to a person is also made but Bryan, as with any concept, takes the idea a step further. In the poem “Stardust” Bryan writes “instead of seeing ourselves / wherever we look, we must see / things for what they are: stardust.” Bryan may be a romantic, at heart, and the former lovers whose presences grace the text disappear with, of course, a memory. Bryan accomplishes a lot in these pages, from introducing unique characters whose stories border reality or realities whose borders possess lasting character. In the text memory and character intertwine and to even to use an analogy, as lovers.

In Sharp Stars, Bryan tackles language and speech and weaves them together as one cohesive whole. As she writes in the poem “Saying Things,” “he could hear a voice / muttering in his head, it said Open your mouth,/ let the words fly out.” From first words to flashbacks, speech is an important idea which also has an origin (in the text from thought). Bryan writes in such a convincing manner, the reader can be led to believe that “stars” or even the concept of stars and the individuals to which they refer, are one in the same entity or pretty close. Reality blends and it’s almost as if stars are doing the speaking in the text even though the individual associated with these sharp stars are capable of speech themselves.

If we abstract from the title “Bass Bass” of a poem within the text, the sounds of the words are the same, but they differ in meaning. Music is important and this idea of separating of concepts or real objects is of importance as well, such as when “god made the lime, and separated / the lime from the bark.” The general philosophy here is that lime is not bark because lime is lime. It possesses certain qualities that make it distinct from bark. Since we are on this idea of bark, bark can also refer to the noise from a dog. Bryan, without a doubt, tackles this too, in the poem “Barking Dog.” It is unique and distinct from the word “bark” from a tree. Bryan “let the dog into the poem” “Barking Dog” even though she or any of her characters can understand his/her language.

If we concern ourselves with our way of acting, then this book deals directly with listening to, or hearing instructions so as to know how these actions will function. Dogs and stars, bark and bark, stars and characters are topics within the text, but what transcends these oscillations are actions or events occurring which also create memory. There are the origin of words, the origin of speech, memories of things, stardust, music and dancing, as well as associations of concepts. It amazes me to see a form of hope arise as well. This hope can be confused with romanticism or even music itself, as when ashes rise from a song that is played into a “whirlwind of thanks and farewell.” It could be said that the music without words or lyrics speak directly to the body. The result, then, is action. Through language and its boundaries, Bryan and characters created are able to act. Actions such as differentiating between “lime” and “bark,” introducing a dog into a poem, erasing lovers as words from a poem, or any other music without words, or as Bryan writes in the poem “White Space” “maybe if they slowly disappeared into the white space no one would miss them.” There is a clear parallel, and this isn’t the only one in the text between erasing and disappearing as words from music or notes from music sheets. The body disappears into ashes or stars disappear into nothingness. Bryan concerns herself with both the appearance and disappearance. But what is clever is that appearance differs from making an appearance or origin of. When Bryan refers to the boy in the poem “Saying Things” she says he is blind, but we do not know if this entails being blind in a religious sense as well. Words can almost have a double-meaning and through process of oscillating or meandering, we are brought closer to this white space or these sharp stars, or the remains of cutting a tree— “why name the remains after the blade, not what it cut” from “Sawdust.”

Bryan references the idea of “stars” in many ways throughout the text. The blind boy cannot see the stars but can see a shade of light from the stars; for when the stars are too close it is too bright. In “Sawdust” “only now do I see / that the air is full / of small sharp stars / pinwheeling through / every living thing / that gets in their way.” The idea of oscillation or meandering, the way the light of stars makes its way to the eye, or the flux of stars for the blind boy (shifting from too bright, to dim, to the right mix) is prominent within these pages. Bryan uses the word pinwheeling which could be a good replacement word for this turning on and off. The way lovers are so called bright or fade over time like stars integrates with the concept of memory to make them sharp. Bryan, in a way, invents a new terminology, such as pinwheeling or the title of the book, sharp stars, to push the shiny boundaries of language along.

One response to “Pinwheeling: J. Michael Wahlgren on Sharon Bryan’s Sharp Stars

  1. Hey, Michael, thank you for such a close, generous reading. I really appreciate knowing there’s someone out there who paid the poems that kind of attention.

    Thank you, Sharon