Chapbooks, often associated with literary contests, are an important stepping stone for poets trying to establish their voices among the many small presses that showcase works in booklet form. Two new chapbooks take varied approaches to the format: Greensburg resident Kelly Scarff's I Fall in Love with Strangers (Liquid Paper Press) and West Virginian Susan Shaw Sailer's Coal (Finishing Line Press).
Scarff's book — which won second prize in publisher Nerve Cowboy's 2011 Chapbook Contest — is the more personal of the two, using narrative to convey a keen sense of compassion for others. The opening poem, "My Offer," sets the tone with a list of encounters and observations, captured in long sentences with clean line breaks, establishing the speaker's keen eye for recognizing the humanity in life's many small moments.
Throughout the collection, dedicated to her grandmother and father, Scarff explores her relationships with honest integrity. Family is often ripe poetic ground, and it's easy to identify with the universality in this work. While Scarff's reflections might not break much new ground lyrically, the empathy in her writing seems important amidst the snark of pop culture. In "My Neighbor Wants To Visit Christ," she writes of a family dinner with a neighbor seeking God's forgiveness, saying, "The world has yet to turn its cold-shoulder / on us the way it has my neighbor: / three DUI's / titanium rod in leg, / two years in the clink, / a drunken crash and dead family of four." Understanding others takes a complicated math, indeed.
While Coal is less personal, it's also more ambitious. Sailer's poems rely on news accounts and her imagination to humanize the coal-mining community, especially the families and victims of the 2006 Sago Mine disaster. Among many strong poems, "Coal Mine Museum Guide," stands out by pairing mining's unique language with the guide's insights on a dangerous, yet proud, work-culture he knows too well. The thematic nature of Coal is a poignant reminder of cheap electricity's real costs, and highlights the stark employment choices endemic to company towns.
In "Trustee, Sago Baptist Church," the speaker paints a close-knit picture of those gathered in grief's solidarity, ending ironically with the lines "See this new gravel / covering the driveway and church parking / lot? Afterwards the coal company sent that." Sailer (no relation to this reviewer) succeeds by allowing the details throughout Coal to add up, communicating the true price of keeping the lights on.