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Ira Sadoff’s ‘Country, Living’: An Ode to Living and an Intricate Look at the Failures of a Nation

4.5 Stars

Cover art of "Country, Living."
Cover art of "Country, Living." By Courtesy of Alice James Books
By Joseph P. Kelly, Crimson Staff Writer

“I’m just working hard, learning how to listen.”

Save for a few ventures, Ira Sadoff is a lifelong resident of New York. Sadoff is also an extremely accomplished and distinguished poet, a talent that has earned him critical acclaim and numerous accolades. In his most recent work, a collection of poems entitled “Country, Living,” Sadoff explores exactly the two things defined in the title: his country and his life.

In a single line, Sadoff is able to seamlessly guide the reader to a place, physical or otherwise. All of a sudden, his poems jump from the page to a far off land, where he captures the feeling of the setting in just a handful of words — all the while perfectly crafting the emotional response that each poem is meant to induce. Writing about Sadoff’s writing seems an unfair and impossible task because it is just that elegant and well-crafted. Sadoff is able to simply paint a picture of imagery, setting, description, emotion, and story with one broad brushstroke.

Alongside his poetic patchwork of defining and portraying life, Sadoff offers commentary on the condition and history of the United States in an interluding section titled “My Country.” This scathing cataloguing of failures of the United States in terms of its injustices and its culture of obtuse excess and consumption under capitalism is sandwiched between sections depicting the essence of life — thereby expressing that these societal problems cannot be extracted or removed from even the most florid, poetic, and amorphous conversations about living. Sadoff describes and criticizes class inequalities, the toxicity of fame, and the systemic racism in U.S. history and in the country today. Whilst this section is demonstrably about the entire nation, Sadoff still interjects stories, rather darker in effect, about living in these imperilling conditions — exploring small town living, grief, and the effects of capitalism on the individual.

The only moment where his infectious and radical condemnation of the country comes across as confusing at first glance is in the poem “The Defeat of Brooklyn,'' which opens with a Louis Armstrong quote about being “white inside.” Sadoff references this quote in the body of the poem by saying that the speaker, taking the form of a soldier conversing with George Washington following the defeat of Brooklyn, is “black. I mean inside out.” Explaining that this is because “we too have been beaten, have been slaves to buying and selling, we too hated our masters,” almost seeming as if he were comparing the ‘slavery’ of capitalism to American’s violent history of enslavement.

Upon further inspection, it seems as though this line is actually a critique of the very claim it seems to be exemplifying. Sadoff is critiquing the act of modern Americans conflating any struggles other than slavery with slavery. The message is important, but the delivery tows the line of requiring too much attention and being disastrously misinterpreted. With poetry, second reading is not a fault of the poem or the poet; in fact many poems tell a different story after reading the second time. When the first reading seems to compare enslavement with capitalism, however, things become somewhat troubling. Most of Sadoff’s poems are straightforward enough that the first reading reveals their general themes and ideas, which makes this confusion all the more jarring. Given Sadoff’s deep aversion to inequality and the immorality of America’s past and present, it is clear that this line is not what it looks like at face value and that, to be in agreement with Sadoff’s views, it requires a second reading and more attentive interpretation.

This collection is littered with quotes from a variety of sources. Some poems begin with quotes that relate to the content and the third section is entirely titled and prefaced by a Gabrielle Roth quote. Throughout the collection, Sadoff references and even fictionally encounters numerous thinkers, artists, musicians, and composers from history — almost as if to say that living is synthesizing the thoughts of people who have come before. “In the end maybe you get one idea to keep to yourself, but who’s to say it’s yours?” This recurring injection of quotes and ideas from historical and contemporary notables is Sadoff paying homage to those who gave him the inspiration for the ideas that he gets to present in his poetry.

Sadoff’s third section delves back into poems about living. There is not necessarily a narrative arc to this collection, but there is a cohesive and natural flow of the poems. The collection begins by introducing the reader to the speaker, who can be inferred to be Sadoff himself. Sadoff displays himself, then explicates his thoughts and observations about the world, all the while continuing to intersperse the collection with bits about his life and the concept and universality of living.

In “Country, Living,” Sadoff conveys the power of reflecting on the present through the lens of his past. Sadoff is eminently living in the moment, not worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. This collection expertly crafts a picture of life whilst packing the punch of social commentary. It is able to describe life in its fullness, complexity, and broadness. Sadoff shows through this series of examples just how much there is to learn from living, “Who cares about an afterlife? This life overflows the way a thaw floods a muddy river.”

—Staff writer Joseph P. Kelly can be reached at joseph.kelly@thecrimson.com and on Twitter @JosephP_Kelly

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