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‘Sugar Work’ Review: Marya’s Debut Is an Ode to Motherhood

4 Stars

Cover for "Sugar Work," the first poetry collection by Katie Marya.
Cover for "Sugar Work," the first poetry collection by Katie Marya. By Courtesy of Alice James Books
By Samantha H. Chung, Contributing Writer

“Sugar Work,” author Katie Marya’s first full-length poetry collection, offers a vivid exploration of topics such as sex, motherhood, religion, and divorce. Marya’s poetry is deeply personal, particularly in its depiction of the author’s relationship with her mother, who worked at a strip club in Atlanta. It would be easy for a collection that covers such a wide variety of subject matter to feel like it’s trying to do too much. However, the poems within “Sugar Work” feel neither too broad nor too narrow in the scope of the full collection. Instead, the poems are united as an unflinching look at the many facets that make up a single life.

One of Marya’s greatest strengths is her use of figurative language, when poems pull together seemingly disparate images to create a full picture of motherhood. In “Meditations on Mother as House” and “An Open Call to Single Daughters of Single Mothers,” Marya uses vivid imagery to muse on her position in relation to her mother, as both her child and a woman herself. In the world of “Sugar Work,” there is nothing to which a mother cannot be compared. Her body is a house, a sequined costume, a memory from her daughter’s childhood.

In “The Religion I’ve Made of My Mother,” Marya further emphasizes her childhood admiration of her mother, which she describes as something approaching religious worship. She writes, “I believe in her hands. I can’t imagine a world without her / in it, eating and smoking . . . I can’t believe in a god who relies on wounds to be seen.”

Another poem that powerfully portrays the relationship between mother and daughter is “Excerpt from the Gold Club Trial,” a pair of poems split into two sides: “Mother” and “Daughter.” The “Mother” side is a transcription of an interview that Marya’s mother gave about an encounter with a group of NBA players at the strip club where she worked. The “Daughter” side describes the same scene, but from Marya’s own perspective as she watches her mother. The poems complement each other with a beautiful symmetry.

A standout poem in the collection is “The Quiet Divorce,” which depicts the understated turmoils of divorce through an analogy of a human-sized rabbit who takes up temporary residence in her home. Marya depicts the absence of a lover with outstanding subtlety. Another standout, “Self Portrait as Lined Sea Horse, as Coronet, as the Sun,” opens the fifth and final section of the collection. The poem contains perhaps the most masterful of Marya’s similes. She unites religious imagery with her own conception and birth, writing, “I make myself / from within her / like God cantilevered the whole / earth on gravity.”

There are, however, a few moments in the collection where it loses its vitality and is ultimately less impactful. For instance, in certain moments Marya loses her knack for subtlety. The poem “My First Period” is a bit too on-the-nose in its treatment of menstruation, teenage sexuality, and religion: “I asked / the boy to pray for me so he would have to touch me / and when he put his hands on my shoulders, I bled.” The poem “A Response to the 2018 IPCC Report,” which depicts themes of birth and future against the backdrop of climate change, suffers similarly. “For the Lover and Not for Who the Lover Loves'' also struggles to convey its message. The poem tries to speak on performative femininity, but its meaning is obscured by overly repetitive language.

Ultimately, “Sugar Work” is a celebration — an exaltation of sexuality, motherhood, and the sweetness of a human life lived to its fullest. The collection ends with “Prayer for the Lover,” an exceptional poem that radiates intense, almost violent joy that perfectly encapsulates the collection as a whole. “Let me crochet the sky into our skin,” Marya writes, “and confess grief to the sun.”

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