Book Review: Sugar Zone, by Mary Mackey

[Reviewed by Laura O’Brien]

Mary Mackey’s most recent book of poetry, Sugar Zone, is the sixth installment in her impressive body of work, which includes five collections of poetry and twelve novels. She received her B.A. from Harvard, earned her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, and is a Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Sacramento. For the last twenty years, she has been traveling with her husband, Angus Wright, to Brazil for his work on land reform and environmental issues, and these experiences have shaped the dramatic and unflinching imagery of Sugar Zone. Her past work has been translated into twelve foreign languages, so it is fitting that Sugar Zone include Portuguese words and phrases as a means of deepening the complexity of its descriptions of Brazil’s alluring chaos.

The collection is divided into four parts that consistently submerge the reader in the uncertainty and beauty of Mackey’s world. Weaving throughout the poems are, to name a few, the powerful themes of chaos, love, death. In Part I: Sugar, Mackey immediately introduces the reader to the urban landscape of Brazil, which is something wholly different from American living standards. This is the place where the people use flowers ‘to dye their lips/ the color of blood’ and sing ‘of cities of blue glass/and the jaguars that prowl our dreams.’ She frequently describes the tension that results from the ‘rising ocean [that] eats the beach.’ The city is clearly at odds with the tumultuous natural world that surrounds it, and there is a constant struggle to withstand the onslaught. This chaos is also highlighted by the frequent offerings given to local deities, including Iemanja, the queen of the ocean. The natural and supernatural must be appeased to ensure human survival, but everything is tenuous. As Part I progresses, the poems become more self-reflective, and the narrator describes the internal explorations that result from living in a foreign environment. These poems drift from conflicted love to various stages of pain and death. The uncertainty is palpable, but rational and unafraid.

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In Part II: Dancing for the Soldiers, the narration shifts from present observation to childhood reminiscing. The poems tell stories about remarkable events in the past involving older family members, and this section is markedly different from the rest of the collection. They maintain the same style, diction, and tone as the other poems, but the subject matter gives them a certain sweetness and melancholy that distinguishes them from the rest.

The narration returns to Brazil for Part III: The Land of Bad Dreams, the land ‘where birds passing overhead/smell like wet crackers and blood/sour milk and the sweat of sex.’ Death, destruction, and fear reign as the major themes, and is most visibly evidenced in the poem The Breakdown of Language/The Failure of Translation. Throughout Sugar Zone, Mackey frequently uses Portuguese to enhance the sound and semantics of her work, and in this poem, phrases are broken, prepositions are missing, enjambement is disjointed, and an asterix at the end announces that it was a failure of translation. This is the ultimate linguistic symbol of failure and destruction.

In Part IV: Fado Tropical, the final poems describe a beautiful tropical paradise filled with birds that sing ‘of love & death.’ Fados are Portuguese songs about loss and longing, and these last verses tell a story of peaceful death and assimilation with the surrounding jungle. It is a fitting end for the poetry collection.

As a reader and a writer, what I found most refreshing about Mackey’s poetry was her diction and style. She has an excellent ear for understanding sounds and rhythm. In the poem Discussing Catastrophe, she creates a powerful image to convey the destruction wrought by nature

the hurricane blew in the plague swept through
leaving stones like rows of articulated bones

The alternating liquids (Rs and Ls) and warm vowels of the second verse are absolutely beautiful. Mackey truly has a gift, because she is able to reproduce lines that are equally lovely and clever. In Latitude Zero, she describes the river after a storm

when did we first see mud-sopped
littered with hammock-strung boats cathedrals of
trees circled by botos rosas and neon-striped fish

Ultimately, it is difficult to get through all the layers in merely one or two readings. I have barely scratched the surface of these poems in my review, and I will certainly return to Sugar Zone for multiple readings. This is a dense, vivid, and complex work, and certainly worthy of further attention.