Review: ‘Tender’ by Sarah Bates

Tender, by Sarah Bates. Tucson: New Michigan Press, 2020. Print. US$9.  45 Pages. ISBN 978-1-934832-74-5

My takeaway statement: There are many small items in large landscapes, cynosures? that the eye keeps getting drawn to, and they seem like age-cracked photographs from some sad and distant moment, a place and time “where the asteroid hit,” to which the speaker keeps returning.

An ideal audience demographic, age-wise, may be 20s or early 30s.  People who grew up with a screen in hand, and experience dating as a coded part of that experience. However, because the voice is consistent across the collection, it can be viewed as a character study, (which seems perilous, because this collection also has autobiographical traces in it (the speaker says, at the end, “If there is / a heart in the poem, it is mine”).

Reading this collection reminded me of someone I knew a long time ago, a dream interpreter named Randi. We worked together at AmEx of all places. I asked Randi at dinner one time about a recurring dream. I kept traveling to an unfamiliar landscape in my dreams, and there was always a lion there, passively lying about in the grass. It would look at me, and I would wake up. She told me when I encounter that lion, I should make it move. Make it get on its feet and go somewhere.  Many times in this collection the speaker encounters things in landscapes that remain passive, and I kept thinking to myself: you should make it move. I thought the speaker might be both a soldier entrenched in battle and a thinker stuck in a rut. Rut is interesting, a sexual bellowing from the past. Maybe it is better to let old hurts rot and degrade until they no longer threaten.

So, the title. So many ways to interpret the word tender. Nouns: A little boat ferrying between ship and shore? someone who cares, like a gardener? currency? Adjectives: a bruise? vulnerability? Verb: give? suggest? In the end, I found myself thinking it telegraphed the presence of old hurts that were still sore, still felt by the speaker. Take this, from the opening poem “Foxfire.”


There is a poem in the desert

and there is a bike in the middle of it.

I can’t see it, but it’s there above the red

cliffs, the blue paint, the hunters moving

fast toward primary colors. I still don’t

know what to do with all these bones.


In “Field Museum,” the speaker says,


Dear love, I would like to follow you

to a field with a very yellow tent

and sleep there.


Later, in “Not Another Dead Whale Poem,” more stranded, savaged remains are encountered.

“dead whale found on a farm by the Great Salt Lake,” “whale bones found in the Egyptian desert,” and whales that are “too large / in too remote of an area to be entirely removed.”

Oh, those whales.

The rearrangement of bones is a recurring motif, especially in “Yellowstone 926F,” with reference to a mythical wolf woman, la loba, who collects bones. Like 926F, the speaker has wandered into dangerous territory where she will be stalked by predators, “telling this guy I matched with somewhere in between / Southern Utah and here that we should kiss.”  926F is the tag number of a tracked Yellowstone wolf who wandered out of the park and was shot by hunters in Montana. Could that death have been prevented? Can heartbreak and assault be prevented? Odds are bleak for the innocent.

DMs, texts, tags, emojis, phone sex, and dating apps are present throughout the collection, yet the IRL encounters don’t go well. That tone of the imagery indicates it may stem from a childhood event, e.g. when the speaker recounts seeing someone fix “a little girl’s bike chains,” she remembers “the man who used my body.” (From “The Dinosaurs that Didn’t Die.”).

This collection made me want to revisit Aubrey Hirsch’s panel cartoon, “Friendships Are Crucial to Survive the Isolation of the Coronavirus Pandemic.” I feel like there’s some synergy, but like everything from every reviewer, it’s all subjective. I felt a lot of empathy for this collection.


★★★★ = Despite my tastes and demographic, undeniably worth reading. Can be purchased directly from the publisher




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