“Sugar Work,” the first comprehensive collection of poems by author Katie Marya, offers a vivid exploration of topics such as sex, motherhood, religion and divorce. Marya’s poetry is deeply personal, especially in her 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 variety of topics to feel like it is trying to do too much. However, the poems of “Sugar Work” appear neither too broad nor too narrow within the scope of the complete collection. Instead, the poems are united like a flawless look at the many facets that make up one 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 Home” and “An Open Call to Single Daughters of Single Mothers,” Marya uses vivid images to reflect on her position in relation to her mother, both as a child and as a child. as a woman herself. In the world of “Sugar Work”, there is nothing a mother cannot compare. Her body is a house, a sequined costume, a childhood memory of her daughter.
In “The Religion I Made of My Mother,” Marya further emphasizes her childhood admiration for her mother, whom she describes as something akin to religious worship. She writes, “I believe in his hands. I can’t imagine a world without her / in it, eating and smoking. . . I can’t believe in a god who relies on injuries to be seen.
Another poem that powerfully portrays the relationship between mother and daughter is “Extract from the Gold Club Trial”, a pair of poems divided into two parts: “Mother” and “Daughter”. The “Mother” side is a transcript of an interview Marya’s mother gave about meeting NBA player Patrick Ewing at the strip club where she worked. The “Daughter” side describes the same scene, but from Marya’s perspective as she watches her mother. The poems complement each other with beautiful symmetry.
A notable poem in the collection is “The Quiet Divorce”, which portrays the quiet torments of divorce through an analogy of a human-sized rabbit who temporarily takes up residence in his house. Marya portrays the absence of a lover with exceptional subtlety. Another star, “Self-portrait as a doubled seahorse, as a crown, as a sun”, opens the fifth and final section of the collection. The poem contains perhaps the most masterful of Marya’s comparisons. She unites religious imagery with her own conception and birth, writing: “I make myself / from within her / as God cantilever all earth / gravity.
There are however a few moments in the collection when it loses its vitality and is ultimately less impactful. For example, at times Marya loses her sense of subtlety. The poem “My First Period” is a little too insightful in its treatment of menstruation, adolescent sexuality and religion: “I asked / the boy to pray for me that he should touch me / and when he put his hands on my shoulders, I bled. The poem “A Response to the 2018 IPCC Report”, which describes the themes of birth and the future in the context of climate change, suffers similarly. “For the lover and not for whom the lover loves” also struggles to get his message across. The poem tries to speak of performative femininity, but its meaning is obscured by overly repetitive language.
Ultimately, “Sugar Work” is a celebration – an exhilaration of sexuality, motherhood, and the sweetness of a human life lived to the fullest. The collection ends with “Prayer for the Lover”, an exceptional poem that exudes an intense, almost violent joy, which perfectly sums up the collection as a whole. “Let me crochet the sky in our skin,” wrote Marya, “and confess my sorrow to the sun.”