A Book Review of The Human Contract by Sarah Dickenson Snyder
The word “contract” comes from the Latin word “contracts,” meaning “drawn together, tightened.”* In The Human Contract, Sarah Dickenson Snyder draws together a multitude of life’s experiences into a full-length collection of poetry that is honest, touching, and beautifully wrought. There is something wonderful about being human, about the human experience, and especially about the experience of being a daughter, a wife, and a mother that lives and breathes in each of these poems.
The book, which is broken up into three sections—mothering, aging, and remembering the past—does not waste time on easing us into things. It is in the first poem that Snyder offers an honest assessment of the “avalanche” that life can be. We learn right away, with the very first “I,” that the poet is flawed, that life has been far less than perfect, and that the reader has been invited to experience a sort of redemption.
The title poem, “The Human Contract,” appears second in the book, as a recollection of a moment where the narrator of the poem chokes on a piece of gum while driving, until another motorist pulls over and helps dislodge the gum. This is the human contract—that we will somehow try to work to help or even to save each other in a world that is often difficult. Snyder is not sentimental in her rendering of this experience into poetry. The poem ends with the poet and the good samaritan standing “on the side / of the highway like that, me shaking, / him, holding me backward.”
Some of the poems turn ideas of what should be on their head. In “My Mother’s Wedding Dress,” Snyder writes about her mother who will not let her daughter wear her wedding dress because “You’re getting married in August / That dress was for November.” Snyder hands the information over gently. These poems are quiet in their honesty. Snyder often whispers the things most of us would want to yell, and it is in this quiet space that we better experience not just what is said, but all the things that are hidden within the words.
These poems are not depressive; rather they glow with the small moments of a life well-lived. In the poem, “Set Free,” a mother takes a snow day and transforms it into an imagined day at the beach, with beach towels, suntan lotion, grapes and all. The poem is a gift of optimism. Just as winter is “cancelled” by painted suns taped over the window, the human connection is revitalized with writing’s ability to connect us with each other.
In the second section of the book, Snyder writes poignant poems about her aging parents. The small details she includes in each poem, the “nubs of pencils,” or the “rum with four ice cubes,” put us there with her in a room with her mother or with her father who is having difficulties hearing yet doesn’t want to wear the hearing aids because “Today, he’d rather not hear / my mother reminding him / how far away he is / from the man he was.” These poems are lyrical, and yet they are clear. The difficult moments that Snyder reveals in these poems are always relatable. At times it is as if she has taken the reader’s hand to lead us to a window or to the water, where we are surprised by the line “I swim with my dead parents, burned to white ash and bits of bone—.”
In the third section, Snyder includes several poems that take us back to her childhood. It’s as if the poems are rooting us back into solid ground. We have come full circle in a way, each poem a handful of snow thrown to the side as a way to dig out of the avalanche of life. In the poem “South Strafford,” Snyder recollects the memory of her father in her childhood home: “And / evening would commence, a slab of beef / on the grill, zucchini and cheese bubbling / in the oven, the deep salad bowl / of loose greens and August / tomatoes, beer bottles perspiring / on the railing of the deck as the sun / fell behind Whitcomb’s Hill.”
The reader finds it deeply satisfying that Snyder ends the collection with a poem titled, “What I Would Do Were I in an Avalanche.” These poems are a sort of avalanche in the best way possible, and they have covered us, we have been immersed in them. And what would Snyder do if she were in an avalanche? She’d “clear a space in front of my face to breathe / (of course) but also to drool. Whichever way / it runs on my cheek or chin, I’d dig in / the opposite direction—not Earth / but sky.” These poems are places for us to breathe. They are spaces cleared for us, that uproot and then upright us. We come out of the collection like a “newborn…moving toward a light.”
Alexandra Umlas lives in Huntington Beach, CA and is currently an MFA student in the Poetry program at California State University, Long Beach.
Sarah Dickenson Snyder has written poetry since she knew there was a form with conscious line breaks. She has two poetry collections, The Human Contract and Notes from a Nomad. Recently, poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Stirring: a Literary Journal, Whale Road Review, Front Porch, The Sewanee Review, and RHINO. In May of 2016, she was a 30/30 Poet for Tupelo Press. One poem was selected by Mass Poetry Festival Migration Contest to be stenciled on the sidewalk in Salem, MA, for the annual festival, April 2017. Another poem was nominated for Best of Net 2017.