Arco Iris, by Sarah Vap (A Review by Diana Arterian)

Saturnalia Books

80 pgs/ $15

Wind from the water on my legs, my white skirt smeared with dirt, the wine, and the / lime leaf caught in your beard- we had decided to travel.

Sarah Vap’s Arco Iris (Spanish, meaning “rainbow”) is a collection that allows Vap psychic space to interrogate her months-long trip through South America with a beloved. Though Vap does include several pieces illustrating wonder, as well as vignettes of what they see, this is predominantly (and thus far more interestingly) a book considering the “ghosts” that haunt the couple and the anxieties of globalization. One of Vap’s epigraphs is from Artaud- “Everything that acts is cruelty,” underscoring the impossibility of avoiding the act of harming. This angst around injuring is driven by the feeling of recklessness such traveling engages in, as illustrated in the poem “As if we are two hemispheres folding onto each other”:

We are two
people who have never wanted to do wrong or to think anything wrong

or to say anything wrong and now all we do is smash continents and bodies together to see what will remain.

In another poem, “We are feeling good. We aren’t hurting anyone/Everywhere we go, our minds think, we aren’t hurting anyone.” These both attempt to comprehend the couple’s arguably uncritical view of their travels, but also the narrator’s intertwining with the beloved through travel. Vap describes the latter most beautifully and effectively in”Train, Cuzo-Puno,” which I wish I could quote in full:

I wanted to expose myself to everything while it exposes itself to me.

…I wanted all other bodies in mine I wanted all the substance opened I did this

by way of you on a train and while I did I pounded my head

my head against yours.

These two are linked in their being quietly tormented by notions of patriarchy, their whiteness, other things less easily labeled. For the narrator, specifically, there is a music box playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with a small spinning ballerina- which Vap owns “is a stupid memory, it was a stupid song.” Yet this haunts her most, as shown in the rainbows throughout: in the fog by the riverboats, in the oil its engine emits in the river (like in Bishop: “everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!”). The most captivating aspect of the music box, which Vap discusses with power, is the lack of mobility of the dancer- though moving, she goes nowhere. This seems to disturb Vap most, the mere appearance of (for her) psychological motion. She takes on the dancer as her avatar, writing,”I didn’t mean to revolve I meant to move- and, “I wanted, I/said, not to bear//this single ghost everywhere I went.”

This notion is braided with a kind of isolation, a desire for deep interaction with those beyond the couple. Vap writes,”It’s months now and no one has touched either of us except each other. The more we are / traveling white lovers the less we can touch anyone else.” But even that within the couple is not without its elements of harm, as when they are on a river boat:

Our fucking in the hammock hidden by our blanket just like everyone else’s fucking just inches

from ours is hidden by their blankets and we think

there is something inside of us.

We are slamming are digging at something

that is inside of everyone that wants to hide from a screaming light

Despite the isolation and violence, Vap revels in an undeniable interconnectedness of things: “we lay ourselves together on everything”;”as we move we become whatever scenery moves around us”;

every window a curtain and we are on one side of it

in machines- oiled with oil from the earth over which we glide-

when our bodies move our minds, we think, move along with them.

Here we have projection, connection and simultaneous separateness, and uncertainty. The window becomes a frame to that which must be processed, baring a curtain to stifle, too. Yet Vap seems to have no interest in stifling anything. Some of my favorites are pieces that probe through fragments- whirlwind lists that begin with “look” and “here,” capturing the insanity of trying and seeing everything, with it all moving too quickly for resolution. She writes, “Yet if my ghost./Yet if my money. Yet if the proscenium arch-or/if the firmament- yet if gel paper yet if on the ark- yet if my mind-”

She also offers space for the voices of others, the “voiceless” locals in some instances, but also pointing to the impossibility of defining something- doing this through recurring, interruptive “do you want to say something here” or “does anyone have anything to say.”

Overall, Arco Iris is a kind of miracle- a book of poems interrogating the personal and the public, with beauty and urgency (what else can you say of lines like “sometimes a light will only illuminate its own destruction”?). These poems speak to and echo one another, with recurring titles, concepts, lines. But the heart of it is in the narrator’s act of witnessing but not knowing what to make of it- as in the last lines, “what do you think about that./What are we supposed to think about that.”

The sensitivity toward uncertainty through Arco Iris is refreshing, and beyond this we see a quiet assurance in the partnership- two sets of eyes, two like-minds, observing.


Diana Arterian was born and raised in Arizona. She currently resides in Los Angeles where she is pursing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. She is the Managing Editor of Gold Line Press and the creator of Gold Line’s imprint, Ricochet- both of which publish chapbooks. Her own chapbook, Death Centos, is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse, and her poetry has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, River Styx, and Two Serious Ladies, among others.