Sarah Rosenthal

Chax Press, 2016

Reviewed by Nicholas Leaskou


Sarah Rosenthal’s Lizard fascinates with a series of succinct lyrics, all set to the delicate romp and circumstance of reptilian life. On my Twin Peaks deck, at the UCSF library, at the Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park — the book changed and adapted to its environment with every reading, and in every setting.  The work invites you inside the lens of quotidian perception, where the lizard’s factual tail merges with the poet’s dream-tale of making her.

Rosenthal’s collection consists of seventy-five pages of short, untitled poems, and opens with the following sonnet, which vivifies the “Para-Human” in an exchange between “I,” “She,” and “You.” Animal, human, or hybrid — and who speaks to who or for whom — merge as the poet and her “Ovo-, vivi-, / ovoviviparous” creations intertwine, symbiotically blurring into one another:

Lizard means I
don’t speak your
language. She means
I don’t share your
brain. She learns with
her scan. Negotiates
with tail and jaw.
Her response is
nuanced. But your
grid trances her,
hunger saps, leash
abrades. Your gaze
a promise you
can’t keep

This poem reads like a tall tale, and both excites and perplexes. The sparse and finely observed “Negotiates / with tail and jaw” I love, and Rosenthal’s frisky slant rhymes in “response” and “nuanced” and “abrades” and “Your gaze” satisfied; but felt too prematurely implicated with “your / grid” and “a promise you / can’t keep.” Pronoun usage throughout Lizard provokes as Rosenthal heartily engages a triangular dance between “I,” “She,” and “You” — not only as part of the poet’s project in recasting an ode (to all lizards), but also as an invitation to participate in the book’s poetry.

Lizard is a decidedly female reptilian document, detailing “frictional adhesion” and pointing out that the lizard “Mostly eats the living.” At each turn, she morphs into an idea – changing her “stay away / coat.” “Lizard is wild;” she becomes a “pool / a cake, dried blood,” a “slapstick / actor,” and a “childhood / friend.” She can even “produce ideas / immaculate,” and writes to “Dear / God,” wondering about the whereabouts of her offspring, and asking why she has “lost / capacity.”

Lyricizing lizard facts and observations, “I saw / the documentary,” and mixing them with human dialogue, Rosenthal creates more of a blurry “Para-Human” – a hybrid human with animal traits – rather than prompting the traditional anthropomorphic toad who sings in fables. This gives the book a desirable sci-fi element; and we turn the page in awe, wondering where and in which situation we’ll next find the humanoid lizard in her dailiness baking “on asphalt,” getting “Lost in the terrain / of her skin up / close.” We find ourselves checking in to see where “Lizard” is on any particular day; it’s somewhat like following a daily comic strip.

One of the ways Lizard’s lyric series holds together is with recurring images of “eyes,” and in the act of looking (“On account of her / eyes. They see what / moves”). The photosensory organ, the reptilian pineal gland, that lizards use to detect changes in light so that they can properly thermoregulate I followed as a significant unifying motif, which stirred — among other things — images of dancing Hindu goddesses with their third eyes sparkling. In the next poem, Lizard speaks like a human, but acts like an animal, and muses over her predicament with “pronouns.” Then she contradicts herself, denying her essence:

I eat my sister. No
one cares because
we’re not pronouns,
says Lizard. We’re
not names. I’m not
Lizard and this is
not a magic act. This
is real, tongue so
long and muscular,
toes scaling verticals,
third eye parietal.

This is the first poem in the collection that boldly introduces a family member; and while reading I appreciated and celebrated Rosenthal’s surfacing experimental poetics: playing with pronouns and stirring up multi-narratives inside her lyric, all while claiming that her poetry “is / not a magic act.” Rather, the poet, via documentary, observation, and dream, tries her on now and then “in our / leathery skins,” coexisting with her creation – her poetry. Much later in the series we find:

The next lines read
we coexisted for
a time. You are
a parent a sibling
of mine. A passing
tryst, a grabbed

Rosenthal’s poet’s eye opens to active dreaming and “dreams” occur in the series often, which leads one to think that not only do dreams allow one way of understanding where some of Lizard’s poetry comes from, but that the poet possibly receives Lizard psychically through dreams. It’s a fun theory to consider, and readers find many hints, if not transparent clues, into the poet’s process: “I wear the stay away / coat till I’ve written / down my dreams.”

In one poem, an exchange or negotiation is made between poet and Lizard: “I’ll trade you dreams / for poems says L.” Then a dream is poured forth in the next stanza: “It’s mostly the wind / carrying me, she / shouts down to the / businessmen.” The transaction is complete; and while using dream material in poetry is nothing unusual, exploring the idea of dream interpretation as transmitted from a lizard is, I think, extra extraordinary.

The poet’s dream-tale of making Lizard emerges everywhere in the book: “Lizard have you / been writing in bed?” or “She writes at night” and “Carves / a poem from every / gesture: dig, roll, / tap, dash, curl,” sung in language as quick as a lizard’s tongue.

In the next poem, the poet confesses to “L” in what appears to be a soft threat. It’s not just falling “fifty feet” or “for color” this vulnerable animal has to worry about. She faces unwarranted condemnation:

L, I made you
that way. Nothing
you can do.
Sluggish at dawn,
brutal at noon.
Where are you?
Where I dreamed
you, in the rickety
city up multiple
flights peeking at
neighbors in their
kitchens. They’ll
be your dance
to death partners.
Acquaint yourself.

“Baking “on asphalt” can put both human and lizard in danger, especially for the lizard that might mistake asphalt for the “life-giving warmth of rock.” The fact is that lizards are more defenseless as creatures (unless human is dealing with a Komodo!), and many face extinction in the face of humans.

While most of Lizard’s forms take on the look of columnar and narrow stanzas, like the above chosen excerpts, Lizard indulges few poems with variation in form. The following poem expands with lines glowing in the blank space surrounding them:

She flops on a
strange bed under
an accusing moon.
L’s been charged with:

obstinacy (primordial)

sluttishness (mates multiply)

prudery (she skitters away)

repulsiveness (scales)

necrophilia (garden of bone)

the Fall (guilt by association)

greed (butterfly wings crushed
between jaws)

jealousy, disrespect for beauty (destroys
her lovely sister)

I wish Lizard had more balancing moments like this for the fragmented change of pace. Covering vast terrain, from the odd and sudden “necrophilia” to breathing in hints of religious morality in “the Fall,” the reader confronts violence against “her lovely sister.” Here, Lizard shows us her darker hues, adding a cynical, if not sinister, tone in the form of a firm reality check: Life eats life; all is survival. Lizard is also a diva of hidden maxims. The parenthetical lines serve not just as inner thoughts within the poem, but actual instances (happenstances) where poet and Lizard might coexist, convening through dialogue on the page in the act of writing.

Lizard’s sparse lines and lyric series made me feel Paul Celan’s presence. Also conscious of the meditative aspect of blank space on the page, Rosenthal’s communion with that silence is her communion with her reader and nature in a transmission of poetic mysticism. We read, listen and receive Lizard; the poet affirms: “I want listening / to write the poem.” Receiving Lizard, like Rosenthal, I tried on her “very earrings” that can “shiver feelings,” and felt that I understood her more in my reception of her otherness. Lizard, who’s “no bitch,” loosens perception. Can a lizard’s thermoregulation be compared to the female human cycle? And is the reptilian parietal eye comparable to the human psychic third eye? By the end of Lizard, readers might feel at one with this fragile, resilient and adaptable survivor. Lizard sings on your behalf, and I recommend that you listen, should you desire to feel bliss.


Nicholas Leaskou is a poet, editor, and jeweler from San Francisco. His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Dusie, Vallum, Switchback, Midway, Boog City, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review and Tarpaulin Sky. After receiving his MFA from the University of San Francisco in 2009, he co-produced/hosted Poet as Radio, an online poetry show airing live weekly at SF Community Radio from 2011–2014. He is the author of Heliotropes (Ypolita Press, 2017).