Notes from the Underground
Brother lives in a special school, its name is unspeakable. No one is dead yet. At night, we listen as Mother shuffles furniture around and peels off the wallpaper. Sofas and chairs turn fickle, they abandon us, hideous imposters take their place. Sometimes there is food. I peel a single tangerine, it’s precious, and build a tangerine trail through the house. We’re beggars here, I whisper to Little Sister. She accepts her first segment. She’s learned how to make it last.
Fragment, a letter to the artist from his daughter, Margaret Gainsborough
to the Colonies, clean white sails, flocks of seagulls flap their wings and make their small cries, the sky such a blue, the pure blue of the Venetians. From the deck, you dissolve into shoreline. I face the wide Atlantic, where vagrant whales swim. On salt-misted nights, the crew sings shanties and I play along on my lute. Moon-sick women jump to the bottom of the sea, no sailor saves them: those souls belong to the devil. Bits of their wretched lace collars bob on the waves, sly algae envelops them. I see each remnant drift and disappear. Orphans howl in the gray dawn, and with each fresh shriek—I know I’ll never leave England. Father, you would never
3 Questions for Carla
What was your process for creating these pieces?
“Notes from the Underground” is one of the pieces in a series I’ve entitled “My Family Was Like a Russian Novel.” Initially, this was a piece of so-called “automatic writing.” I’d put it aside for a year or so, until I felt emotionally ready to tackle its themes. Once I decided on a deadpan voice, it came together quickly.
“Fragment, a letter to the artist from his daughter, Margaret Gainsborough” is also part of a series— this one, about Gainsborough’s daughters. I looked at 18th Century pictures as I wrote this as I tried to construct what Margaret’s view of sea voyages. I’d just re-read Melville’s Moby Dick, so some of that spooky imagery founds its way into the piece too.
What is the significance of the form(s) you chose?
“Notes from the Underground” is an intentionally stripped-down piece— it tells little about the story/narrator etc. It hints at trauma, but it doesn’t describe it. I think the barebones prose form works to achieve this, or I hope so.
I am interested in how history is made from bits and pieces, scraps of documents. I wanted in “Fragment of a letter” to give that sense of “scraps” as it relates to women. It’s hard to learn about women, because we lack many written sources. Letters are one of our best sources—- so a letter felt like the right container for Margaret’s dream.
What is the significance of this work to you?
Well, they’re important in different ways.
“Notes from the Underground” is a memoir piece. It is highly personal although its tone might make it sound like fiction.
The second piece is an act of historical/feminist empathy. Margaret Gainsborough was a talented musician and painter; and so independent as a girl that Gainsborough called her “The Captain.” If she’d left England and her doting father, she might have found herself— and here, I try to imagine her fears about that.
Carla Sarett is a poet and fiction writer based in San Francisco. Her debut poetry collection, She Has Visions, will be published by Main Street Rag Press in Fall 2022. Recent poems appear in Pithead Chapel, Overheard, Sage Cigarettes and elsewhere.