Book Review: Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean, by Sugar Magnolia Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_because_a_womans_heartIt is impossible to know what to say about this book because I want to say so many things about this book. It is complex and honest and heavy and light and tender and brutal. It is narrator and narrated. It is the moon and the people looking at the moon.

Sugar Magnolia Wilson graduated with her MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2012 and while she’s done so much since then, including publishing work independently and in journals and co-founding Sweet Mammalian, it feels as if she has spent the better part of six years creating this book. Like only a long incubation could form something so delicate and weighty and sharp.

I opened first to the titular poem. I wanted to know what question the title was answering. Why is a woman’s heart this way? Are we defending her actions, or accusing her? Is it simply because her heart is as unknowable as a needle at the bottom of an ocean, and with the same potential to cause you to bleed if you were to ever uncover it?

The poem answers none of those questions for me. But with its play on narrative voice, it’s mixture of English and Mandarin, it’s evocations of gender and nature, it does set the scene for the book.

As does the opening series; nine poems, each titled Dear Sister, which appear from language and detail to take place in history, but could as easily be a conversation between women today. The fourth describes the needle of a woman’s heart through a gifted horse.

I think the theory presented here by this gifted horse is: you can’t
take the wild from the heart of a girl, but maybe you can put the
wild girl upon a horse and teach her to master some of her own
terrible hysteria. I am expected to ride her and learn to hold my
tongue. But really, she is a strange letter with a heartbeat asking
me not to be myself.

From Dear Sister we wind into the present, where we traverse the uneasiness of children watching their parents love other people, or not be present at all, hot, sick places where

Everyone is slick and fast
even if they’re sad

And then into the consuming terrain of culture and interracial relationship. I fell in love with the poem Snow chart, the story of one person drawing the seasonal nature of feelings for another with a graph. The line –

But love is just another way of looking at the weather, I think.

leading to the final –

You wave the paper at me. See did you see that?
This is how much I love you now.
I nod. We both look out the window, where the
snow has covered everything.

I loved the bizarre, captivating imagery of throwing golden dogs in the air in Pup art, like so much hope catching the sun, and the cold mirror for this in Moon-baller, with the blossoming of the first couplet –

Open up your mouth and
we’ll press our lives together

and the soft, brittle closing of the door in the final stanza –

So, I’ll kiss you on your
big, pink mouth, but leave before
I learn it’s me who’s not fit
for life.

The weaving and shifting of voices and perspectives leaves it unclear where the poems are true to the author’s life – true as a poem can ever be – and where we’ve shifted into a more imaginary landscape. This alone is a testament to Wilson’s craft.

Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean tells us secrets about ourselves, invites us into strange new worlds, and shines kind, wry light on dark places. It’s a collection I see myself returning to again and again and again.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean
By Sugar Magnolia Wilson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408909