There is no way one can literally navigate the waters of reminiscence, loss and nostalgia the way Jenny Sadre-Orafai does it in her collection Dear Outsiders. I say literally because the poet exhibits the trait of a thalassophile—the inescapable need to be and live by the sea. In the collection, one can find it difficult to distinguish the poet’s mother from the ocean as she sometimes uses “mother” to represent both, hence the need to be with them.
Jenny opens the collection with a poem titled “Topographies”. In the poem, the poet introduces the surroundings, nature and the on-goings, then concludes with the subject of grief that hints on the loss of both her parents “Our mother’s body/Not our mother’s body/Our father’s body/Not our father’s body./A grief bleating at our shores/A landscape breaking.”
The prolificity of Jenny’s writing is seen in her use of language; how she bends metaphors to achieve vivid imagery. This can be seen in the poem “Fortune Fish” where the poet gives a description of the environment as well as their condition of living “…The waves slap our house inside our/heads. This is where we were born, we say to the fish camp. Everyone/on the boardwalk claps when the scenes get shuffled—the sun goes/down and the fireworks cruise comes out behind the curtain”
Aside from the thematic preoccupation of loss and nostalgia and the poet’s fondness for water bodies, there is an antithetic parallelism that runs through the collection where the poet juxtaposes the poor living conditions of the locals against the wealthy lives of tourists who come to see the beach. Through this, the concept of Marxism is explored. This exploration is most profound in the poem “Locals” where the lifeguards do not bother about the locals but look out for the tourists instead “…and the lifeguards don’t say a thing./We aren’t worth the trouble. We’re a reflection swimming backward. We’re crabs breaking the pot”
Through the prosaic structure of individual poems in the collection, one can easily recognize the narrative stance employed by the poet in telling the story of loss and expressing the grief that comes with losing a loved one. What I admire most in Jenny’s Dear Outsiders is her forgiving spirit. Though the ocean took her mother from her, she “won’t remember the lessons/or the front yards or what time when our mother was pulled/her hair big, an ocean in an ocean and how everything got when/ our father died for good too.
It is in not remembering that Jenny finds a way to forgive the ocean for what it has taken away from her and her sibling as well as wishes to go back to living the ocean life because, in her words “this is where we were born. This is where we became orphans, where we stayed on top of the water. This is where we say no more”.
As much as this position of wanting to return to ones place of injury may seem absurd and questionable, especially by “Dear outsiders” who only visit the beach to take pictures, Jenny continues to reiterate her fondness for such life while contrasting it with living in a place surrounded by land as it is the only life she knows. Here, In Jenny’s Dear Outsider, we see the power of nostalgia and reminiscence as a tool for forgiving and healing.