Book Review–The Familiar by Sarah Kain Gutowski


by Sarah Kain Gutowski

TRP,  February 1, 2024

reviewed by Bethany Reid


To put it as simply as I am able, The Familiar is a book-length narrative in poems. It is also fabulist, absurdist, an existential female journey, a hall of funhouse mirrors. Any woman who has ever had to navigate a life with spouse and children will likely, perhaps belatedly, recognize herself here. The poems confront us with the awkward truth that while fulfilling multiple roles, we look like coherent beings, but in fact we, too, contain a “cataract” of selves.

In The Familiar, the poet (or perhaps we should say “the supposed person of the poems,” as Dickinson instructs) is refracted into several selves, the first two being ordinary self, who likes to fold things neatly and pack lunches for the children; and extraordinary self, who drags the husband off to Paris (ordinary self stows away in the luggage, folding and refolding everything). Later we meet inevitable self, old, “a weird Sartrean grandmother,” tattooed, scarred, crazed with stories like a pottery vase with cracks. In addition to these, the selves are haunted, particularly extraordinary self, whose ghosts show up at night and like car rides. “The Ghost of / Extraordinary Self Past feels most at home in the back playing / with seatbelt buckles and making requests for radio stations.” “The Ghost of Extraordinary Self Present prefers the front passenger side,” while the Ghost of Extraordinary Self Yet to Come” is in the trunk, “blindfolded, gagged” (“Her Terror is Palpable”).

I’ve forgotten to mention the “I” (here’s our supposed person) who stands back and watches these selves tangle and untangle. It’s a prismatic prison of self, but still a prison. No surprise that the selves begin to form a sisterhood. Consider these lines over coffee from “That Worn Joke (It Cuts and Bleeds)”:

“The feminists lied, she [extraordinary self] tells me. They said we could do everything

we wanted. Anything, I correct her. And what’s a girl like you
reading feminists for, anyway?
She grins. That worn joke.

The man to her left sees white teeth flash and looks up.

What are you writing? he asks. My life’s work, she answers.
We all look down. Between cross-outs and arrows, one word
loops over and over. Through the pages it cuts and bleeds.”

If I recognize the painful aspirations of extraordinary self, I also know her sleeplessness and hunger. Ordinary self is more resigned to, well, ordinary life: “The children have learned / to tune her out: they nod acknowledgment, then / their eyes turn carnival-token cold”; on bad days, she’s “nothing / but a dusty shadow or prop dissolving in the background” (“Stop Her Before She Speaks”).

 I couldn’t help liking ordinary self, her closet arranged by color, her ordinary magic, her coffee, cold before she can drink it. I also liked her when she misbehaved, stealing hard candies from extraordinary self and leaving them, sweetness sucked out, under extraordinary self’s hotel pillow (“We Can’t Have Everything”). Or when, helping extraordinary self attempt suicide, she proves herself capable of an extraordinary tenderness.

The feckless husband of this narrative is little more than a cipher, “ghosted by a broken past and haunted / by his own cataract future” (“Shifting and Inscrutable”). Nobody escapes the wit and irony embedded here, and the “cataract future” belongs to all of us. One wonders what will happen to the children of this strange union.

“Most of us,” we learn in the last poem in The Familiar, “are flat chalk slates washed clean by time.” But if “no lesson remains” in life, as the last poem also asserts, the book leaves me feeling more apt to embrace the chaos, or call it luck. The compilation of selves in this extraordinary book are now scored too deeply on my imagination to be easily scrubbed away.

(If you are curious about Bethany Reid as a poet herself, check out our follow up review by Carmen Germain of the recently published Reid collection The Pear Tree: elegy for a farm here.) 

Bethany Reid’s latest book of poetry, The Pear Tree: elegy for a farm was published on January 1st of this year (review to follow shortly) Her other books of poetry, include Sparrow, which won the 2012 Gell Poetry Prize, and Body My House (2018).  Her poems, essays, and short stories have recently appeared in One Art, Passengers, Persimmon Tree, Constellations, and elsewhere, and her chapbook, The Thing with Feathers, was published in 2020 as part of Triple No. 10 by Ravenna Press. Bethany and her husband live in Edmonds, Washington, near their three grown daughters; she  blogs about writing and life at .


Get The Familiar at Texas Review Press (pub date 2/1/2024, available for preorder)

An interview with Sarah Kain Gutowski at Texas Review Press

Bethany Reid’s poetry at Escape Into Life

Kathleen Kirk’s review of Bethany Reid’s Sparrow

Bethany Reid’s review of Ways of Being by Sati Mookherjee at Escape Into Life

Bethany Reid’s review ofThe Hurting Kind by Ada  Limón at Escape Into Life


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