Urgency, Nostalgia and Radiance in Katie Marya’s “Sugar Work”

Whether it’s the gold dust surrounding her mother’s face on stage, or the “holy” absence of her father, parent-child relationships are the nucleus of Katie Marya’s first full length poetry collection, Sugar Work

This book recounts events, mostly relationships, in Marya’s life: from her start in Georgia with her mother dancing at The Gold Club, her cocaine addicted father, and the brother who followed in his footsteps to the home she and her mother built bit-by-bit in Las Vegas, to leaving a 10-year marriage and striking out to find her own identity.  

There’s something about Katie Marya’s writing in Sugar Work that takes your breath away. The succinct line arrangements and the varied use of half stops in poems such as “An Open Call to Single Daughters of Single Mothers,” “Childhood,” and “Excerpt from the Gold Club Trial: Daughter” demand all the air in your lungs when read aloud.

She fills this latter poem with vivid imagery: white linen pants, chunky costume jewelry under stage lights, cigarette smoke mingled with body spray and copies of People magazine. Marya creates images that spark vignettes of scenes, so quick yet complete that it creates a stream-of-consciousness-like sensation of drifting from one memory to the next.

In “An Open Call to Single Daughters of Single Mothers,” which works as a daughter’s ode to her mother, she writes: 

“Come and bring your mother’s bodies: bring her naked body and her clothed body, the body she had in the kitchen and on the couch, [...] don’t forget her brand-new-nails body and her discipline body-–the do-your-homework body, her packing body, her jealous and honest body, her vacation body [...] And bring the materials that go with her bodies: the white linen pants, rayon multicolor shirts, green spandex dress, leather jacket, bring all her purses with their hangy purse things; [...] leave Atlanta first home fast with your mother’s body danger the man danger the stuck, you’ll want to peel off her bronzed skin, to hold her, for the rest of your life.”

Urgency and grief, coinciding with innocence — or the loss of it — feels central to the emotional landscape of Sugar Work. The grief stems from Marya’s father’s cocaine addiction, her brother’s subsequent struggle, and the abandonment of her child-self and mother. In “Father,” we get the following lines: “Holy your goneness. / Holy your disappearing feet.” This poem sets the tone for the cresting rise-and-fall for the rest of the collection, which can be seen again in “Woman with Ocean-Dad.” Here Marya writes, “When I see you holding 3-year-old me at the beach / in that FB photo you post every year on my birthday, // the massive tank of your water life creaks / open, fills my adult house, chops each pier // at the knees, drowns my husband, the sofa / and clean towels, my favorite mug and spoon. // I float through this annual lucid coma in search / of your face, but you are water–a typhoon.” The implications of Marya as adult-child paired with her nostalgia, the Facebook photographs, and the unspooling of emotions as a “typhoon” remind the reader that this grief is constantly in flux. 

Poems like “Daughter of an Atlanta Stripper,” “The Gold Club,” “First Sex,” and “My First Period” reveal the emotional highs of Sugar Work, while playing with the concept of innocence. Most of these poems also do the heavy lifting of showing a close-knit mother-daughter relationship. Of this, she writes in “Daughter of an Atlanta Stripper:: “In the back I snoop through drawers / of sequined lingerie, tubes of glitter / lipstick. Mom catches me, lets me pick / a scrunchy, lets me try the lightest shade.”

Marya calls herself “Lover” throughout the collection, as one who loves for its own sake. In this, she cherishes the memories love creates, whether it’s with a boy on a mission trip, herself, her plants, or ex-husband. Such can be seen in the poem, “Exaltation”: “I am not afraid of my feelings anymore: butter beans on which I squeeze lemon / juice, crystal faces, hot risotto, the duration of an arrow, that orchestra of play in the face of sorrow, // joy joy joy joy joy sounds — // the circle in the middle of joy a portal and we are radiant.” It is this audacious energy, unafraid of celebrating love and joy, even minute examples of them, that offers a moment of pause, allowing readers to take in Marya’s  work.

This poem drifts between concrete images and the abstract in rare moments of total freedom, and reads like others in the collection, as a long-awaited epiphany. Overall, Sugar Work deftly and powerfully honors relationships, nostalgia, and love in all their various forms, with the added gift of Marya’s unique perspective. 

Sugar Work
By Katie Marya
Alice James Books
Published June 7, 2022