There is a land simultaneously outside and within the South’s most epochal places and symbols: Atlanta and its dull sprawl, Mobile’s tony white sands, Graceland’s rock-and-roll shrine, and New Orleans’s weekly excuses to party. What sometimes seems like a projection flickering on the southeast part of the nation has another side not so brochure-ready. Grubby, wild-eyed children play on tires. Yards are speckled with a rusted symphony’s worth of shapes.
Selah Saterstrom evokes this land and life in The Pink Institution, letting gusts of fresh, tart air blow into the old halls of Southern Gothic. Rustic and resourceful, The Pink Institution uses a different structure for each of its five sections. The first is fractured by excerpts from found texts; the second organized in object blocks; “Psalter: (Birth Interim),” the third and only section to be titled, is a small group of prose poems centered around a prayer; the fourth features prose passages occasionally mediated by semi-colons; while the fifth fittingly unravels into “Scene” and “Gesticulations.” This structural costume-changing is pursued with just the right combination of play, gravity, and restraint. Photographs of a little girl’s poofy-dressed back and two blurry figures by a house, unattributed quotes like “The day the war began is known as Ruination Day”—all compellingly test this rotted tableau of four generations of Mississippi women.
Abella resides at the top of this polluted lineage; though concerned with appearances, she inexplicably marries Micajah, violent and alcoholic.The short prose passages covering their disturbed union are ruptured by large spaces between the words. The excerpts from the Confederate Ball Program Guide 1938, with text smears noted in brackets, reinforce this sense that these stories, and information in general, and the history of the South in particular, are subject to degradation.
But even before Abella, “it began with a mother / dropping a spoon or a knife / it began pink translucent vein slippered / wrapped in baby skin inside a mother.” This accidental pink tempers and stains the rest of the book, agile for summoning femininity, physics, blood, and violence.
In section two, lists of objects appear under the headings “Childhood,” “Maidenhood,” and “Motherhood” and are meant, in their blunt accumulation, to convey the experiences of Azalea (Abella’s troubled off- spring) and husband Willie, a district judge, and their four daughters. Most of the “objects” are hardly objects at all (“Louisiana,”“Whistling”); “Bracelets” refers to the scars from daughter Aza’s first of many suicide attempts.
Ghosts lurk in every corner of The Pink Institution. Even when a live, here-and-now person, such as Aza’s unnamed daughter, steps out of the shadows, her actual existence seems questionable.When the unnamed daughter nearly drowns, the experience is less menacing than familiar: “Things slowed, were blue and pleasant. Then there was a terrible hugging. But after, things became clear. I liked it.”
Moments of respite come infrequently, in the form of a painting, a guttural noise, or rescue, as when Aza dives in after her daughter. “We were facing each another and she was holding me.” But like every reprieve before, this one is short-lived, tainted by the acknowledgement that her mother “hated saving children.” So much suffering, negligence, and many other less oblique horrors could make a book unbearable, but Saterstrom delivers it all with a keen sense of balance and determination.