T.J. Sandella beseeches us all to consider the way we live our lives in his debut poetry collection, “Ways to Beg.” He examines in awe how far we will go and what we will accomplish in the name of self-discovery, and in the hope of defining home. This collection opens with a poem about arrival, birth, and creation, with a tone of innocent or detached curiosity, and it ends with a mournful funeral song. “If we arrive in our bodies / from somewhere else, then maybe there is / a somewhere else,” is the constant hopeful thought without a clear answer.
Harry Houdini is our first figure of sacrifice and performance, who attracts sympathy and pity for living a lesser life than he imagined. Some of us will never become the person we want to be, whether it be due to internal or external forces; some of us may never even decide what kind of person that is. Each footstep, breath and word is an individual decision that pushes us down the winding road of our lives, and even if we have an idea of where we want to end up, we may not have any idea what the journey will hold.
Many of Sandella’s poems are focused on blunt tragedy, and it is jarring to face devastation so straightforwardly. He delves into deep, shameful pieces of consciousness, and bids us to confront certain instincts we would rather deny. He treads carefully but unflinchingly through the pervasive racial issues that spur a young black man to cross the street so he is no longer following someone white. With a head hung in guilt, he confesses to the peer pressure that encourages a group of men to harrass a woman into taking off her top; and with a heart half stopped, he describes the startling mystery of a woman killing herself while her boyfriend watches. How suddenly any evening could end in death, a lifetime of an open wound, or both.
“It’s what makes us human / isn’t it / this compulsion / to prove our permanence,” Sandella writes. It is a grim truth that violence seems more captivating or long lasting than art. Hurting and betraying good people is what sticks out in our memories the most, a bright light of regret rather than a blur. It can be so easy to cause pain that we sometimes do it without even knowing, but it is so hard to haul a bruised and broken heart home.
These poems touch on the duplicity of several tender, wistful moments, like solemnly watching a funeral procession and being grateful you still have somewhere to go. There is both luck and misfortune in a child being told the same bedtime story repeatedly because the parent only knows one. We are reminded over and over again with astounding gentleness to count our blessings, and when we have finished counting, to count again. We surely miss most of the small things that are right in front of us.
The second half of Sandella’s collection fixes our eyes upon heartbreaking family matters: the suicide of a sister, the death of a mother from cancer, not a single relationship that is not strained to the point of nearly snapping. Some people are able to act strong and kind while dying for the sake of their loved ones, as if they have practiced selflessness ever since they first grasped a concept of the self. Life is often called a long rehearsal for death, and in some ways is truly just a performance, where we are all both actor and audience. We can train ourselves to treasure both the mundane and the surprising. It is a joy each time we hear a voice or witness a breath when we expect there to be nothing.
Sandella’s closing message is that we can spend our whole lives trying to live the right way, but there is not only one right way. There are so many ways to live, to love, to grieve, and of course, to beg. We just need to chase and cherish whatever resonates with us. If it sounds like these poems resonate with you, keep up with Sandella on his website https://www.tjsandella.com and on Twitter @egregiousteej.
(Black Lawrence Press, 2021)
BETHANY CRAWFORD has studied both health science and creative writing, and currently works as a medical scribe in Alabama. She was once the poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and read submissions for Spark: A Creative Anthology and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. She rants and shares photos of her ragdoll cats on Twitter @bethanylmary.