Saturday, June 3, 2017

Switzerland as the main character - A memoir by Poet Sarah Gorham . . .

Christal Rice Cooper

Sarah Gorham’s
Alpine Apprentice A Memoir
“Her Tight Rubber Band”

       I am so sick and tired of those travel books that only tell the story about the person and what she went through while living in that specific place.  In the process of reading these typical travel books, you as a reader only connect with the way the writer connects with the place, and not the place itself.

       Reading Sarah Gorham’s Alpine Apprentice, published by University of Georgia Press ( on March 1, 2017) was a breath of fresh air for me, both literally (I could almost breath the white winter air) and figuratively.

In Alpine Apprentice (jacket cover by Erin Kirk New ) Gorham presents the mountainous Bernese-Oberland, Switzerland as its own character, which I connected with as a reader. 

Erin Kirk New, middle 

       It was the late 1960s and 15-year-old Gorham (( lived with her parents and four younger sisters in Washington D.C. where she attended the Gordon Junior High School.  It was at the school that she was bullied. 

"It had happened to me: my scant seventy-six pounds launched into air by three muscular, fully developed girls, then shoved back onto the toilet, where I trembled fro two class periods, making absolutely sure the bullies were gone before safety-pinning my stockings back together again and venturing out."

                       Sarah at age 17

As a result of being bullied and fear of the political trauma of the day, Gorham exhibited inappropriate behaviors out of desperation, which included her bullying her four younger sisters.

Sarah Gorham far right. 

  Her parents out of their own desperation did what they though was best for all five of their daughters and sent their oldest daughter Gorham to The Ecole d’Humanite, a boot-camp type of boarding school, located in the mountainous Bernese-Oberland, Switzerland.    

       Gorham spent two year at The Ecole d’Humanite, founded in 1934 by Paul and Edith Geheeb.    

       Gorham reveals in her preface how Switzerland never left her consciousness; in fact it has held in her consciousness like a tight rubber-band for over 40 years.

"Two years in a Swiss boarding school has elongated over my lifetime, a rubber band with no spring back.  It is tucked deep into my character, making absolutely clear – though every cell in my body resists this in its constant replenishment – I am still that adolescent, like it or not.  Family, profession, and all accomplishments fade to black."

                               Sarah Gorham in March of 2009
       That adolescent in a woman’s body has quite a list of accomplishments: She received her BA from Antioch College, and her MFA from the University of Iowa.   

                          Sarah Gorham, standing in the middle, fifth from left. 

      Gorham is a poet, essayist, and is president and editor-in-chief at Sarabande Books (, which she co-founded with her husband poet and playwright Jeff Skinner (   

       The two, who reside in Prospect, Kentucky, celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary this past May.

Left, Sarah and Jeff on their wedding day inYaddo's Rose Garden.
Right, Sarah and Jeff celebrating Sarabande's 15th anniversary. 

       She’s published four books of poetry:  Don’t Go Back to Sleep (Galileo Press, 1989); The Tension Zone (Four Way Books, 1996); The Cure (Four Way Books, 2003); and Bad Daughter (Four Way Books, 2011).

She’s also written the collection of essays, Study in Perfect (University of Georgia Press, 2014).

       Alpine Apprentice A Memoir is about Gorham’s school schedule, the classes she took, the books she read, the food she ate (potatoes!), letters, and the typical things that all teenagers have to confront:  sex, the opposite sex, alcohol, drugs, friends from different cultures, and homesickness.  In the below excerpt she talks about Swiss German versus High German, which can also be translated to the teenager making the choice between being a child or an adult.

"The experts might say it’s better to master one tongue at a time.  Forget modern dance till you’ve mastered ballet. Don’t improvise till you can read music.  But when you’re tugged in two directions, as any adolescent is – Am I child or adult?  Follower or leader?  Bad girl or good? – the choice is not so simple.  The miracle of Swiss versus High German is that you can have it both ways.  You can flip from one kind of person to another.  You can hang with your homies and please your teacher.  You can swear boorishly and serve as a fine example for your Kameraden.  Care to appear highly articulate or super intimidating?  You have the tools.  Pluck an Olympic-size word from the air.  Impress them.  Then right before they roll their eyes to the heavens, let go the sloppiest, salt-of-the-earth, most repulsive insult you can think of.  Impress them more."   


       Intertwined are numerous photographs throughout the book as well as descriptions of the character Switzerland, its origin, its history, and its terrain, which at many points is poetic, and in my opinion, Gorham at her best.

"Warning, the Waters of Switzerland are deceiving.  Glassy brooks slip through pastures and trip down hillsides carrying the invisible filth of cow hooves, but the water is completely transparent; it suggests purity, not poison.  A fairy tale lake in bright shades of green appear around the bend of a steep looping trail.  You are far from the lagoons of Florida; the little sunset ponds of New Hampshire; the bays of Wisconsin; Martha’s Vineyard, Bethany, Assateague – the populated beaches of your childhood.  This lake is gem-faultless, polished and gleaming.  Look!  Heroic nixes are, even now, beckoning . . . vapor shaped and gauzy.  They ride the rolling peaks of wind-formed ripples.  Pray tell, what century is it?  Hear them murmur, whispering till they have you doffing your clothes on the pebbled sand jumping stark naked into their clutches.  Your breath is snatched away (sting of a snake, knife cut).  Now you stroke faster and faster to keep yourself warm, then slower and slower, floating sleepy now, nodding too far from the shore.  Few words are equal to the water’s temperature and sensation as it slips over your face. If you froze to death right here, who would care?  Would you care?"       


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