July 5, 2011

Review by Ellen Miller-Mack

WOLF LAKE, WHITE GOWN BLOWN OPEN
by Diane Seuss

University of Massachusetts Press
POB 429
Amherst, MA 01004
ISBN 978-1-55849-825-9
2010, 88 pp. ,$15.95 paper,
http://www.umass.edu/umpress

Do you love language, finding yourself in a hot tub of pleasure when it flows and surprises? Then Diane Seuss is your woman. She has a compelling voice, projecting beauty and power, exuding warmth and humor: the voice of experience. In her Ars Poetica, “The cooked goose”, she begins:

I’m writing under the influence
of heartbreak and I’ve already broken

the code of silence on the subject of writing.

Along comes a potent metaphor, “the night which struck me as a big brutal cathedral” and she is a four year old living alone inside it. Just a few lines later:

I sat on the stone bench in the midst of my saints and listened
to ice melt in my whiskey. There. Now I’m fifty.

The magic of contemporary poetry just happened before
your very eyes. I’m fifty, drunk, heartbroken, the dog’s

emptied her bladder and I’m back to noticing that I’m writing

As she agonizes over word choice—will it be “bug” or “insect”—she asks: “Is this self-disclosure making us closer?”

Actually, yes.

Who wants to put up with that crap? I almost wrote crapola,
that’s the kind of career-ruining shit I’ve come down to.

This is not your everyday self-effacement. She is very skillful, bold and funny. And you can bet that sitting among her saints on that stone bench are demons.

Robert Hass said: “Metaphor is a participatory act; it surprises the hearer into self-knowledge. It heightens his relationship to himself.” “Drunk” serves as a metaphor for that feeling of exposure, even shame, as we write our hearts out, or wish we could. Indeed, metaphor in Seuss’s hands carries us across that river.

“Let’s meet somewhere outside time and space” is a psalm-like, gorgeously lyrical love poem to poetry, or to her muse or to the embryonic poems within. Several recurrent and engaging themes are woven in: ice cream, cherries, a wedding dress and lilacs.

Seuss appears to be obsessed with time, like many (if not all) poets. In a poem called “This is Now” she writes about the past, when

t

he black phone had a cord curly
as a pig’s tail. You could only stray

so far, three choices
for pizza toppings. emerald green shampoo

through which a pearl would sink slowly,
and breck, thin and gold,

princess elixir.

“So far” alludes to social constraints, but also distance in time and space. In several other poems, lilacs seem to represent the passage of time—they bloom and intoxicate in early spring so fleetingly that we grieve before the season peaks.

If you sense the presence of autobiographical poems, they are here, engagingly so, with vivid detail and strong feeling, as are persona poems, on that familiar continuum of imagination and experience. In “I’m glorious in my destruction like an atomic bomb” I feel the urgency of conjuring up a woman with a “big body cinched / by a tight black dress, funnel / cloud spilling cleavage” but the poem becomes heavy and somewhat immovable when the reader is confronted with phrases representing challenging, if not tragic, circumstances:

abortion(s)Kevin’s heroin
overdose Mikel’s AIDS forty-eight
hours of labor divorce poverty
roof collapse assault red bud
tree sliced in half leg snapped off
at the high water mark—

An ingeniously constructed and highly successful persona poem is “I met a moon-faced man.” In the poem itself “i” is lower case, of particular interest when we find out the speaker refers to “back in the days when i had a body.” She who is free (yet brooding) in another dimension muses over a man who had “blown away half his face”—but now—could it be—he may have become a third quarter moon. “I liked to take walks with him, liked to gaze up / into his monstrous face. he was taller than I ever dreamed of being.” This poem has strikingly long lines, in three-line stanzas. Not much white space, although the moon-faced man has half a face. Three-line stanzas for the third quarter moon? Seuss’s poems are balanced appealingly on the page, and she goes with two-line stanzas (heroic couplets) in many of the poems in this volume.

Seuss is also intrigued with, if not obsessed by, what she calls binaries. Not to be confused with opposites or paradoxes, a binary has two parts or subjects, or it’s the combination of two benign substances to make one dangerous one. The exploration of binaries is the underlying theme of the book. Good and evil occupy one body, as do life and death. The wedding gown—in various stages, worn, not worn, being sewn, and even a “trillium’s white gown blown open” in the title poem is a dramatic symbol for present/future, and life/death. In the final poem, “the mewlings and snippings of baby birds,” it’s “off to the seamstress”:

with pins in her mouth, and off to the wedding
chapel, and off to the maker of shrouds, same
lady, same quick needle made of silver light.

But before we go to the seamstress, let’s go to the State Line Dairy, where “the cherries in the sherbet are harvested from virgins” in “You like it, don’t you, you like it hard and cold.” Reading the title, you can hear the nervous titters in the audience, but trust me, this is a delicious and deep tour of someplace real and full of life in the form of a breathless sentence which is 19 lines long and may or may not be a prose poem. It takes up space, like an actual place, like a town. Maybe it’s a town in Michigan, where the poet was born and lives currently, as the writer-in-residence at Kalamazoo College.

So much exuberance and personality in this Juniper Prize-winning book! Here’s one of the many poems that move and delight me. See if you feel Muriel Rukeyser hovering overhead.


Song in my heart

If there’s pee on the seat it’s my pee,
battery’s dead I killed it, canary at the bottom
of the cage I bury it, like God tromping the sky
in his undershirt carrying his brass spittoon,
raging and sobbing in his Hush Puppy house
slippers with the backs broke down, no Mrs.
God to make him reasonable as he gets out
the straight razor to slice his hair off his face,
using the Black Sea as a mirror when everyone
knows the Black Sea is a terrible mirror,
like God is a terrible simile for me but like
God with his mirror, I use it.

_____________

Ellen Miller-Mack received an MFA in Poetry this past June from Drew University. Forthcoming are poems in 5 A.M. and Affilia and a review in the Valparaiso Poetry Review. Ellen co-authored the Real Cost of Prisons Comix, published by PM Press. She is an nurse practitioner providing primary care in a community health center in Springfield, Massachusetts. She can be contacted at: ellenmiller-mack@comcast.net.