Review by Anne McDuffie (email)
CURES INCLUDE TRAVEL
by Susan Rich
White Pine Press , P.O. Box 236 , Buffalo, New York 1420; ISBN-13:978-1-893996-75-5, 99 pp., $14.00
"For me," writes Susan Rich, "the external journey of the traveler and the internal mapping of the poet are different sides of one central desire: the search for an extended worldview." With a background that includes work in Niger (West Africa), Bosnia, Gaza and South Africa, she writes from a sensibility shaped by her observations of suffering, struggle, and the resilience of the human spirit. In her poems, she seeks always to unite the individual story and history, the personal and the political, "reaching," as she says in "Flight Path," "beyond a horizon / where everything is travel, everything / enlivened along its open path."
The first section, "Guidebook," begins at home, and speaks to the intersection of individual paths through time and space. "Not a Prayer," a meditation on life in the midst of death, is one of several poems that Rich dedicates to the memory of her mother. In it, she reminds us "how transformation happens / regularly as dusk enraptures day, /the half-averted gaze, the glass / of morphine placed by her bedside." These poems manage to still and contain moments of connection within a more expansive vision. In "The dead eat blueberry scones for breakfast," "some food, some drink, soon opens / awakening to a new place…" The simple act of breakfasting pins the dead and the living to the same point in time, and the speaker imagines
they mime the domesticity we simply
breathe in and then just as recklessly let go--
our every action alive with their echo.
In "Mapping the Territory at Alki Beach," this point is physical--a park bench--whose occupant
leaves particles of sloughed off skin and a pear
so that next year a boy will run from his father's arms
using all his useless strength and shimmy-up
a splendid ruin; a sun-drenched, bird-marked,
fruit-stained bench, to shout from one
parallel point in time, This globe is mine.
Such points of contact connect the poems as well--a word or image repeats, creating echoes that link one poem to another in a drive toward unity. The Xhosa women selling wildflowers on the roadside in "For Sale" echo in the young man selling oranges off the back of his truck in the next poem, "The dead eat blueberry scones for breakfast," and the swan in that poem, "keening as he circles our silvered lake" echoes "silver scooters that swirl / along the waterfront" in the following poem, "Mapping the Territory at Alki Beach"--each link contributing to the sense of a single, expansive worldview in which we are all connected.
Loneliness, aloneness, is the central plight in many of these poems. In "Fissure," the speaker recalls driving in Capetown, "my now / ex-fiancé’s words to me, / I can do better echoing" when she spots a homeless boy she's seen before, bedding down for the night on a traffic roundabout. The boy's unsheltered solitude parallels her own emotional state, but Rich doesn't dwell there. She's not interested in self-serving empathy or in moralizing about our tendencies toward self-absorption. Instead, she hones in on the moment when vision opens outward, encompassing both a lover's harsh words and a city indifferent to its children: "the flint and fissure of our / time’s brutality…where we all speak like beggars / with no precaution for the rain."
It's a delicate balancing act to portray the end of a love affair and extreme poverty as resulting from the same internal forces at work. Rich knowingly breaks taboos--for example, taking the line "If You Could Lick My Heart It Would Poison You," from Claude Landsmann's film "Shoah" about the Warsaw Uprising, for use in a deliciously spiteful villanelle about a lover "too weak to choose, / between a luminous life, and the other, safer, one." It wouldn't work if not for the fact that, taken together, these poems create context for each other--just as individual histories and our collective history must if we're to see either one clearly. In "Photograph, May 10, 1933," the girl's naivete and eagerness for diversion leads her to think "a torch light parade, bonfires by the opera house / sounded fine…" until she finds herself at a book burning, "Helen Keller / evicted along with Einstein, then Marx." The following poem, "A Poem for Mr. Raphael Siv at the Irish Jewish Museum," places both the event and the photograph more exactly. Like the Rex Begonias in "Everyone in Bosnia Loves Begonias," these poems are about “preserving each family's story," whether Rich's own (she names herself in "Polishing Stars" and later, in "My Mother Returns at Low Tide,") or those of the people she's known, or read about, or simply seen in photographs. She gives them their own words whenever possible, re-imagines without dramatizing, and doesn't rank or weight one experience over another. Her approach is disconcerting, and also, refreshing.
Section II, "Talking Geography," examines notions of "home" and the loss of it. "What stays the same but the skin / we're traveling in…" the speaker asks in "What You Americans Should Know: Partial Stories." The statelessness of exiles and refugees making their way to a new country on fragile connections ("Maybe an old family friend, a half- brother's / half-sister, the aunt of Habiba's first husband") may also be felt in poems about the loss of a parent, or the invisibility of a single woman "marking the middle distance." Home is temporal--a state we achieve moment by moment--and also bounded by the desires of others. Poems like "Ghazal for Everyone," which addresses the war America has waged in response to September 11, and "Bosnia, Again," which examines the dire results of such a war, show the dark side of the impulse to protect what we love. In a divided town near Sarajevo,
…the Muslims control water
and Croats electricity,
no one here breathes, and I imagine,
behind balconies of begonias,
no one sleeps.
"The Women of Kismayo," describes a protest by Somali women, who bared their breasts in public to induce their men to take up arms and resist the government. Rich's poem focuses on the women’s courage, and vividly describes the impact their actions had on the men, who "moaned and covered their eyes, / screamed like spoiled children / dredged abruptly from sleep." Interestingly, the Somali novelist, Nuruddin Farah, whose article she quotes from in her notes, goes on to assert that
The women's protest achieved nothing. There was no follow-up, without an independent women's movement, and no bonding comparable to the one shared by men who swear their allegiance to the clan; any action undertaken by the women was bound to fail.
The only concession Farah makes to their impact is to say: "But the symbolic force of their act endures." That's history with a capital H, which strains the everyday for net effect. In the moment, the women's protest was a triumph, and Rich's poem preserves that sense of power. In "Special Reports," she recalls a South African widow's refusal to be coerced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "spitting dead / straight in the eyes of forgiveness" on national television. Her grief and anger have a place in the larger history of South Africa. The divide between individual memory and collective memory is rife with history to be rescued, and Rich's poems are doing just that.
The third and final section, "Border Crossings," explores the most elusive aspects of personal history--the hopes and regrets and unanswerable, often unspoken, questions we live with. "In Search of Alternate Endings" examines points in a life from which there is no going back. "The first I remember a hand on my breast," the speaker begins, groping for a way to come to terms with an abortion in the context of images of war. The incongruity of "an intact, nearly frozen, banana chiffon pie" abandoned amidst "chipped glass and rags" neatly captures her bewilderment: "The occasion / of its creation so far from where we’ve just arrived." To quote Rich quoting William Faulkner, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." And so a poem like "Emailing the Dead" points to the dangers of believing we can revisit old loves without rekindling whatever passions got us in trouble the first time. Of all the poems in Cures Include Travel, those in the third section have the narrowest scope, and the "I" remains intensely personal. In "At the Corner of Washington and Third," Rich writes, "the hardest thing would be to choose / your own life." For as far as these poems range, this collection reminds us that travel--through time, space, history and memory--is ultimately a means of finding our way home.
Anne McDuffie's work has appeared in the anthology, Short Takes: Brief Encounters with Contemporary Nonfiction, and she reviews literary nonfiction for the Colorado Review. She's due to receive her MFA from the Rainer Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in August 2007.