Review by Michael Meyerhofer
by Susan Browne
Steel Toe Books
Western Kentucky University
1906 College Heights Blvd. #11086
Bowling Green, KY 42101-1086
2010, 92 pp, $12.00
The poems in Zephyr, winner of the 2009 Steel Toe Books Prize in Poetry (Editor’s Choice), by Susan Browne, reminded me right away of Bob Hicok’s work—and I mean that as the highest of compliments. Browne, like Hicok, is willing to take big risks in her poems. Unlike other established poets who begin to play it safe after awhile, Browne continuously pushes the envelope, betting the success of each poem on its next line. That makes these poems daring, authentic, and fun.
As the one-word title implies, there’s a certain directness to these poems, but it’s not the directness of Zen-like brevity; rather, it’s the directness of the snappy punch line; the elegant, quick turn of phrase; the wholly unexpected image that renders you unable to imagine a thing being described any other way. Take, for example, the everyday malaise described in “Mountain”: “Maybe a map is a good thing / On those days I feel / Like I’m riding a rhino up a mountain…”
Another fine example can be found in “Tuesday,” wherein Browne perfectly captures the combination of panic and numbness felt by someone who returns home to find her house has been broken into: “The front door’s smashed open, wood busted, / Hinges broken, a dusty space / Where the TV had been, / And what you feel is Oh. / ….Then the police arrive, their radios blaring. / Sorry, they say, but this happens every day. / Oh, you say. Just Oh, nodding, wearing all / your best jewelry at once.”
She is also a poet who knows how to use line breaks (to flush out double-meanings, to create tension, to set up a joke) in an era when many other poets struggle with basic punctuation. Take, for example, the first and last lines of “At Bloomingdale’s Grand Opening in San Francisco.” Here, the laugh-out-loud humor belies what seems to be a genuine, human struggle for identity in a postmodern world:
I can’t find my way out
of the new shopping center
which was added on to the old shopping center
and now covers two million square feet of earth.
I can never go outside again,
these doors only open onto other doors,
down into the funnel of more and more,
until I’m buried in denim, ten thousand different kinds of jeans,
a cross made of diamonds driven into my heart.
Further, the unexpected turn at the end is especially striking because it combines religious, commercial, and romantic imagery all at once (plus a nod to figurative vampirism); these lines simultaneously invoke a sense of tenderness and violence, humor and sadness, that could be seen as a microcosm of the entire poem (plus the entire book as a whole).
Another thing I admire about these poems is their sense of perspective. You get from Zephyr a sense that Browne is a poet who never pulls her punches; nor, though, is she a poet of glamorous self-indulgence and melodrama. Rather, she is able to strike right to the heart of an event, its deepest essence, by maintaining a multi-dimensional perspective—which is a fancy way of saying she takes poetry seriously but knows not to take herself too seriously. Take, for instance, these lines from “Sadness”: “You wanted to be happy / but got hooked on sadness. / ….Your one hope was to be the saddest person alive / and win an award,” or this opening from “To the Moment”: “Thank God you’re here, / eternal warrior who wrestles against the joyless / onslaught of mortal ugh.” We could use a lot more poems that poke fun at the need some (many?) artists have to outdo each other’s lamentations, to view their work as more pivotal than it actually is.
“Fairy Tale Elegy” (a poem reminiscent of Jeannine Hall Gailey) is another fine example: “Once upon a time in the Land of Sad, / a girl went on a journey. / She was not a princess, except to her mother… / Her father had vanished some tipsy moons ago, / kidnapped by the pirate Captain Smirnoff.” The girl goes on to find love, but reject it because “she had to return to the Land of Sad,” perhaps a roundabout acknowledgment of just how addictive depression and sadness are in the first place (especially for those of us who find themselves in this rather odd business of words).
Browne’s poems contain plenty of vulnerability, too, as in “Hard to Believe”: “We stood by our mother’s grave / in black silk sheathes…./ My younger sister couldn’t afford a dress / so had bought one at Nordstrom, / a store known to take everything back.” Here the humor, taken in contrast with the sadness of the opening, actually makes us feel a little guilty for laughing—which could itself serve as a metaphor for funerals, since everyone knows that it’s exactly when you’re supposed to be solemn that your lip starts twitching.
What I continuously return to in Browne’s poems, though, is her taut imagery, her imaginative leaps, as in her description of a dog’s fur “rippling in sunlight like black fire,”, or this ghoulishly awkward scene described in “On Our First Date”:
He ordered oxtail, heap of dark meat
he scooped with his hands off the white plate,
saying, The marrow has the best flavor…
It’s not just the imagery but the fantastic use of assonance (especially the ominous long-O sound) plus the close attention to stressed syllables that makes these opening lines especially vivid.
Equally worthy of note are Browne’s wry observations—such as in “The Nose on Your Face,” which points out that: “In all your life, you will never see your actual face. / If you close one eye, you can gaze / at the side of your nose, but that’s it.” I think we all secretly crave a good dose of wisdom from the poems we read; wisdom starts with observations, and the wryer the better. The trick, though, is finding a poet who won’t turn you off with their own sense of self-importance, their haughty overuse of language. No such concern with Browne; here, we have a smart poet who seems to genuinely care about her readers, who hopes (rather than insists) that we leave her book just a little better off than how we arrived.
Michael Meyerhofer’s second book, Blue Collar Eulogies, was published by Steel Toe Books. His first, Leaving Iowa, won the Liam Rector First Book Award. He has also won the Marjorie J. Wilson Best Poem Contest, the James Wright Poetry Award, the Laureate Prize, the Annie Finch Prize for Poetry, and four chapbook prizes. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Quick Fiction and other journals, and can be read online at www.troublewithhammers.com.