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Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open by Diane Suess
In 2010, I received 180 poetry books in the mail. All had been published that year, and the single book, (by an author that I’d never heard of), that surprised me the most, the one that grabbed me by the throat and refused to let go was Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open by Diane Seuss, winner of the Juniper Prize (University of Massachusetts Press). I placed the book on the syllabus for a class this spring to have my face forced back into its pages, and also to see if my initial reactions survived closer reading.
The book continues to wow. Here are some things I scribbled in the margins: “a female Frank Stanford”; “love the lapses in decorum”; “stunning, violent imagination”; “diction is alive, lots of movement and surprise”; “Eleanor Lerman won this prize years ago and somehow that makes sense”; “a broken person trying to pull it together with one hand and tear it apart with the other”.
Here is a poem of Seuss’, Song in my Heart, that appears on the Poetry Foundation website:
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 the 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.
I love the specificity of diction of this poem, which allows the author to play to my senses, to create distinct visual images in my brain. I also love how this poem builds and turns. The first line is seemingly playful: pee on a toilet seat, but as the images accumulate, the effect changes. By line three, we have three things that the speaker is taking responsibility for: pee on a seat (stakes low and playful); the car battery dead (stakes a little higher, potential personal neglect); a dead canary, a songbird, in its cage (stakes much higher, definite personal neglect). The poem is psychologically interesting: speaker is taking responsibility for the facts of her environment, but is also not so responsible as a human being. We have been playfully lured into a poem that is not so playful.
Then god appears via an extended simile that makes up over half the poem. This is not god up in the clouds; this is a tactile, detailed (flawed) deity—we see him, disheveled, potentially dangerous, holding “a straight razor” with the intention to “slice”. Yes, it’s just hair that he wants to slice “off his face”, but it’s still ominous.
Then there is the gorgeous mirror image, where God lifts out of the mundane human realm into which Seuss has placed him and is suddenly grand again, using the Black Sea as a mirror. This image is intoxicating, both as a visual image and also as an intellectual concept, but the poem quickly ricochets back into playfulness with the line “when everyone knows the Black Sea is a terrible mirror”. This line is funny for its surprise: the line before gets subverted; a mirror that’s painted black would not function as a mirror; and yet everyone does not know that the Black Sea is a terrible mirror, which adds to the comedy.
I admire the authorial control that whips us through the last several lines, each line making us re-frame the poem. Ultimately the way the speaker is both accountable and neglectful mirrors the way the speaker is both serious and joking. By the end, the reader is unsettled, not sure what to believe. The speaker is undoubtedly unreliable; we probably wouldn’t want to live with her, but we do want to keep listening to her. And the paradox is that while she hints at danger and neglect in her real life, she is attentive and alert in her poems.