16 September 2009

Two chapbooks by Susan Terris

Poetic License Adastra Press, 2004 20 pages, $14.00 The Wonder Bread Years Pudding House Chapbook Series, 2009 30 pages, $10.00 Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer Susan Terris is a versatile poet, and these two very interesting chapbooks are quite different from each other. Poetic License, the earlier of the two, is a tribute to forty poets, divided into thematic groups like “On Love,” “On Fear,” “On Loss,” “On Consolation.” Each poet is represented by one 7-line poem, and four of these short poems make up each thematic group. In Terris’s words, she is attempting to “capture a fleeting, impressionistic view of how each of these poets speaks to the world,” using some of their characteristic vocabulary in each poem while at the same time writing her own new poem as an homage to the poet--a kind of snapshot of the poet’s themes and style. The poets are well known-- Bishop, Plath, Stevens, Auden, Roethke, Pinsky, Hirshfield, Collins, Dickinson, Frost, Gl├╝ck, among others--and the reader has the enjoyable feeling of encountering old friends in new outfits. The poems are skillfully written and do a good job of evoking each poet--for example, here are some lines from the Jane Hirshfield poem: “Sometimes a snake coiled/ On a rock will flick out his tongue,/ Test the possibility of change.” And here is Billy Collins: “I am amazed/ By the hat, the gun, the sudden flash/ As water seeks its own level.” It’s almost impossible to separate the pleasure of reading these poems from the pleasure of looking at this chapbook and holding it in the hand. Beautifully designed and hand-typeset by Gary Metras of Adastra Press, the book is letterpress printed on heavy cream paper, folded and sewn by hand. The lovely interior design accommodates the structure of this book perfectly: there are two 7-line poems on each page, separated by an ornament, and the title of each poem is the first name of the poet in a handsome italic font. In order to help the reader identify the poets (the style and the first name usually, but not always, provide enough clues), there are two foldout pages in the book--one at the beginning and one halfway through--that list the poets’ full names. I feel that this book is a labor of love--both the writing, as an homage to the forty poets, and the printed chapbook itself, as a beautiful example of the bookmaker’s art. It’s very good to know that this kind of bookmaking with patient hand labor still exists. The Wonder Bread Years is very different in tone and appearance. This chapbook is centered in the 1950s, as represented by its material culture--the cover shows a mother and daughter in a typical kitchen of the time, putting the finishing touches on dinner while the father relaxes in the next room with the newspaper. A look at the Contents page is full of nostalgia for anyone who grew up in that era: among the poem titles are “Carpet Sweeper,” “Brownie Box Camera,” “Shoe Fitting X-Ray Device,” “Soda Fountain,” “Double Feature,” “Victrola,” “Phone Booth,” “Skate Keys,” “Running Board,” “Laundry Chute.” (One could say that our culture is poorer, or at least very different, without all these wonderful objects and devices.) Terris is very good at evoking the look, feel, even the smell of these objects, as in the “sweet alcohol stink” of the ditto machine, or the “shadows of my foot bones/ moving inside the outlines of new Mary Janes” in the shoe-fitting X-ray device. Her voice is lively and humorous, and she also brings out what it was like to be female in that era, with painfully achieved permanent waves and constricting girdles and “tit enlargement machines,” as well as the unspoken “maxims for life” that girls absorbed from the culture: “Never take what you really want./ Do make do. Never ask for more.” In the later poems in the book, the speaker is older--there are references to wedding presents, to the poet’s having a daughter, then three children. A recurring image in these last several poems is that of a key--for example, in “Running Board” she talks about watching “Father’s old movies . . . trying to find the key to who I was/am.” I would have liked to hear more about these connections between the speaker’s growing-up years and her adult life as a mother and poet. In “Smith-Corona Typewriter” we learn that the poet went to grad school and is a perfectionist about writing, and that now she has a daughter who marvels that there used to be typewriters that didn’t have a screen--but it’s a poem of reminiscence where we don’t hear much about the speaker’s feelings. In the final poem Terris constructs a “Rube Goldberg machine” from many of the objects described in the book--garter belt, metal curlers, film strip, skate key, reel, roller, bobby pin, etc.--and ends with these lines: “When I finish building/ My Rube machine, it won’t call my mother/ or feed the dog. But, with luck, if I find the key,/ it will, somehow, make up the last poem for this book.” Maybe the key that unlocks the past and explains who we are can’t ever really be found--but poetry is one of the best ways we have to try to do that, and these evocative poems are an interesting exploration of that territory.