Today, I've finished re-reading Susan's newest book, The Alchemist's Kitchen, and I'm muddling through how to best describe this wonderfully dense and diverse book.
First, a little backstory: I fell in love with Susan Rich's poetry when reading her first book, The Cartographer's Tongue (White Pine Press, 2000). In particular, the poem "The Mapparium" entranced me. Susan has lived a traveler's life, working for the Peace Corps and other human rights organizations. Her poetry blends her love of the foreign with an ability to write of our humanness with empathy. I highly recommend y'all check it out.
Then, to my great joy, Susan began a blog last year in anticipation of the publication of the book, and then I was lucky enough to meet her in person at AWP. In fact, on the day she had her signing, I actually sat down next to her at a panel and met her there first. Serendipity like that makes AWP the wonder that it is.
Now, to the book, since I feel that Susan is a friend, I'll use her first name, as it seems awkward to stick with the academic standard after I've gotten to know someone.
While there isn't a narrative arc to the book, there is a clear sense that these exact poems belong together in this exact order. This ability to weave conversations between individual poems is something I admire and envy. These poems do consider the international, as Susan's past books have done, but there are also poems that seem more explorations of the poet's current place as a woman in mid-life, poems that question the aging process, especially as a woman unattached. Like January Gill O'Neil's Underlife that I wrote about the other day, I'm in awe of Susan's ability to open herself, her life view in these poems, and expose what may seem vulnerable to the reader.
To start, here's a bit of a poem that touches on the political, but also shows off Susan's wonderful ability with sound and with details. It's also a study in concision. She says so much with so few words. Listen to the beginning of "Day of the Global Heart":
The way of the heart
is that it shifts --
speaks in lace,
in blood red phrases:
Wow, just let those lines roll around on your tongue for a while and you should see why I enjoy Susan's work.
I also admire Susan's work with ekphrastic poems. The second section (of three) is composed of poems inspired by the photographs and life of Myra Albert Wiggins, a woman of the Northwest (as is Susan), whose life spanned the end of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. I hadn't known of her work, but now, having read the poems, I plan to check her out. A testament to Susan's ekphrastic poems is that they work beautifully as poems without any knowledge of the art itself on my part.
Finally, there are poems in the third section of the book that feature a speaker heading toward 50 and working through her relationships with men and romance/love, among other topics. These poems are frank, avoiding the overly sentimental with the gift of grace and wonderful details. I have to admire one poem in particular because of the underlying humor that Susan brings to the page. Here is the poem in full.
You Might Consider . . .
how my long life of losing men
could create a new international sport.
Men lost in the desert, men missing
in action from doorways and all night diners;
men making the most of fire
escapes, service stairs, the emergency aisle
of airplanes like United. Men
para-sailing from spaceship encounters.
I am accomplished in the world
of the see-you-later wave
as his pick-up truck disappears
traveling on to the next espresso stand.
Something in the curve of my collar,
the cut of my blouse sets them running.
They know they are in the hands of a master.
But when the coffee's on, the pumpernickel
toasted just right, I have to let them know;
I'm actually ready to let them go.
If you're interested in exploring this book more, you're in luck. Diane Lockward is hosting a poetry salon about The Alchemist's Kitchen on her blog, Blogalicious, right now. Feel free to head over there and grab a glass of wine and some cheese, day or night. Check out the interview with Susan and the comments, where Susan is answering questions from the guests. (By the way, Diane has a new book out as well. Temptation by Water is on my to buy list, as we speak.)
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The Alchemist's Kitchen
White Pine Press, 2010