Thursday, March 7, 2019

Travel Notes from the River Styx - Susanna Lang (Terrapin Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Travel Notes from the River Styx.  Susanna Lang.  Terrapin Books.  West Caldwell, New Jersey.  2017.


Today's book of poetry's first impression of Susanna Lang's Travel Notes from the River Styx is of a haunting, a ghost trail, a ghost voice.  Or perhaps it is just affectionate trepidation.  But Lang's poems get between your fingers and toes like mud or mist, flowing where they want.  These poems are not incantations but they are certainly precarious spells of some kind.

And Susanna Lang really hammer and tongs our hearts when she brings out the big guns, Saint Anna Akhmatova, our beloved, on to the playing field.  Travel Notes from the River Styx entertains, if that's the word we want to use, but it comes at a price.  The entertainment marches along with dread.  And then the crafty Lang drops a Ben Sidran moment on the readers and we go limp with surprise and joy.  Susanna Lang must possess a wicked sense of humour under her cheeky smirk.


Wind empties the sky of all but its own force, carries
a concrete dock from Misawa

five thousand miles across the ocean, encrusted with thirty species 
not seen before on this side of the world:

sea stars, urchins, gooseneck barnacles, snails, seaweed, kelp,
shore crabs—but not like ours, creatures

that have survived the winds and deep water; curls and ribbons,
protruding eyes and tongues

the color of blood. We bury the lot eight feet under sand
and higher than a storm would surge.

Starved of salt water, they'll none of them live; or
so we hope.

I sleep in one country, wake in another, dream and daydream in two
languages, lose words in both.

This year the heat comes early, frost comes late, burns the blossoms
on the trees, blights the harvest—

apples, cherries, apricots, all the stone fruit. But in the backyard
of a brick two-flat on the southwest side of the city

small green knobs hang half-hidden in the leaves, until birds
come to ravish them:

durazno in the language of the house, momo in the language
of the dock, a sweetness in the air.

Losing ground, losing home, only the blur of wings
and that fragrance.

RED ROJO written in chalk on the sidewalk, GREEN VERDE
and a goldfinch

singing in the tree above, returned from its yearly journey.
My family came to stay

but not in one place. One country, too many cities.
I found a clamshell yesterday

by the backyard fence, where it should not have been;
but there have been others.

My real country is not a place, the monk says when he is expelled
from the country where he has lived

for decades, though he cannot forget the desert and its fragile icons.
My real country is heaven.


Today's book of poetry wants to tell you how Susanna Lang sustains such a solid presence with these poems  Travel Notes from the River Styx is a full seven course meal that satisfies at every turn.  The appetizers are engaging, the soup as fine as your favourite grandmother used to make.  The main course is varied, filling, solid and rewarding.  Dessert a surprising dollop.  All of this to say that Susanna Lang can burn.  And you know how much we love that here at Today's book of poetry.

Another sure sign that Susanna Lang's Travel Notes from the River Styx is worth your poetry time is that almost every poem in this tasty collection has already been published in a literary magazine that we all want to appear in.

Languorous forces and a memory for the ages.  Lang jumps over those Russian steppes and her grandparents history in poems rich with irony, fear and hope.  Today's book of poetry is always happy to find the hope element.  Much like Lynne Knight (our last blog/review was of Knight's The Language of Forgetting), Lang evokes memory, calling upon it to reveal some truths for the present.

After You Get Up Early on Memorial Day

You take the cats out with you, shut
the door: I have the whole wide bed, all
the covers to fall back asleep in, while you
cut up and sugar the strawberries, grind
the coffee, leave the radio off
so I won't be disturbed. The room is still
dark, rain forecast for the entire day,
other people's family picnics cancelled,
barbeques moved into basements, parades
rerouted to avoid flooded viaducts, the iris
losing petals beside newly cleaned graves,
their mason jars spilt into the saturated ground.
But here is my holiday, this drift back beneath thought
while I lie in the warm impression of your body.


Our morning read reflected an office in flux.  Today's book of poetry has been undergoing some major changes and apologizes once again for our recent tardiness.  Steps are being put in place to correct those issues.  None the less, Travel Notes from the River Styx is just the bromide needed to start our poetry engine and yours.

Susanna Lang, the storyteller, reminds Today's book of poetry of Saint Alistair of MacLeod, if he were writing poetry.  Disguised as poems, Lang's stories inhabit the reader, memory lurks at every turn.  Lang is working towards a conclusion, each poem another solid addition to her platform, a foundation forged in another time.


My father, who studied these things, would have said
that we become more so as we grow older.
I don't know if he invented the phrase or borrowed it
from one of the books he read and handed on to me
before I was ready; but more so became a word
in our family, a way to explain my mother
shifting the vase half a centimeter to its predetermined
place on the end table, or our friend whose skin
after the heart attack let the light through.
We collected words, like child of God
which meant the way Sister Ann pulled Rene downstairs
by his ear, reminding herself and everyone in earshot of where
we all come from and how to love what fights against us.
Or heron, which meant so much more than the blue-gray
shadow that flew over the canal we insisted on calling
a river, meant afternoons on real rivers up north and Sundays
at the natural history museum, the living bird's crooked neck
and long beak so like the artist's rendering of what flew
above this place in the beginning. It's enough to make you believe
in a Garden of Eden, if you can imagine an Eden
that grows and changes, perennials coming in more thickly,
roses a deeper hue than they were before, but the beds
still marked. And now a previously unknown species of tailorbird
has been discovered in a suburban tree, vibrating
with its own song, new cap on its head, new name
in the books. We still need a word for the primate
that loosened up its shoulders like a slingshot, ready to throw
what would one day be called a fastball, my father
sitting in the stands with my brother, one face reminiscent
of the other, both cheering for the pitcher and his evolving arm.


So, in conclusion.  We have discovered, much to our delight, that Susanna Lang can burn, baby, burn.  You all know how much we like that here at Today's book of poetry.

Susanna Lang

Susanna Lang is the author of Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013) and Even Now (The Backwaters Press, 2008). She has also published two collections of her translations of poems by Yves Bonnefoy, Words in Stone (University of Massachusetts Press, 1976) and The Origin of Language (George Nama, 1979). A two-time Hambidge Fellow and recipient of the Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Bethesda Writer's Center, she has published her poems and essays in such journals as New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Green Mountains Review, and Poetry East. She lives in Chicago, where she teaches in the Chicago Public Schools.

In the earnest and beautiful Travel Notes from the River Styx, Susanna Lang peers into the tiny mirrors of a river’s current, the mirror her father cannot see himself in, the rearview mirror in which she spies sandhill cranes on an afternoon drive as she interrogates the natural and, at times, unnatural world. The result is a collection of double images: the moon a “copper coin with the sheen worn off,” “the flag [that] slips down the pole,” the country where her grandmother was born once called Russia, now Ukraine. As clear in its language as it is rich in argument, there’s something for everyone in Travel Notes, for travelers are exactly what this poet proclaims we are. It’s impossible to read this collection without wondering what doubles wait/lurk/reside beneath the skin of our bodies and of our world.
     —Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


Today's book of poetry would like to give a shout out to Steven Heighton, our Canadian colleague, who has been recently named as one of four finalists for the Moth Poetry Prize.  You can get more information about that here:

Today's book of poetry sends our best wishes and all our crossed fingers for Mr. Heighton.



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.
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