by Joyce Sutphen
: Beacon Press, 1995
Review by Chris Lott
strong first book with successful poems of varying kinds:
imagistic, sparse poems of landscape and allusory meditations.
Bottom line: Worth reading. Sutphen is a strong new voice in the poetry scene.
It is hard to know on what scale to place Joyce Sutphen's volume of poetry, Straight Out of View, in order to provide at least a passable rendering of its merits. As a first volume and winner of the 1994 Barnard New Women Poet's Prize, the volume is strong. The poems are visual, often intense and generally erudite. But in comparison to other poets who write out of stark, sparsely populated country (she writes about Minnesota), such as John Haines writing out of Alaska, it is a volume that leaves one thirsty for the better work she knows this poet will produce. It is distinctly unfair to compare a first volume with the generalized output of one of the best poets in America today, but also compelling because of the similar landscapes and concerns that manifest themselves in vastly different ways: where Haines is strict and still fluid with spare images, Sutphen is firmly imagistic, experimental and expansive... sometimes overly so.
In her well-written introduction, Judith Johnson writes that Sutphen's poetry is "traditional-experimental-lyric-accessible-complex-snapshots-moving pictures-poetry of language-poetry of witness: not in turn but all at once." This is perhaps overstating the case, since on reading that I was expecting something radically divergent from the volumes of poetry which happened to be on my shelf around it, but it doesn't take long to see where Johnson would derive this characterization in a volume where poems with stanzas like this:
"When I sleep,
I dream the city.
I put a finger
in its gray navel
and peel away the skin.
When next I touch,
trees and birds
I make a stringer
of the things I catch." (Fishing New York)
are directly preceded by poems with lines as naturally compelling as these:
"In spring, the fields woke beneath us, rocks
groaning toward the surface, desperate to break
their granite teeth through the plowed skin
of land, ready to cover the hills like manna.
But the green lawn, thatched with rolls of sod,
watered without cloud or thunder, kept them down." (Rural Route 2)
Sutphen is no language poet (for which I am perversely grateful), relying on image and a deep understanding of the land which she writes about to obviate the need for linguistic or syntactic experimentation. For the most part she is successful in providing a fine picture of an often lonely but never permanently desolate place like Minnesota. Having lived in Alaska all of my life I noticed a particular resonance coming from so many lines jibing with my own experience in such landscapes, though there were also times when I felt she was mistaking brevity and clarity for a transcendant poetic-- always a danger in poetry such as hers.
What really sparks this volume, though, is the erudition and literary allusion in many of the poems. Though the poems are understandable without the references, knowing them truly enhances the reading, often giving otherwise only passable poems new life. Unlike other poets who seem intent on disguising and hiding their allusions in a vain attempt to assume the mantle of "the intellectual," Sutphen is straightforward with hers, often amusingly so, as in the poem "Augie Keeps Godot Waiting" in which the main character writes to Godot that he has bought a farm and found a woman and "Perhaps [I] will come / when this is over." Other poems are more serious including a fantastic elegy for Sylvia Plath and a playful twist on the unnamed Dylan Thomas:
"... Walking out along the
path from the castle, I tried to tell
you about villanelles and the dying of
the light, but truthfully I was
thinking more of a story by a woman
who came to the poet's grave with a
man she was about to leave and how
they stayed in a room somewhere over
there in the town that the poet
walked to each late afternoon, ready
to take up his bottle and talk." (The Famous Poet's Grave)
I find the rather obvious allusion paired with the subtle playfulness with regards to the actual message of Thomas' famous villanelle and the even more subtle hints of feminism in the poem quite admirable.
In fact, after rereading my favorite poems in the volume I realized that most of them had little to do with the Minnesota landscape or imagism. Instead I was drawn back to fine poems which, I think, demonstrate Sutphen's own understanding of poetry and being a poet: allusory elegies, experiences overseas and an outwardly amusing but heavy sequence of poems about the character "Augie" which I briefly mentioned above. I hope to see more poems of this kind and recommend this volume heartily in hopes that the universal concern will be recognized among those of the woman and the feminist which are so heavily mentioned on the jacket and in the introduction.
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