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Review of Susanna Lang’s Travel Notes from the River Styx

Travel Notes from the River Styx -Lang
Travel Notes from the River Styx
Susanna Lang
978-0998215907
(2017 Terrapin Books)
$16

Review by Michael Eddie Anderson

Travel Notes from the River Styx is a carefully crafted study of a soul journey. Although the work is not personal in the narrow sense, it does focus on family. We live through the saga of a dying father, watch a mother giving piano lessons, and meet a son going off to college. But the larger reference is to the human family, including emigrant peoples, their experience of displacement. In “Migration” we hear their voices: “My family came to stay/ but not in one place”. The monk who says “My real country is not a place…” speaks for all those whose identity is less geographic, more relational.

Among the most striking characteristics of Lang’s poetry are its wild leaps. As in all good writing, the metaphysical rests on and arises from the physical. The poem “In the Rearview Mirror” turns our eye to five migrating Sandhill cranes. The birds stand motionless, “the long/knobby legs of their resurrection still”. This is the epiphanic leap, but the setting couldn’t be less so: a traffic jam.

Lang shows us we’ll find splendor and ecstasy in the pedestrian. Yes, these are Travel Notes and we do indeed pole down a mythical river, but as the opening citation from TS Elliot reminds us, in every true journey we “arrive where we started” – we end up at home.

Many unknowns await us before we get there. In the title poem, which opens section three, we’re spelunking in Mammoth Cave, its cold river running under our feet. The cavern’s name refers to its size and seeming endlessness, and in these images, Lang finds powerful metaphors of disjuncture and confusion.

The cave may be made of rock but “the border is porous”. There might be a river but it is “flowing so slowly/it almost isn’t a river”. And those etchings on the walls—they’re “written in candle smoke”. Added to all this indeterminacy is a father’s decline through dementia. The final section, a sentence fragment nine stanzas long, evokes this bewilderment:

…this dream

of drifting, low in the water but never sinking, never

snagging on a fallen branch, never touching the shore

where we walk beside the river, endlessly, our muscles

aching, the boat just out of reach—

And so it ends: abrupt, unsettling. We’ve drifted along the river only to come suddenly to a falls. Out of control, out of options, we find ourselves asking “where/has the ferryman gone, how do we call him?” But isn’t it always this way? Whether on Chicago’s elevated train or Charon’s dark waterway, the one thing we can expect is: “destination unintelligible”.

Some poems give us comfort. In Travel Notes from the River Styx, Susanna Lang gives us more. She’s a wise guide on a dark river every human being must learn to navigate.

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 20, Issue 1.

Michael Eddie Anderson has been an editor at Rhino: the Poetry Journal and now serves on their advisory board. His poetry has appeared in New Verse News, Matter Monthly, Rhino, Pen Woman, the Poet and Artist Chapbook of the Northwest Cultural Council and other journals. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

Susanna LangSusanna Lang’snew collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in summer 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her last collection was Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013). Read her poem “Confession” in CPR Volume 20, Issue 1 (April, 2018).

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CPR Volume 20, Issue 1 is Now Online

April, 2018

Read new poems by David Crews, Megan Hall, Athena Kildegaard, Avia Tadmor, Susanna Lang, Joel Vega, Caitlin Thomson, Matthew Gellman, David Hathwell, Ava C. Cipri, Megan Arlett, Carol Lischau, Carol Kapaun Ratchenski, Pamela Ahlen, John Sibley Williams, Genevieve DeGuzman, and Megan Merchant. Find a fine review of Jessica L. Walsh’s How to Break My Neck by Melissa Atkison Mercer.

Enjoy the current issue at CPR Volume 20-1.

Cloudburst
by Matthew Gellman

There are so many questions the rain in a city
will turn into answers. Will there be flooding

becomes: Of course. Why didn’t he come back
becomes: he didn’t. It’s like that. But you remember

mornings mimicking couples you’d seen in movies.
How his hair looked tied in a bun. How he’d use

words like proclivity. You met him at a party upstate
and walked home together, passing a muffled campfire,

shapes painted on the water tower, joints scattered
like the season’s first flowers. He looked down,

as boys do when telling the truth about themselves.
The window gets stuck. You try all morning to close it.
 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 20, Issue 1.

Matthew GellmanMatthew Gellman’s poems are featured in Poetry Northwest, Narrative Magazine, The Journal, Sugar House Review, Thrush Poetry Journal and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from Columbia University and teaches at Hunter College.

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