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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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Jessica Walsh’s How to Break My Neck

How to Break My Neck
How to Break My Neck
Jessica L. Walsh
978-1974585335
(2018, About Editions )
$15, Paper

Review by Melissa Atkinson Mercer

Jessica Walsh’s How to Break My Neck illuminates a world where “sharks were not ill-willed/not at first”, where chairs “rest just this side/of suicide” , where we are all hurtled head-long towards destruction. Ferocious and tireless, this book is an examination of the ways that we—the human we—are erased and blurred and re-written, often by our own actions and inactions. There we go again: “your tongue/throwing knives down your raw throat” while “she [takes] no measures/to prevent repeated injury” and “I am over here/screaming like razor blades on metal,/same as everyone” . After all, “anyone can see that/we are no one’s goal” .

Walsh takes us to that unflinching place where mortality, culpability, and identity collide, where the speaker laments. Indeed, the shes and yous and Is blend and morph as the task of separating one identity from another becomes more and more difficult. We know one self only by the ways we set it against another, and even then, we are constantly forced to re-assess, re-negotiate: “you and me/we depend on context”.

In this light, interactions, even with the self, become fraught with constant danger: we might lose ourselves or we might multiply, we might be unending or unfindable. Nowhere is this danger more prevalent than in “More Like Me”, a poem that anchors themes of blame and selfhood. Here, Walsh discusses German POWs trying to swim to safety through a lake in Michigan:

The worst must have been knowing

they were still and always themselves.

I know the feeling.

I swim all night.

This is a poem filled with war tanks draped in tulle, conflations of enemy and self, and finally, an ominous declaration—one that reveals, yet again, an unsteady and fragmented identity:

There could be more like me
if we aren’t careful.

Poem by poem, this book enacts its own demise, questions its very right to exist. “Only the unrecorded is merciful”, the speaker warns us, a suggestion of futility which echoes again in the self-referential erasure of the final poem’s final line: “were we really poets? Why?”

The answer, of course, precedes the question. If, as we are told, “only wanting lasts”, then want is the book’s true legacy: that furious, frantic want that exists beyond pronouns, beyond the record of any one person or life. We should take heed; we should “be confused/and right/now”.

 

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

Melissa Atkinson MercerMelissa Atkinson Mercer is the author of After the Miracle Season and the chapbook Storm Was Her Voice (Dancing Girl Press, 2016). Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal and Rust+Moth. She has an MFA from West Virginia University, where she won the Russ MacDonald Creative Writing Award in Poetry. She currently lives in the mountains of North Carolina.

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A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent
by Gregory Mahrer

Winner of the Poets Out Loud Prize, Fordham University Press, 2016
Review by Gwynn O’Gara

A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent
A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent
Gregory Mahrer
Poets Out Loud Series
978-0823271153
(2016, Fordham University Press)
$17.40, Paper

In Eros, Anne Carson wrote, “The path of true wisdom is always a “leaping” across an erotic space between the known and the unknown.” In this tangy and haunting chronicle, Mahrer maps a consciousness both inside and outside normal time and space. Spanning the Oligocene to the Anthropocene, places and objects evoke old Europe and colonial Central and South America, while “acetate” and “toasters” tether us to the contemporary. Images of the written and spoken word form a motif of the expedition. Lush, musical language provides the compass.

This is a riddling journey, disorienting and contradictory. Juxtaposed epochs and locales force us to make new connections, or fall off the path: “I have left the long cursive of your body to stroll the Miocenian grasslands . . .” By merging geologic and human histories, Mahrer creates a unique chronotope that includes the urgency of now: “Bludgeon the tundra into units of heat” and “Each moment carries extinction in its mouth.”

Although it reads like a dream, the odyssey is rooted in the actual: “Once hands were spoons joining water to water, then knives dividing sand from stone.” The poet also fuses unexpected components: a “curfew of satin and wool” and “the body is a composite of ribboned hair and narrow stairwell, serpent and hasp.” Home, the starting place, seems to be the body of the woman left behind: “Remember how the skin gathered around the milky hollows of her knees?”

Surprises abound: “cuffing our ears like iron kisses,” “small squalls wrapped in papier-mâché,” a cellist’s “wilted pearls.” We, like the campaigners, are constantly off-kilter. Images of words written and spoken remind us of who and where we are, as in these lines from “Franciscan Mélange:”

“The comma’s slow knife.

Don’t speak yet. It is imperative we not speak

the notspeak spoken here.”

In addition to the abundance of phanopoeia, the aural imagination feasts as well. The footsteps of this journey are playful and euphonius, as in “the loose syntax of warm rain bees fuzzy with jazz/nuzzling the river azaleas,” and the following lines from “Glossolalia:”

“Loontongue

muttertongue

idiom savant . . .

Wrist glyph

phoneme of hip

ibble of lash . . .

What is the saying

that in the saying

reveals the underword?

The compass is felt in the throat; the sound-play prompts connections, and ecstasy.

Mahrer has said that he heard these poems over the course of fifteen years. He was rewarded for his patient listening. By the end of the forty-two poems, we realize this is the record of the poet’s apprenticeship. These songs of shifting perspectives, longing, and grief, change the reader, too. More aware that the deepest past is always in us, we, along with the poet, are ready “to love the small quiet of the present tense.”

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 19, Issue 3.

Gwynn O'GaraGwynn O’Gara’s books include Snake Woman Poems, and the chapbooks, Fixer-Upper, Winter at Green Haven, and Sea Cradles. She served as Sonoma County Poet Laureate from 2010 through 2011.

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