The Book of Ten
by Susan Wood
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011
Susan Wood brings us this new collection of her poems and a steadfast intent to write with courage of history and contemporary American life. She is able—adept, even—to make things mundane seem complex and worthy of her pen while in due contrast illuminating things that could be considered justly grand as very human, tactile, and near. Like Jorie Graham or Geoffery Hill, she is swift and unapologetic about plunking her reader down in the middle of some landscape—as if the dear reader had been on holiday there with her all along—and provides details of her views of this place, making it familiar at once even if it screams unknown, remote, or exotic. Wood, however, also is skilled in providing intimate junctures involving her own presence without fanfare, without any involved surroundings grand, exotic, or otherwise:
A parrot of irritation sits
on my shoulder, pecks
at my head, ruffling his feathers
in my ear. He repeats
everything I say, like a child
trying to irritate the parent.
These lines come from Wood’s poem “Daily Life”, a title that sums up about half or better of her poems in this collection. The marvel is really her ability to write plain-spoken verse about her day and then write a poem such as “Decalogue: Thin Ice” where, while also intimate, her tone and focus jumps into a more universal and complicated formulation. Wood is concerned with family, with the nexus of generations most appreciated at middle age, and, as a professor (she teaches in the English department at Rice University) she probably has a very keen sense about younger people also, and the dynamics of their relationships with lovers, parents, and siblings. Hence her recollections of her childhood and teen years in these poems seem as fresh as they are nostalgic and as global as they are personal.
Wood’s poem “In America” is a perfect example of how she skillfully extends the personal into the realm of the global, illustrating the essence of the common flow of current affairs of this nation. She is able, in a poem of sleek and measured size, to provide a good glimpse into American lives. Not afraid to name proper names, she mentions a man’s girlfriend who works the nightshift at the “Smoothie King” in the mall, providing a clear and very real portrait of this person she—and we—have not even met. We know this girl without meeting her; we know what we need to know. Her narrative is a small thread in the wide quilt Woods presents, but it’s a thread perfectly taken into Wood’s needle. The man—the girl’s lover who plans to marry her—is himself a minor character in a sense, a stand-in for so many people in America, yet Wood is able to make the girlfriend “real” via a few choice words. Likewise, Wood writes of problems germane to race relations and economic/class differences in a way that is subtle yet direct, understated yet firm. It is in this ability we can locate her tremendous skill: she can spend two pages writing of how America “is”—both unjust and romantic, rich and bone-poor—then she can spend two pages writing about her own father and herself, narrow in focus, knitting out as tight a narrative as you can get.
Grief is a common motif in Wood’s poems here, and there is often a very autumnal, final, feeling about some of them. She realizes we live in tough times and of course when writing about people suffering in one sense or another, she offers sympathy combined with a near-journalistic ethos of getting the facts, the details, typed out clear and plain.
Perhaps Wood’s best poem in this collection is one where President Lyndon B. Johnson—now out of office and Nixon in—comes to a congressman’s fundraiser in western Texas. Wood travels back in time, considering a visit to her Texan high school by LBJ when he was running against Kennedy for the Democratic nomination and then the years he was in office both as vice president and then president, then the Nixon years when the fundraiser takes place. In the visitation of a former president to a political dinner, Wood is able to paint a tight landscape of the most known moments of his career, and it is a resoundingly delightful yet somber journey into memory. Like another captivating contemporary poet, Judith Vollmer, Wood is adept at describing geography in a way that puts us right there—in this case, at a small motel in a region of America where Wood tells us you can drive for hours without encountering a single human soul. More in the legacy of the confessional poets than a nature poet contemporary or otherwise, Wood has an agenda for her descriptions of place, but they can well stand on their own footing, too. Wood has a psychologist’s or teacher’s (after all, she is the latter) understanding of how to describe people in an environment—how they look at the world from their own two eyes and how that world becomes either a mirror or an alien landscape to them. In one poem she describes a woman who is out of touch, lonely, and alone in our world yet acute in her own awareness of her plight as she sees the apparent harmony of a comfortable family raising a Christmas toast. Whether or not this lady actually stands lurking outside a window peeping in and seeing this vista or not is moot: Wood provides us the most pungent form of deep empathy for this soul because we can envision the world as she sees it: I would love to have from Wood a description of a pilot walking through an airport or a surgeon walking out of the operating theatre. I enjoyed her ability to put the reader into the shoes of her characters very much and it’s no stretch or ill call to name the people of her poems “characters” for despite how short many of these poems are in length, these people jump from their pages as fully formed as many characters in a novel or short fiction.
The people in her poems, be they grand as LBJ or the famed hijacker D.B. Cooper who vanished without a trace mid-air from a plane in flight, or be they an unknown average American who only wants to impress the woman he desires to marry or be they the father of the poet herself, they are strong, cunning, and stand up as if we’d known them as our neighbors all along. The academic’s varied and informed concern with world affairs is well-coupled with the down-home Texan appreciation of the familiar and dedication to the details of the same in Wood’s poetry. She seems nearly determined to write it all down, as if the entire world she knows could any moment burn to the ground. Perhaps it’s the fact her own father is, if one of her poems speaks of him as it seems it does, aged ninety-three and in a nursing home—there is a sorrowful reality of what could be lost overnight in her poems and thus a rocket-driven push to get all these varied thoughts down to page as they carry the weight of world, family, and legacy within their typography.
It is this understanding of real people, real language, real geography that allows Wood to get away with using a bird as a metaphor for grief in a poem. The concept seems too typical at first, but when she develops the bird’s call into something that rings through the home of the person plagued by grief and then takes it a step further and notes that when this odd birdsong is heard we mistake it for the doorbell and rush to see who has come to call, only to discover once again that no one is there—no one, she tells us calmly, ever is there. It is madness, it could be war, but it’s the internal world of someone overcome by grief. The poet who knows her people, her land, also knows her animals and her animal-knowledge. She’s in a business of writing poems that won’t let go and like Secretary Clinton said during her bid for that office old LBJ once held, Wood is another lady in this, and she’s “in it to win”.
Win she does: this book is one of the most thought-provoking (and feeling-provoking) books of poetry in the English language I’ve read in several years now. She deals in the deepest parts, but never for the sake of seeming serious: she deals there because circumstances of life demand her involvement. She wins—she wins over the reader, she wins against the injustices she finds in our supposedly modern and just society—because she is so skilled in her craft and willing to pick topics that are meaningful but never feel selected as show of force or even an overt show of skill. Wood never seems intent on impressing us but instead simply set on telling her story. You have to wonder at places in this book, why is she not in the fiction business?
The Book of Ten is worth buying, it is more than worth reading. Read, if nothing else, Wood’s poem “The Magic Hour”. Spend some time with her, as this one is a winner.