The poems in Susan Sailer’s third full-length poetry collection reflect a wisdom and self-knowledge earned by decades of living, eyes open. To read them is to see, to see again from a new perspective, and to admit the unseen: the title’s “distance beyond sight,” the understanding not yet earned, the future imagined and unimagined, welcome or not.
The Distance Beyond Sight is comprised of three sections. The personal reflections of the first are deepened and complicated by the distance of time. In the opening poem, “And What Has Been My Life,” the optimistic “springing toward what’s next” was first “A spiraling from failure—of nerve, of health.”; if what’s next is “life as bouquet,” it is both “wilting” and “upright.” In another poem, a child, eleven-years-old and keeper of the stopwatch, times her father as he executes a perfect headstand. The memory, examined decades later, is both darkened by the speaker’s hindsight and sweetened by the innocence of the child unaware that “The years of despair / are just ahead…” In another poem that re-sees the past, a first child, who would have been the speaker’s older sibling, dies at birth, “no / ultrasound to show the cord pulled tight”; a mother remembers her baby’s hands as embodiment of a future yet to unfurl: “Asleep, her fingers un-scroll // the manuscript her memory / has begun to write.”
The middle section of the book, “Bulletins from a War Zone,” first published as a chapbook (Finishing Line Press, 2019), opens with instructions on “How to Become an Emigrant”, steps one and two being: “Live where barrel bombs destroy your home, parents, wife. // Hear rumors that the army suspects you don’t obey their kill orders.” The poems that follow take the reader behind political and military conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Nigeria, to the innocent casualties, the captives, the refugees and survivors.
As Maggie Anderson wrote in her blurb for the chapbook,
[Sailer] reminds us that any war affects all the people connected to it, including the civilians and the safe noncombatants who will experience the war at a distance…. Sailer has seen the war zone and through her urgent poems, she makes us see it too.
Based on extensive research, each poem is a record, a testament to a person’s existence, to their dignity, to the price they have paid. Most are named; one asked that his story be anonymous; Hanan Aboulafia’s story conflates the stories of many Syrian emigrants (the name chosen by Sailer, “Hanan, meaning tenderness, and Aboulafia, meaning owner of the power”). Surayya, a child in a Turkish refugee camp, when asked what her two wishes might be, answers, “I wish our house was still there. / I wish I get to grow up, be a big girl.” In a poem that juxtaposes phrases from the UN General Assembly’s “Declaration of Human Rights” with her emigration experience, Riham waits for rescue bobbing in a life ring in the ocean, someone else’s baby in each arm, their parents drowned. Of a long line crossing the desert in flight from Sudan, Sailer writes:
We ghosts are walking.
You do not see us.
We would walk to food, to safety.
But where is that?
Where is that?
In the midst of violence and tragedy, the eponymous “Bulletins from a War Zone” reveals the tenacity of the human spirit. The scene is the bombed city of Aleppo.
Ahmad is lost in music—
Shubert or Jabri—
not sitting on a chair before his phonograph,
although he is;
as if not surrounded by plaster chunks,
smashed glass, broken window frames,
although he is.
Even as Sailer returns in the third section to personal lyric, these images and individuals stay with her as they do with me. A kestrel, “staring at the ground, still / as a statue,” becomes a starving Yemeni child, “jawbone jutting from his too thin / face, eyes bright with the preternatural brightness / of the dying, fixed on a distance beyond sight.”
In the poem that opens the section, Sailer writes, “I walk the trestle of my ninth decade / stream far below,” and in the poems that follow, she navigates that precarious crossing with curiosity and courage:
jackets me, brackets me. At my age?
In my health? I stain the questions, slide
them under my mind’s microscope, look.
Beneath the glass I see desire enflaming.
Whales, porpoises, salamanders, locusts, turtles, and Quinault ponies; “the declivities / in pine bark deepening,” and “ancient mountains, their granite bare of snow”—these are her holies. Sailer lays them before her readers like gifts.
In a poem of remarkable perspective, she writes:
….What I’d perceived as stains—
looked more like patterns in a larger whole
whose meaning arched beyond me. I didn’t ice
my past, didn’t toss it out like cinders from a fire.
I vaulted with it to a larger place I hardly knew
but knew that I belonged.
What am I willing to see? Seeing, how am I changed? What happens next, and how do I navigate not knowing? These are questions I’m asking myself, having read The Distance Beyond Sight. I will return to these poems, for their beauty and wisdom, and to remember.
Lori Wilson is the author of two poetry collections, The Dream Women Called (forthcoming) and House Where a Woman, both from Autumn House Press. She lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she works as a software developer and teaches a poetry workshop in affiliation with the Madwomen in the Attic at Carlow University.