"I believe poetry has made me become a better person; I’m more empathetic and less judgmental thanks to the humbling task of setting sounds on paper, taking words and trying to cajole them into beauty and meaning," says Susan Rich. "Poetry pushes me into new challenges and allows me a myriad of experiences that extend my world."
I think both of Susan's poems featured today demonstrate this empathy and humility, fortified with an uncurrent of gentle humor. The poems are: "Transcendence" and "Sexing the Terza-Rima." Here's what Susan says about the poems:
I wrote "Transcendence" after visiting a translation workshop at Centrum Writers Conference in Port Townsend, WA. I had to leave early that day just as my poet-friend was passing out an assignment. I felt guilty sneaking out and jotted down some notes on how prescient everything had felt in that room – even the curtains.
The original title was "Translating Afternoon," but in the end, that felt too prescriptive. I tried to conjure a little bit of the way poetry brings us out of ourselves, always trying to say the unsayable.
It was actually published in a special issue of Bellevue Literary Review that focused on death and dying. And actually, that works too. Who knew death and translation resembled each other so?
"Sexing the Terza-Rima" (published in Words + Images) is a much older poem. It began as a graduate school assignment: write in terza-rima. I think one terza-rima is enough for me for a lifetime – although I like the odd turns it takes – desperate to keep those rhymes going while alternately weaving in a new one. I have new respect for Dante after this. Of course, in Italian this form makes a great deal more sense.
Sexing the Terza-rima
The End flashes on the screen all curlicues.
It's a film we've seen a dozen times before.
The lovers kiss, their bodies fall from view
All dilemmas solved, forgotten, or ignored,
It left me craving husbands with suede shoes
And I went with one who opened fine trap-doors
To rescue captains when their ships were wrecked
And usher fortunes from old cobbled floors.
My man adored all things that time neglects —
Old gramophones and girls dressed-up as bears.
But soon the sex was stale: more angst than artistry.
I left him for a chef with pastry shears
Who sang to me from under a blue gum tree
And whispered, I've something to confess!
How quaint it seemed: a man of integrity.
What Carl retold I never would have guessed.
He'd fallen for my scarves and lace-up boots.
To wear alone — he pressed, when I cross-dress.
What feelings in me did this news produce?
Was I repulsed, amused, or simply charmed?
He passed me homemade tarts with cheese and fruit
Our relationship continued on unharmed.
With custard cups and chocolate pinafores
We saved each other and bought a dairy farm.
Now late at night along long corridors,
I hear the hurried kicks of commodores
And know it’s not the end at all, just the man that I adore.
* * *
A summer wind clicks through the room
plastic curtains ecstatic as castanets.
Standing outside the rim of the body
you inhabit other lives –
Russian horses and red pigeon feathers –
weathered to beach glass, to scrim.
And this afternoon, as other Jews before,
you call out green syllables
nearly sing them:
incantation of salt air, ripened plum.
Anna Akhmatova wanders the halls
offering peppermints with dented spoons –
Under a different house of sky …
Praise humans that blunder us
into the great unknowing –
translate sea to transalpine
an epic fable to jazz-filled tulip field.
* * *
About Susan Rich and her influences: Susan is the author of two poetry collections, both from White Pine Press: Cures Include Travel and The Cartographer's Tongue.
The books she takes with her on trips include The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop, Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems by Charles Wright, and Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee. Elizabeth Bishop has traveled with Susan through South Africa, Bosnia and an airport stay in Frankfurt.
Bishop--whom Susan calls her "dead mentor"--was the first poet Susan ever found that shared her obsessions with maps and travel. Reading Charles Wright always makes Susan want to write – and inspires her to reach further into the disjunctive line or lyrical leap-froging than she might otherwise try. Li-Young Lee allows her to think about why she writes poetry and to not be embarassed to claim it as a kind of spiritual practice.
Susan's poems are forthcoming in translation in the Slovenian journal Dialogi, translated by Veronika Dintinjana. Her awards include a PEN USA Award for Poetry, Artist Trust Fellowship, and Fulbright Fellowship to South Africa. She has been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger and an Electoral Supervisor in Bosnia. She lives in Seattle with her cats Sarajevo and Otis Travnic. Click here for Susan's website.