by Susan Rich.
2022, 132 pages,
A third of the way into this far-ranging collection, Susan Rich includes a poem titled “The Mapparium,” a reminiscence about a school field trip to an unusual Boston landmark, a three-story tall glass globe of the world, dating from the 1930’s, housed inside the Christian Science Publishing House. The burnished, stained-glass rendition of geographic and political boundaries is illuminated from the globe’s exterior, and viewed by visitors passing along a catwalk that crosses through the vast spherical interior, imagining our world from a perspective at its center.
The earth as it was, a time called 1932,
stays in a room – retracts our breath,
our lives – makes history into color and light…
A wave hitting stone is the sound my voice leaves
as a pledge to return on the glass.
Feet to Antarctica, arms outstretched
like beacons towards Brazil—
I’ll take this globe as my own.
The poem is the first entry in this collection from Rich’s first book, The Cartographer’s Tongue/ Poems of the World (2000), and it brims with the energy of a manifesto, as Rich envisions her life as a travelling poet, through work that will transport her to encounter cultures and circumstances all around this globe, as a teacher, journalist, and human rights worker, in countries as diverse as Niger, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gaza, and South Africa. It also feels like an apt metaphor for this volume of new and selected poems: broad arcs of geography and history observed in exquisite detail, not from an outside distance, but rather from within, where echoes and whispers and the convoluted yearnings of the human heart can all be contained and heard.
Rich manages a remarkable balance as a travelling poet, avoiding a tilt into either detachment or naivete in her worldly encounters, but remaining emotionally grounded while presenting her experiences framed in a naked honesty. In “Fissure,” while driving aimlessly around Cape Town late at night after breaking up with her fiancé, she recognizes a street urchin resting at an intersection:
Barefoot, broad faced, alone—
I’ve passed by him before, caught
in my lover’s gaze, in jazz
riffs, or the daily day-old news.
And perhaps this blindness
can’t be contained, but in this city
where children grow as plentiful
as pomegranate seeds
on traffic islands, street corners, outside
the parking lot of every apartment
block—and this is harder
to admit, that our thirst rises
beyond response, beyond
what it seems any one of us could
reconcile, could believe:
the flint and fissure of our
And then in “Ghazal for the Woman from Vitez,” she relates a differently nuanced relationship, both with history, and with her guide in that moment and place:
I ask for the toilet, and she shows me the bedrooms, bombed
by neighbors who should have known how to use words.
We walk out to her garden in late afternoon light,
Survey squash plants and corn stalks, we re-enter words.
In Bosnia, the tomato is called paradise, sweetness
transferred from some other country’s words.
These poems are not steeped in sentiment, but in an urgent presence that allows the reader a deep glimpse into a faraway moment, a postcard sent across a distance of time and cultures, a gift of insight to be turned over and over in the hand, and remembered.
In later poems, Rich turns inward to explore her own emotional geographies. “In a Village West of Galway” is an observation of her own evolving writing process: “Yet how to transcribe/ this invisible boundary line—// both lucid and in shadow;/ to know her life? And to step outside.” In “Someday I Will Love Susan Rich” she ponders “Why not make a collage of wanting?/ Isn’t it worse not to want?…” In “You Might Be Wondering Why I Called You Here Today” she addresses and admonishes her former lovers: “Hello Pablo, Ricardo, Saul—/ please taste the oysters of angst, the grapes// grown of low self-esteem, the years. God will see you now/ ready with a pen in her hand, a sheaf of parchment.” And when her diatribe is done, she cries out “But where are the doorknobs? Where are the doors/ that lead out of this cold mind of mine?”
Throughout this collection, Rich spreads a banquet of indelible imagery, making full use of all of her senses. Somalian women bare their breasts in a marketplace, compelling men from warring factions to lay down their arms, for the moment. Tree goats forage, “then build their lives mid-air.” Sturdy Bosnian begonias guard porch doors and deflect hand grenades from their intended targets. A man bakes for his friends:
…he creates the most fragile
of confections: madeleines
and pinwheels, pomegranate crisps
and blue florentines;
each crumb to reincarnate
a woman—a savoring
of what the living once could bring.
Her worlds are sumptuous and fantastical and devastating, each in their turn. And they are all warmly illuminated, much like the Boston Mapparium, by her long-refined poetic skill: her elegantly crafted lines, her mastery of form. One poem in particular showcases her seemingly effortless writing: “Muted Gold” is an elegy for her father, beginning with the line “My father died just as my plane touched down” and proceeds in the form of a pantoum, a precise sequence of evolving, repeating lines that roll forward and double back through her grief and her father’s life and then his father’s life, folding time across generations, looping geography from Odessa into Boston, before finally returning to the same heart-wrenching line that she opened with, a quiet tour-de-force.
If, like me, you delight in poring over maps, lingering on the contour lines, place names, and symbols in order to imagine the worlds depicted on the page, then you will have much to discover in this vibrant, epic collection of Susan Rich’s work.