Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.
Diane Seuss is writer-in-residence at Kalamazoo College. Her first poetry collection was It Blows Your Hollow (New Issues, 1998), and her poems have been published in many literary magazines, including Poetry, New Orleans Review, North American Review, and The Georgia Review.
Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open is a collection full of startling poems and images that leave the reader breathless. One piece that continues to haunt me is “Men displayed the things we didn’t want to see,” which catalogues a series of “truths” shown to children as life lessons about death, the ephemeral/ vulnerable body and the fragility of things: “the woman in the car that had been/ crushed by a train, or anything born with two heads/ or an eye in the center of its forehead, or the burned/ velvet curtains flapping in the wind around the black/ stage when the opera house burned down.” A number of the poems in the first section of the book are terrifying/ dazzling encounters in childhood, like the poem “The Lee girls had it bad,” which pave the way for the adult speaker’s articulation of grief and trauma in other poems. How is the hard-knocks environment of the book connected to the Michigan landscape and the experiences of the working class?
I had a propitious upbringing for a girl who would eventually write poems. My parents settled in the village where my mother was raised. Our house was next to the little cemetery, which became my playground, and was backed by marshland. There was no discernible class structure; everyone scraped by, but barely. There was no stack of cash cushioning us from two-headedness or stillbirths or Mr. Lee chasing his wife around town with a butcher knife. There were people, but not so many that a kid could develop any generic ideas about what people are. If the fields go on for miles, a silo looms large. My father got sick in that house, when I was three and he was twenty-nine, with the disease that would eventually kill him. There was nothing—and everything—for a child to do. The guy who owned the first television in town threw a Coke bottle through the screen, and at some point they stopped showing outdoor cowboy movies on a sheet strung up between trees. Tombstones were tables for tea parties. Hollowed-out milkweed pods were tea cups. Worms, not dolls, were guests.
Two of the poems that use language play as a mechanism for exploring heartache are “Grammar lesson,” which grows into a series of word/ phrase associations stemming from the expression “Thy body is a temple”; and “My boyfriends,” in which the emotional states (Worry, Ambivalence, Despair, etc.) are capitalized to suggest each boyfriend’s proper name. Does this speak to the larger project of the book in which symbol, metaphor and image are employed to confront and possibly take ownership of one’s demons? Should one’s personal demons be expelled or should one subscribe to the Tennessee Williams phrase: “Kill all my demons and my angels might die, too”? How are devastation and salvation connected in your work?
What I hope “Grammar lesson” offers is a fluid grammatical system, and likewise a fluid theology. The inversion of “Thy body is a temple” to “The temple is a body” opened a pathway to other inversions and audacious claims, from “My body is the Taj Mahal” to “My body is that tiger in Vandalia, Michigan covered in vestiges of the Underground Railroad.” The poem enacts the fact that with metaphor, all collisions are possible. Invisible histories can be unearthed. The Red Pony can be a Bible. Aunt Pat, who will “fuck anything that moves,” can be God. What I hope happens in this poem is that the demons are disinterred and revived and take their place at the right hand of the Father. Imagination’s mutability, and the dance of language, which throws off rigid systems of grammar, symbol and meaning like frivolous silk scarves, is the only process I know for the devastated to get saved. We who are devastated must invent. In that universe, the demon and the angel are the same creature; the river can both purr and burn.
Baby birds sound like “stitches being removed from an incision,” when a person dies it sounds like “a piano lid slamming.” These contrasting movements, life and death, infancy and old age, create a tense dance that makes it difficult to answer the question, which is more painful, arrival or exit, innocence or knowledge? The poem that takes a particular interest in those binaries is the poem “When i was a candy striper i used to braid and unbraid the hair of the ancients”: “i wasn’t allowed to read to them, though once i snuck// into a madwoman’s room and read her the part/ of The Red Pony where Billy cuts a breathing hole// in the horse’s neck. for a minute she looked absolutely sane,/ nodding and smiling, then she started flailing and hollering.// they’d shave her head to keep her from pulling out her hair.” Does Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, that “lake infested with black swans,” favor innocence or knowledge, or is it indeed inhabiting the place in-between? Are both just as dangerous and just as full of desire?
The last poem in the collection, “The mewlings and snippings of baby birds,” indeed ends with the claim that the same seamstress who sews the wedding gown sews the shroud. In the poem “I had two wedding dresses,” the bride’s dress might as well be a shroud, since the wedding is a wake and the groom climbs in her casket, wearing his “wormy corsage and asphalt shoes.” All brides and grooms, in their way, are skeletons, and giving birth/being born is a bloody act. Like angels and demons, the entrance and the exit represent the same doorway. The speakers in these poems love to explore the landscape between binaries. In “When I was a candy striper,” the speaker recalls a time in which her supposed innocence, her supposed acts of compassion, were actually a performance. Her real motivation in being a candy striper was to explore her own delicious power (which of course was its own performance, masking her essential powerlessness). Perhaps that encapsulates my view of binaries like innocence and knowledge. They exist in murky layers, sedimentary, rather than as polar coordinates. The title poem is probably the piece in the collection that most fully explores the layers of innocence and infestation, and locates their origins in the dangerous and erotic natural world. No bride is innocent. She’s infested with hope, if nothing else. The lovers in this poem grind against each other on a liminal shore, where snail shells burst beneath them “like the skulls of the dead in the crematorium.” Maybe I’ll never be free of death’s erotic charge. Let’s blame the little gray house on the edge of the cemetery where I was raised.