Mike James Reviews
Wave If You Can See Me
By Susan Ludvigson
In “How It Can Happen,” one of the first poems in this fine new collection, the narrator imagines death as Shakespeare’s “other country.” She writes, “I go with you, / but not all the way to your destination. / I wait in a dark house while you are taken / to a secret location. / We knew this could happen.”
The last line is instructive because it hints at a foreshadowing which haunts so many of these poems. In poem-after-poem the narrator is never sure of what’s across the river, but she’s certain it’s bad. A bridge will suddenly give way. Flood waters will rise too quickly. The villagers at the next exit won’t be friendly.
The dread is natural since so many of the poems are concerned with the death of the poet’s spouse, novelist Scott Ely. Many are not elegies as much as they are re-imaginings of an old life and dream-like restructurings of the current one. In the wonderfully titled “You Could Be Drinking Faulkner’s Bourbon,” she pictures what her husband might be doing in that other country. The poem moves from image to image, then concludes with a leap of transcendence: “we tell ourselves we’d like to know / but knowing / puts a period on speculation / and we are opposed / even in esoteric theory / to endings.”
From a technical standpoint, the addition of the four words “even in esoteric theory” deepens the poem. If good writing is about surprising the reader, those words surprise by their placement. “Esoteric theory” may not be the most sonically pleasing phrase, but it serves well to play off the narrator’s “speculations” and to strengthen the poem’s conclusion. The narrator is not just opposed to death and all the sorrows death brings. The narrator is opposed to all finality, even of the most far flung variety.
For Ludvigson, mourning is not relentless. Death is to be accepted. If Ludvigson never imagines death as gentlemen caller the way Emily Dickinson did, neither does she shy away from placing a spot at the table for him to sit. The narrator in “Too Late” tries to take in both her dream life and her new life as she travels without fear. “In the new country, / I try to ask directions, tell someone / how far we are from home. / The man behind the counter nods / as if he understands.”
Throughout the collection, over many roads and many nights, an understanding is always sought. Some poems end with an epiphany. Other poems end with an image like a cocked gun.
Though the subjects are often wrenching, there’s a steadiness throughout this collection which is appealing. The poems are tough and sensuous, subtle and clear. And the book is structured so that each poem adds resonance to the one before it.
This is Ludvigson’s first collection in 14 years. That’s a long time for a poet who has published many books, with most appearing in three to four year intervals. What has she done during her long silence? Well, she has continued to appear in magazines like Poetry, Atlantic Monthly, and Georgia Review. She has taught and judged book contests and taken up painting after a lifetime of watching. And she has said goodbye to friends and to her husband all while taking note of, “stars / burning through the debris of history / like love burning through the dark of loss.”
Wave If You Can See Me, by Susan Ludvigson
Red Hen Press, 2020
About the Author: Mike James makes his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. He has published in numerous magazines, large and small, throughout the country. His 18 poetry collections include: Leftover Distances (Luchador), Parades (Alien Buddha), Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse), and Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), He has received multiple Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.
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