March 17, 2008

Review: Keep and Give Away

Keep and Give Away
University of South Carolina Press, $14.95

Susan Meyers’ debut book of poems might as well have been titled “Contraries,” after the name of the poem most representative of the dominant thought behind the volume: the inherently paradoxical nature of desire. Terrance Hayes calls this (in the foreword) “opposing gestures,” the simultaneous need for two opposing things. The concurrent movement and stillness of the birds in “Contraries” and the speaker’s desire to side with both the delicate small birds and the hawk that attacks them resonates through the rest of the volume.

In “Someone Near is Dying,” Meyers explores the possibilities of the “contraries” she sets up with the first poem in a formally elegiac setting: “What does your every move show/ if not, I am still alive?” The poem expresses the tension between the sadness of this dying and the powerful acceptance and even celebration of life in the last few lines: “Listen Mother--/ thunder, out of season: an old woman/ / at the end of her day, humming.” This acceptance evolves in the second of the three sections in the book, where the mother-daughter roles are almost comically reversed. From “Cavities”:

…This was my mother,
now I am hers, wiping spittle from corners,
leaning close to peer past all decay.
Whenever I ask her, like a friendly dentist,
she obeys the same way she taught me
and holds still, cow-eyed
and gaping, as if caught by surprise,
long after I’ve brushed away all that I can
and seen more than I want to see.
Meyers’ poems vary in their individual subjects, loosely threaded with the needle of the subtitles of the three sections, but every poem seems to be dictated by some form of loss, whether it’s the inability to have a child (“Cradle and All”) or the grown woman’s need for a mother (“Selling My Mother’s House”): “I know why children put off sleep,/ ask for juice before bed.” In “My Mother, Her Mornings,” an earlier poem about her mother, the poet reflects on the essential miracle of the mother’s touch, her power almost magical: “With a sweep of her palm…she persuades away wrinkles/ as if brushing off crumbs.”

The first section also cradles a few quite discerning poems about childhood losses even before the image of the dying mother is introduced. “Late One Friday Afternoon” speaks of an early loss, the kind that teaches about desire, and hope. The bird continues to act as a symbol of “contraries,” reflecting the child’s simultaneous desire to keep still and leap into motion:

…I held his hand
nested like a bird in my palm

and with my other hand brushed dirt

from his knee. Then the bird fluttered

and was gone. Tires screeched.

I saw pieces of a toy truck

land in the Lefler’s yard.
The third section “Small Bones of Contention” wraps up the collection with poems that deal with life as it is unrelated to the dying mother or the frail chickadees of the beginning. They retain the domesticity, this time of the speaker’s life, and in some cases, they employ the elegiac stanzas that remind the reader of those poems written about the mother.

In all, Meyers has managed a compelling first collection, one that will earn her a seat amongst other notable writers of the elegiac tradition.

by Gaganpreet Kaur