The Alchemist's Kitchen by Susan Rich (White Pine Press)
COOKING UP TRANSFORMATION: SUSAN RICH'S THE ALCHEMIST'S KITCHEN
What’s cooking in an alchemist’s kitchen? It can only be transformation, and Susan Rich’s third collection serves up some tasty conjurations indeed. The book’s three sections, “Incantation,” “Transformation,” and “Song” reveal her intentions: evocation, revelation, and music. In subjects that range from tulips to Sarajevo to ice cream, from terrorist training to mid-life romance, Rich proves herself a born traveler and a poet who can pack a lot into a lyric. As in her book The Cartographer’s Tongue, she spans history, war, politics, relationships, travels, and life-stages. This new book deepens and enriches her themes and raises the pitch of her musical language.
A poet of what might be called political empathy or compassionate witness, Rich writes about many tragic recent conflicts—in Sarajevo, Srebrenica, and Bosnia, to mention just a few. She writes with sensitivity and evocative detail about places most of us only encounter through the media. Rich brings authority to these topics because she has worked as a staff person for Amnesty International, an electoral supervisor in Bosnia Herzegovina, and a human rights trainer in Gaza and the West Bank. Rich has lived in the Republic of Niger, West Africa, and South Africa. Interestingly, she can locate the whole of the Middle East in a community college classroom, as she does in “Paradise Now at Highline Community College,” a poem that delicately explores the world of the suicide bomber through a student discussion in which “the black ash of question marks begin to rise / reluctantly above their freshmen heads.” Her sensitive observation shows the doubts these young men entertain about the righteousness of the bomber’s endeavor, as the questions “shiftshape some through to another side.”
In her travels, Susan Rich has seen the world’s heart to be selfish and compassionate by turns. With a strong musical sense and command of rhythms, she imparts the destruction and cruelty she has witnessed, and also the paradoxical beauty she found in even the most devastated scenes. In the stunning poem “What To Make of Such Beauty,” which is reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil poems, she writes of the attack that destroyed the Sarajevo National Library by capturing small details of its aftermath: the pieces of pages that floated down in the same way that the destruction of New York’s Twin Towers released a shower of paper scraps. In bearing witness to cultural devastation, she recreates the beauty of what was lost, making literature out of the loss of literature:
The next day along the streets of Sarajevo
scorched pieces of paper
fluttered like strange snow.
Peel one scrap from the sky
call it hope and an urgent message
appears—for one moment—
a new form of God pentimento.
Turkish, Hebrew, and Bosnian texts.
The use of alliteration and sonics—especially here plosives and fricatives—demonstrates Rich’s subtlety of devices, the way she repeats incantatory sounds to conjure emotion:
Desire lit in the arabesque of black, besotted alphabets—
A true word alchemist, this poet evokes “floating literatures of grief” as the “magic letters” that poetry can be in witnessing wholesale destruction and its human impact. In poems like “Day of the Global Heart” she indicts “the world’s selfish heart” with fine-tuned lyricism in treating events like the Holocaust, Srebrenica, and Hurricane Katrina, pleading eloquently for compassion by citing its tragically ordinary absence:
The way of the heart
is to cry out
then beat by beat
ignore, ignore, ignore
Rich makes melodies out of cries of suffering. With a light touch, she evokes more outrage than would be created by angry outbursts. Her deft language and restraint in these poems of conscience serve the subjects well and she builds power by what she leaves to the imagination, painting with impressionist touches rather than with a maddened impasto. In “What Do You Remember from Before the War?” she uses the subtle strategy of depicting the beauties of Srebrenica, Bosnia before the war. By so doing, she makes the loss more palpable and in stronger contrast to the stark epigraph: “In July 1995, over a period of five days, the Bosnian Serb soldiers systematically murdered over 7,000 men and boys in fields, schools, and warehouses.” Instead of describing the details of this horror, the poem describes a lovely world irrevocably lost:
In the summer there was always music
as we wandered Srebrenica’s gardens
the Eyes of Beautiful Water moving like mystics.
Suitors offered tulips, Italian lipsticks.
We’d kiss and tell, comparing different men.
In the summer there was always music
as we made love, our magic word spelled picnic
in fields, forests, waterfalls, and often
the Eyes of Beautiful Water waving like mystics.
If Rich can make melodies out of cries of suffering, she is equally skilled in painting the personal, the movements of history, and the natural world, often combining them. “Tulip Sutra,” for example, traces the history of the flower and its universal impact on our senses and sensuality:
Praise the turbulence
of desire tucked inside
this hobo flower
glimpsed along highways—
small pink vases—
into reckless weekends.
She weaves descriptions of the tulip’s beauty with its improbable evolution and urges the reader to praise and remember:
And the Flemish merchant
who opens the crates
mistakes the bulbs for coarse, funny onions
but keeps a handful back for his garden—
Perhaps Rich is at her most lyrical in poems of sensual celebration, when she focuses on the joys of the body: food, sex, sense impressions. One of my favorites is “Tender,” a poem about a female bartender, described with a chewy music that makes us taste the sweet intoxication of her offerings:
Behind the bar’s boundary line—
her fingertips linger
around a jigger, a beak, a shaker, a flask—
she exchanges Polynesian parasols
for yellow sugar pistols, relinquishes
a lobster stick for one elliptical orange twist
The book’s third section, “Song” narrows the focus to the personal, examining individual tragedies and joys with wit and insight, especially those of middle age. Rich uses the list poem skillfully in several of these, notably in the poems “At Middle Life: A Romance” and “Curating My Death,” with its jaunty image of the transition out of life as yet another plane ride:
At the airport kiosk, I’ll offer up last good-byes,
to acrobats and rabbis; landscape painters
and Mt. Rainier guides—
all the lives I intended to try.
Proceeding along the skyway, I’ll find
a chair at Gate 2B, then check-in with the others;
in scintillant darkness we’ll wait;
anticipatory, amiable, traveling free—
I love the way this poem about death ends with a Dickinson-like dash, enigmatic notation of the possibilities of an afterlife, the traveling that might or might not ensue. This poet isn’t interested in didactic spirituality, but in something light and open as the sky, in the eternity provided by the experience of a moment of beauty, and in leaving the conclusions to her readers. She reveals her sense of lightness and humor in “You Might Consider,” the opening lines of which made me laugh out loud:
You Might Consider
how my long life of losing men
could create a new international sport
men lost in the desert, men missing
in action from doorways and all night diners;
men making the most of fire
escapes, service stairs, the emergency aisle
Rich uses anaphora and syntactical variation skillfully, keeping the reader moving forward with security and yet also surprise. The titles of the “Song” section reveal her concerns: “The Never Born Comes of Age,” “Refrain of the Woman Who Has Lived Too Long Alone,” “What the Grocer Knows,” “Doing Time,” and “Unexpected Song.” A greater irony surfaces in these poems, a wry playfulness of both content and language.
The Alchemist’s Kitchen is well-stocked with mature songs of rueful beauty and variety, of food and constellations, massacres and music, objects and events. Susan Rich is singing in a key of tenderness, humor, and indignation. Only a poet of skill and understanding can manage this diversity of topics with an artistic transcendence that weaves through daily life and history, whether touched by the terrible, the sublime, or the simply routine. These poems serve as invocations, conjurings, and ultimately as eloquent prayers, as the opening poem, “Different Places to Pray,” demonstrates:
This is the way a life unfolds: decoding messages from profiteroles,
the weight of mature plums in late autumn. She’d prefer a compass
rose, a star chart, text support messages delivered from the net,
even the local pet shop—as long as some god rolls away the gloss
and grime of our gutted days, our global positioning crimes.
Tell me, where do you go to pray—a river valley, a pastry tray?
Rachel Dacus has published Earth Lessons (Bellowing Ark Press, 1998) and Femme au chapeau (Deavid Robert Books, 2005). A chapbook, Another Circle of Delight, was released by Small Poetry Press in 2007. Her poems, stories and essays have appeared widely in print and online and have been included in various anthologies.