V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




. . . the poems in Ashes in Midair are full of risk—formal
and psychological. When Williams weaves references
to fairy tales, tarot cards, and Bible stories into poems
with contemporary elements, the results are resonant.

Some poetry collections build parallel realities that are as engrossing as the alternate worlds created by great novels. While a book of poems must refract the other world in briefer glimpses than prose fiction provides, poetry’s universes can therefore be even more fantastic and alluring. For example, contemporary poets Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill depict incursions into the familiar world by water horses and other half-animal beings. Janet McAdams blends science and history, giving her poems an apocalyptic edge, like some speculative fiction. Karin Gottshall’s work is haunted by ghosts and fables and tales of metamorphosis. Likewise, in Ashes in Midair, selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the Poetry Book Prize from Many Mountains Moving Press, Susan Settlemyre Williams opens little windows into a distinctly gothic landscape in which danger is exquisitely lovely and “the face of God is never a human face.”
    Williams divides Ashes in Midair into four sections concerned, in sequence, with adolescence, work, death, and the afterlife. The last sequence is the most beautiful. It begins with “Driving West on the Interstate in a Monsoon,” in which an apparition from the past, a “dark angel” of a boy, seems to scale the bank of the road behind the speaker. Williams manages such visitations deftly. They are emotionally potent enough that some uncertainty over their materiality and meaning only heightens the poem’s intensity. “Dementia Diary,” in contrast, progresses in horror with a kind of documentary realism: this poem recounts in excruciating detail the “afterlife” of an elderly mother who has lost her ability to function in the ordinary world. There is even an epic trip to the “Underworld” involving an imprisoned father, an escape tunnel, and a lucky coincidence. The details of these scenes are distinctly southern—mine cave-ins and sinkholes, loblolly pines and hoodoo—but they also occur in the no-place, no-time of dreams and folktales.
    The poems that explicitly revise myth are, surprisingly, some of the least successful. The first poem in the collection, for instance, “Codes for Hunger,” takes on a series of Grimm’s characters in what feels like an exercise, although beautifully rendered. Williams uses a constant scaffolding of epigraphs, too, that involves too much borrowed authority, cluttering some poems with the eggshells of their origins. Otherwise, however, the poems in Ashes in Midair are full of risk—formal and psychological. When Williams weaves references to fairy tales, tarot cards, and Bible stories into poems with contemporary elements, the results are resonant. For instance, Bluebeard crops up amid a mother’s ordinary warnings in “About Glass,” reminding us that behind every scrap of adult advice lies a dire threat of violence. Worlds also jostle roughly together in “The Saints of April”:

        If April is an open door, the Pope
        has just passed through, and it’s about to slam
        behind my mother-in-law.

Sacred mysteries can be celebrated with plastic eggs, and Williams captures this kind of startling clash in lyric poems that range through diverse voices and frames of reference. The panicky energy of “Woman Burying Something” and “Boy Pursued” are, likewise, wonderfully uncanny.
    Williams’s concerns with suffering, beauty, and the incredible weirdness of human existence climax in Part Two. This tightly-interwoven sequence explores the idea of artistic calling through the figure of “Kathryn,” a North Carolinian woman born around 1930, who, taking instructions from an angel, makes art out of bones, beads, yarn, and tempera paint. This endeavor does not turn out well for the title character, whose life is brutal and who dies in exile from her homestead, her ornamented skulls floating up in a cellar flood:

        Bobbing on the brown waves like buoys, like
        someone’s bread cast on the waters, painted
        and jeweled, the godlike heads, their empty gaze.

All that assonance and consonance is pretty, but constitutes slim consolation when one has been disappointed by false prophecy. Making things—sculpture, poems— is ultimately an optimistic response to suffering. This very addiction to world-building makes some art seem preferable to life.
    In the poetic universe that Williams creates, being haunted can be a profound and empowering experience. Even her darkest poems brim with kindness: they favor connection and meaning over alienation. As she writes in “Dealing with Beauty,” describing waking to see the fangs of a gorgeous spider by her head, we mostly behave like cowards when divinity gets too close: “I think beautiful as my knees dissolve, / elegant, a blow to the chest.” We kill our visionary experiences, and then elegize them. These poems persuade us, nonetheless, that belated, even fictive, love is better than simply burying our skeletons.

Ashes in Midair, Susan Settlemyre Williams. Many Mountains Moving Press, 2008. ISBN: 9781886976221 $15.95

© by Lesley Wheeler


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