GRAYWOLF PRESS, 2018, $16, paperback
Diane Seuss writes about sex as though she is talking directly to you. “[B]y the time she’s sixteen, every girl knows how to think dirty,” she writes in “It wasn’t a dream, I knew William Burroughs,” a poem in her third collection, Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf, 2015). There is sex in her memories of red shoes that tipped her balance, a captured toad so scared it peed in her hand, and the dark mound in the center of a brown-eyed Susan that reminds her of “a nipple bitten black.”
Her poems float between Downtown New York and things that get stuck to screen doors in the country. And in every one there is a now and a before that are lived simultaneously in sleepless, horny sadness. All the nightgowns she wears are “war-torn.” Even death looks like a bad boyfriend you want never to get over. There is sex especially in the scratch and sniff of words. “Thoughts are puppets, dangling from their tangled strings,” she writes in “Free Beer.” Nothing turns this woman on more than arousing language past meaning, then setting it lose to bite your neck.
Four-Legged Girl was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize, and Seuss has racked up a number of other awards and residencies. She taught creative writing at Kalamazoo College for 30 years before retiring recently. The poems in her just-out fourth collection, Still Life with two dead Peacocks and a Girl (Graywolf), are based on paintings and the lives of visual artists. Really, the book is another lab for experiments with language, rough emotions, and the indeterminacy of feeling like a hick in New York and a hipster in a cornfield. Seuss likes picture frames because they freeze time and because, as with doors, when you are inside you want to get out and when you outside you want to get in.
She thinks about what is big in a painting and what is marginal. She thinks about people who aren’t depicted in art and don’t go to museums, like many of the farmers she grew up around in tiny Michigan towns with main drags made of dirt. Each poem is a lens through which we can see the painting as well as the life the poet sees inside it, namely her own life, playing as a kid in a cemetery near her house and wandering boggy trails. If you look carefully enough at frogs and stalky things, they deliver a vocabulary for delirium. In the poem “I Have Lived My Whole Life in a Painting Called Paradise,” the poet sees the seeds in split milkweeds, ready to fly off, and remembers them “once packed in their pods like the wings and the hollow bones/Of a damp bird held too tightly in a green hand.” In “A Wal-Mart Parking Lot,” the paint flings of Jackson Pollock conjure arcs of “frozen Coke splatter.” And in the extraordinary poem, “Still Life with Turkey,” the poet cannot tear her eyes from a dead turkey, strung up “by one pronged foot.”
Each death is all deaths, especially the death of her father, who died when she was seven. He was sick all the time she knew him, and when, at his funeral, she is asked if she wants to see him in his coffin, she says no, thinking it’s what’s expected of her. In the poem she writes, “Now I can’t get enough of seeing, as if I’m paying/a sort of penance for not seeing then.” A moment later the turkey, with its “raw-looking head,” reminds her of “the first fully naked man” she saw when working as a candy striper. And there they are, all her subjects in 36 lines: sex, death, and comedy, trussed together in a green hand.
I called her to talk about writing and women during the thing that is happening to our country. She was open, funny, and smart. There is a sweetness in her voice. A softness delivers the wit, and it reminded me of something she told an interviewer about her time in New York in the 1970s, when she was hanging out on the edges of cool and living with a guy who turned out to be a heroin addict. She said, “I wasn’t tough. . . . I wasn’t hard enough for that situation. . .. A lot of women weren’t. A lot of women got impaled on it.”
In our conversation she said, “I got out of a shitty relationship. Who’s ever in love with somebody who isn’t shitty? I left with my manual typewriter and my dad’s briefcase and escaped.” Back in Michigan she met a man “pretty quickly,” and they had a son who in time also became addicted to heroin. When we spoke, Seuss had just returned from a visit with her son that had gone well. “He’s clean,” she said. She plans to stay in Michigan for the time being, to be close to her mother, whom she adores. Otherwise, she said, “I would go anywhere where they would take me, Canada, Iceland. I love solitude and wouldn’t mind being cold.”
We moved on to talk about how she makes poems, and she said, “I stuff all the parts of an experience into a gunny sack, then I slit open the sack and the language falls out.” I said, “What’s a gunny sack?” I imagined burlap but wanted to be sure. She laughed and said, “A sack you carry potatoes in or kittens you are planning to drown.”
She wrote many of the poems in Still Life at the artist colony, Hedgebrook. Nearby was a place called Cape Disappointment, and one day she drove there. She said, “I mean, how could I resist? It’s a lighthouse up on rocks, and you had to hike out to it. I just didn’t want to. I thought I was maybe passing up the opportunity to jump, but I climbed into the back seat of the car and took a nap. Afterward I thought about how the outing was like my poems, where nothing much happens on the outside. It had been a long drive, and I had had to piss, and I’d just squatted and pissed, so that had happened. It reminded me of Virginia Woolf, where a shawl falls off a wall, and she decides, ‘I better write about it for 100 pages.’ I was deciding to live pretty much for the sake of language, and I think that has been part of my whole life. Even at my dad’s funeral, I remember someone handed me a rose, and there was an ant crawling on it, and I liked having the words to describe it to myself.”
That singularity stamps all her sentences. Every original voice teaches you to hear its sound as much as what it’s saying. At the last conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Seuss was asked to be on a panel to talk about poetic personas, and when it was her turn to speak, she recalled an incident from her time as a graduate student. The poet Galway Kinnell was a visiting writer, and Seuss’s mentor suggested she read some poems to the star. Seuss was sitting on the floor, by his feet. It was one of those scenes. She read two poems narrated by what she called “monsters,” who spoke in the syntax she had heard growing up. Kinnell had sat with his eyes closed. When she finished, he opened his eyes and wearily said, “Why don’t you write in your own voice?” At the AWP panel, she said she had been embarrassed and shamed and had not answered him. She said, “Now, I would have told him, ‘That is my real voice’.”
She continued that thread, “Where I grew up, there was this woman who carried everything she owned in a dress form. Another woman refused to die. Her body was done, but she just wouldn’t stop living. There was a wildness and erotic rawness that people don’t get about the people I’m from. The other day my niece said to me, ‘I danced til my pussy was raw’.”
Back at AWP, there were three other panelists with Seuss, all younger than she, and after she finished speaking, each one told a story about how wonderful and inspirational Kinnell had been to them. It was like the experience with Kinnell was happening again, forty years later, and Seuss told me, “I thought if I don’t speak up now, I’m going to drive off Cape Disappointment. I threw my water bottle on the floor and said, ‘Come on, you guys met Kinnell after his dick fell off. That night he had his eye on somebody else. They all came to the college and fucked students. Sometimes I was the girl. The writing world was extraordinarily dangerous for a young woman. The danger was to her psyche, never mind her body. The feeling was of being erased, and many talented women stopped writing.” The audience encouraged her to keep going.
Before we rung off, I asked Seuss what she was working on. She said a memoir in sonnets. She said she was pretty happy, then laughed, adding, “There is no thought in my head that does not eventually find itself to death, no relationship that is free of death, even with living people, the few that are left.” She said, “People see poetry as such an emotional process, but I view it, even when I write about difficult things, I see it as an intellectual process, as a problem to be solved. That’s what I love about these sonnets. You have 14 lines and that’s it. To get all of that stuff in that little sack. It’s teaching me about what you don’t need about life. It’s such a pleasure, even the hard stuff is so sweet.”