Joyce's Sept. 11th column

To read Joyce's visit to the West Chester Writers' Conference

To read Joyce's review of Nadya Aisenberg.

To read Joyce's column on a critic's poetry collection.

To read Joyce's column on Stephen Burt and Michael Scharf in the PSA Panel on Criticism.

To read Perloff and Vendler Spar at PSA Panel on Criticism, part one of Joyce’s OBSERVATIONS


A review by Joyce in Summer 2000 of Thomas O’Grady

More work by Joyce Wilson in Spring 2000


A review of Wit

Poetry Porch Feature

The State of American Poetry: Roundtable Discussion

penObservations: A Column by Joyce Wilson

A Review of Transit by Susan Donnelly

Transit by Susan Donnelly. Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Iris Press, 2001. ISBN 0916078531 (paper). $12.00.

      Susan Donnelly's second book of poems, Transit, satisfies the reader's taste for narrative without forfeiting the lyric cry from the heart. This collection describes an individual's emergence from solitude stronger, confident of her identity, and determined to stand apart from the crowd. The crowd, in her case, constitutes the pressures to conform in a marriage, a family, among peers, and as a poet contemplating familiar subjects.
     Donnelly's subjects are familiar, yet they are never treated predictably. The poems that depend on narrative elements create a palpable sense of place, time, and character, and develop the unifying theme of having arrived. “Chanson on the Red Line,” for example, follows a woman to a subway platform where the performance of a young black man with a guitar causes all those present, while they dare not look at each other, to look inward, into their own longings. The emphasis in the first two thirds of the poem is on the plural “we”; then the final third shifts to the first person singular “I,” and the full character of the narrator emerges: woman, middle aged, carrying bags, who insists, “Let me tell the truth for once.” The poem “Transit” also features the subway, a place where conformity governs the riders, who sway together with the motions of the train and stare “in the same neutral way.” But this narrator finds more meaning in the routine of riding from one particular place to another than she did in the ambiguities of her marriage. She may go through the motions of the journey, coming and leaving, but on the subway she is free to love the city with an undivided passion.
      Stories inform many of Donnelly's poems and determine their structure. The poem “Soup” presents two situations which involve dealing with inedible soup. First, a husband and wife rely on each other under the cover of night to dispose of pea soup gone moldy, and second, a divorcée takes burnt ruined soup, exorcises it of ghosts and guilt, and throws it away as an act of courage accomplished alone. The poem “Massachusetts” relates coming of age to resisting shame over having a birthmark and identifying it with a place on a map. The poem develops in three narratives, which correspond to youth, young adulthood, and middle age. In part three, the birthmark on her upper thigh, which resembles the shape of the state of Massachusetts, has begun to fade:
A place I was born to,
that has changed as I've changed,

a story disappearing
like stars at morning,
or a backwards Polaroid.

My state, that I've grown to.
This comparison of birthmark, state, and identity creates a refreshing juxtaposition of imagery in an autobiographical account that conveys a great deal about body blemishes, political entities, and former selves that we grow to love and hate. Focusing on two characters, mother and daughter, the poem “To R.D.” gives a detailed setting––the bedroom, its pillows, sleeping cat, unfinished puzzle––as a place of interior comfort. Once her daughter draws her portrait, the mother is amazed by the truths that appear in the finished work:
But this charcoaled woman––her smile
resigned, in the tilt of her head
such loneliness. When did you catch my eye
on you this way? And through the window
behind her: suggestion
of winter trees, leavetakings, distances.
                                   (“To R.D.”)
In this short poem, one learns a great deal about the mother, daughter, house, their history. And beyond the specific portrayal of mother and daughter, the poem gives a universal portrait: “Daughters become friends just as they leave.”
     Not all of Donnelly's poems are narratives. Some of her poems might assemble the elements of a story, yet they lack development and create a whole from disparate parts rather than from place or time or character. “Samba” describes a woman who practices the Latin dance in the lilac bushes alone outside a tent. Nothing happens in the poem. The woman in motion connects with an image of her father who was called “the perfect samba type” and practices her steps, “marking the soft soil” as one marks paper with pencil. We leave her there in perpetual motion, dancing alone, having achieved an immortality of sorts in this poem that might otherwise be about growing older. Another poem introduces a woman living in New York City during the nineteen-sixties, working on a novel, falling in and out of love, and then Kennedy is assassinated. The free verse structure hurls forward as if all these events are pushing into one another with a momentum that prohibits understanding. Then the ending introduces meter and rhyme to establish a fine conclusion that reflects on the poem itself. The poet could ask the question, “why am I writing this?” Instead, she sings:
Or are these tears
for the broken love,
the unreadable novel?
Anyway, the years.
     Donnelly writes mostly in free verse, hence the prevalence of her reliance on narrative. Yet she is clearly capable of writing in rhyme and meter and brings out her talent in these formal devices of poetry when she needs to. “On Throwing Away a Bottle of Tranquilizers” is a sequence of four sonnets in which the first exhibits end rhyme.
Natty in your white and scarlet jackets,
reluctant magic, deadpan as Jack's beans,
tricksters, hiding each a giant-chase scene
or opening silent like a deadly locket.
          (“On Throwing Away a Bottle of Tranquilizers”)
Not employing perfect end rhyme, but using strong echoes of vowels and consonants, these lines connect plural “jackets” with singular “locket,” and plural “beans” with singular “scene,” to describe the multiple disguises of tranquilizers. The other poems in the sequence do not rely on connections of sound as the first does, but they continue the process of naming. Number Two takes on the form of a curse: “Trojan horses, every one of you,/ Teeming with men like maggots.” Number Three gives each pill a motto, emphasized by initial capital letters: “Go Ahead./ Take One If You Need One. It's No Crime./ This is a Mild Dose.” Poem Four describes the act of disposing the last of the magic capsules, which have finally lost their potency––and ability to stimulate the imagination––and have become ordinary pills. This structure of naming, of singing names, organizes the author's embrace of her subject and her extrication from its influence.
     Donnelly's strength is her ability to find the right form for each poem. She draws on an array of styles and talents, combining narrative and lyric elements with humor and wit. Donnelly's writing exhibits a confidence in her abilities and in her place in her generation. She writes about the famous figure of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks:
What you continue to do
is make me understand
that one day there may be a moment,
unannounced, for each of us. A small occasion
                         (“Rosa Parks”)
Rosa Parks has been commemorated in countless journalistic and historical pieces, and still Donnelly has something to say about her place in our culture. One wonders whether, in the future, Donnelly will use her talents to tackle even larger subjects, such as a whole volume of poems on one theme. The examples of Rita Dove's book on her grandparents, Thomas and Beulah, and Ellen Bryant Voigt's on the influenza pandemic of 1918 entitled Kyrie come to mind. Until then, we continue to enjoy the regular appearance of Donnelly's poems in literary magazines, her chapbooks, and this new published collection.
***** Joyce Wilson is the editor and publisher of The Poetry Porch and a Contributing Editor and a columnist for The Drunken Boat.