KRISTIN BERKEY-ABBOTT Reviews
Pioneers in the Study of Motion by Susan Briante
(Ahsahta Press 2007)
Well, we can’t say we weren’t warned by the title of Susan Briante’s Pioneers in the Study of Motion. Even C. D. Wright, in one of the blurbs on the back of the book warns, “It’s a work of shuddering velocity.” After reading these poems, one feels a bit breathless, as if one has been on a whirlwind tour of many kinds of motion.
This book takes the reader to many parts of the world. There are poems with names of geographical places in the titles: Miami Beach, New Orleans, Roanoke, the many titles that evoke Mexico. Briante has written a series of Eventual Darling poems: “Eventual Darling (Galang Island),” “Eventual Darling (Kinshasa),” “Eventual Darling (Mexico City)”, “Eventual Darling (Brasilia),” and “Eventual Darling (Kanpur).” Each poem is rich in the details of the individual place, and each poem moves towards an insightful analysis of the effect of modern life, with its globalization and industrialization, on the place. Briante does this with devastating effect, often in a single stunning line or image. In “Eventual Darling (Kinshasa),” she writes: “Shepherds of reflex and deviation with preferences for ‘sticks / trowels, knives,’ with preferences for nipple clamps and half-light, / chase flocks of pandemics across withered earth” and in “Eventual Darling (Galang Island),” she says, “At a detention camp on Galang Island, Vietnamese refugees sculpt a Statue / of Liberty . . . .”
This book of poems moves through time as well as space. Four of the poems document a particular day of the rainy season (“5th Day of the Rainy Season,” for example), but not every day of the rainy season (just days 5, 7, 12, 14 and 15). Poems transport the reader to particular times of the year and often individual poems circle back to the end of summer. In “Roanoke,” “Summer came and you were the voice of the BBC.” But summer ends: “That’s not why I left you.” In “Song with Typewriter and Bleating Sheep,” the words “Summer ends” repeats at different places in the poem: “Summer ends in a kink at the back of your neck, burgundy wildflowers” and “Summer ends in a baseball through a window. You worry” and “Summer ends / in foreign policy, in a former lover, a factory.” The poem brims over with intriguing images of summer shifting towards autumn, of autumn taking over. Many of the poems in this book return to an autumnal state, whether a literal autumn or the mood of fall or the symbols of autumn.
The poems present various kinds of relationships, many of them in an autumnal phase. The poems in the second section of the book are titled in ways that show relationship, such as “The Cartographer’s Son,” “The Archaeologist’s Daughter,” and “The Pornographer’s Father.” Even poems that aren’t titled this way suggest relationship to others, such as “The Domestic.”
Not only do the poems document various relationships, they also move through stages in relationships. There are poems that talk about beginnings, like the companion poems, “The Groom Stripped Bare,” and “While the Bride, Miami Beach, 1999.” Several poems seem to be exploring the middle stage of relationship. But the bulk of the poems look at the end stages of relationships. Often, Briante mixes her exploration of physical place with the exploration of the stage of a relationship. “As a Series of Settlements” gives the reader seven sections, each set in different places. In the section titled “I-35 Between San Antonio and Austin,” the speaker delivers these devastating lines: “You say: Autumn descends inevitably. How much longer can we drive? / You say: Didn’t I show you Russian thistle, organ pipe, October flush with russet sky? / You say: “This is how cities are founded at the point where we refuse to go further.” And yet these lines of impending loss are undercut by the last line: “And grass wilts sweet under the weight of our footsteps.” This line speaks of people colonizing a place and staying put, rather than splitting apart.
Throughout much of this book, a foreboding feeling of impending loss is never far away. And yet, hope is never far away either. In “The Money Changers,” section iii begins, “Continents chafe. Traffic stirs a dusty breeze.” The poem ends with this image: “Some days even the sewage / smells of apples.” These poems, which explore issues of alienation and what it means to be a native, issues of industrialization and loss, nicely mix images of despair and images of sanctuary, and the overall effect is one of cautious hope.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. She has published in many journals and was one of the top ten finalists in the National Looking Glass Poetry Chapbook Competition. Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, where she has just been promoted to Assistant Chair of the General Education department.