Even Now by Susanna Lang
We believe that if we walk slowly and quietly, we may be able to get closer to it: the deer grazing in the meadow, the robin feeding her hatchlings, the frog sunning itself on a lily pad. Yes, if we step without making a sound, we may approach the elusive without scaring it off. This is what the poems -- every single one -- in Susanna Lang's collection Even Now entice us to do: move gently toward them, experience something that is fleeting, yet so relevant, perhaps even critical.
In the opening poem "Chairs," a pair of chairs which "have each other, / and the habit of silence" waits to be occupied. Once someone is there sitting, the other poems push their heads out of the tall grass, decide it's safe and begin coming out. We remain poised in this moment of noticing throughout the collection. Each piece captures an instance of acknowledgment between the hand we extend and the small, wild creature that dares to eat from it.
This is the environment Lang creates, a haven where special encounters occur. This is not to say her poems address only safe subjects. They do not. Instead, they approach dangerous subjects with a matter-of-fact grace. In "Rivers, Leaves" Lang writes, "The news last night was bad. / The lump is not benign, it does not / wish her well." Just as she creates a relationship between the "she" and an illness, she nudges us toward intimacy with death, bridges that are out, wars, prejudices, ghosts, traps, hunger and injuries.
In other contexts, proximity to these situations may be alarming, but Even Now reassures us right away that the world Lang shows us will be balanced, not simply survivable, but also delightful. Early on, we come across the poem "Equinox," which reads:
These first few days of fall, the force
that held the world in check
a moment, equal light
and dark, still fills the air like ozone
after storms. We stop and wait
not knowing why we stopped;
and then move on, as leaves
Shortly after "Equinox," we also learn to trust the narrator to be honest with us about this delicate balance. Though it is ancient, it is not easily achieved. With incredible skill and unforgettable imagery, Lang tells us in "Good Fortune"
... In the pasture, the raven
reaches into the rain to pull out the morning,
as he has done ever since there were mornings.
He makes a fuss: it is hard work,
this business of waking, this business of thriving.
Many of the poems tug at boundaries in this same way, and so we discover the lines -- those between individuals, those between us and nature, those between generations -- are permeable. Every living thing is in the act of seeking, moving beyond. We all need something from the other side, the other person, the other time. This is best captured in "An Invitation" which shatters the perception that our efforts (walls) can keep the outside from getting in:
This house is porous, not what we
had bargained for. The mice came first,
eating their way through the walls ...
... a tree
had pushed its root up through the drainage
pipe, in search of moisture. Now
I hear the birds that sing as if
they'd made their home inside, with us.
Lang plays with this concept of distance (the lack of it) from another angle in "Conjunctions," one of the poems I kept coming back to again and again. Instead of distance being an illusion, a sense we get in "An Invitation," we are given a chance to consider the opposite, but equally true, proposition that proximity is the illusion. In the middle of the poem "Conjunctions," we read about the night sky, in which Venus hovers beneath a crescent moon:
and I feel like I'm missing
a crucial word. "And," or "but,"
something to join these two
lights, so distant from us
and from each other, only
our perspective draws them together.
I find myself astonished not only at the beauty of the lines but also the new awareness they present to me. I find myself nodding at them: Yes, oh yes. I know. That's right. Thank you. These are poems the reader will have conversations with (and relationships with) because they allow the world -- as gorgeous and complex as ever -- to re-emerge in our consciousness.
One of the tools Lang uses to accomplish this is to focus our senses. The attention of this poet is fine-tuned, and the details in her poems reveal to us the magnificent intricacies of our physical world. We first notice that the poems are about houses and ancestors, crows and spiders' webs, ducks and tulips, a tiny heart on an ultrasound, rain, a diagram of the subordinate clause, visitations and lullabies, cardinals and begonias.
But even these objects are panoramic in the scale of the Even Now poems, each extremely capable of bringing us closer to a narrower and more specific noticing: a girl carrying a pair of sandals "whose feet are missing" ("Photograph in Wednesday's Tribune"), a rainy night's lunar eclipse that "we will have to take on faith" ("Weather Report") and "bright / tongued flowers" ("She Sings In the Maple"). Always the unobtrusive observers, we watch each in silent gratitude with our narrator: "I sat at the edge of the tub in the morning while my grandmother took her bath, and then on her bed while she chose a necklace, bracelet and earrings" (2679).
The collection isn't only successful because of its detailed and tender descriptions, but also because many of its precise images are curious at the same time. Like me, many readers will remember these lines from "Misplaced":
We give you our stories. What do you do?
You eat them with jelly for breakfast.
And these from "Some Things Just Aren't the Same" about warming the eggs for baking:
I took the butter out, forgot
to warm the eggs we'd need
for gingerbread ...
I know a trick for eggs.
You hold them here, between your breasts
(don't walk too fast, don't bend
to reach that bowl in back)
until they're like another skin.
The mystery of Lang's poems is how such quiet words are able to create such resounding echoes. They are helped along by comfortable line breaks and natural spaces between stanzas. Each pause counts, and the pacing is casual enough to allow us to enter each poem and be carried around by the phrasing. While gentle, the pacing does not coddle us or lull us into a trance, an idea that this should last forever. Instead, it has just enough edge, the creation of just enough suspense, to make us want to see where it comes out.
If readers take in the poems front to back as I did, they will remember the brilliant way in which the poems lead into one another, how they touch the one that follows. A scarf connects one poem to the next one. The appearance and reappearance of a duck links a few in a row. Waiting for a fox to visit holds two or three together. A piano and a mother's music join a couple. The repetition of images (changed as they may be in their recurrence) form small footbridges page to page, poem to poem. One connection between two poems -- "In Praise of Wings" and "To Baseball" -- is especially delightful. The form creates a mirror effect. They sit on facing pages, each with three titled sections, the same number of lines and words in identical positions on the pages.
What Lang writes about "Gravity" so eloquently describes the collection in its entirety as its pages open and open and open to us:
The earth does not rise to our call,
we fall in its arms.
Reviewed by Carolee Sherwood.
Poets’ Quarterly | October 2009.