Cole Swensen offers the following in her blurb of Susan Terris’s the Homelessness of Self, out recently from Arctos Press:
“…Terris also does something entirely new with the confessional poem, opening it to previously unexplored territory with her vivid, idiosyncratic language and hauntingly honest imagery. The whole is eye-opening and refreshingly frank.”
I don’t normally open a review with a blurb, or even really cite them at all, but after finishing the book I couldn’t help feeling a bit like I had been scammed by such high praise. If one has, say, bought this book essentially at random from SPD Books, such words might assuage any fears that one is stepping into a book of an all too familiar affect, in which case such a person as your humble reviewer becomes caught off guard by the very stale and plodding book that appears page by page. Which is all to say that Swensen’s blurb to my mind seems almost humorous in the way it seems to catalog all the flatnesses of Terris’s poems as I was affected by them.
The territory feels very well-trodden indeed, with language that might be vivid if it could compose itself with an ambition that might see itself as something more than a parade of cliché romantic naturalism and bored domesticity. By language that is ‘idiosyncratic’, Swensen I assume means the painfully frequent nudges toward word play that simply seem to me to show either a lack of imagination or a lack of effort—they are small, half-willed efforts in nearly every instance I found them, as the following stanza from the poem ‘The Path to Innisfree’ examples:
“Disease and dis-ease. What we have
taken, must all be returned.”
This lazy gesturing crops up again and again, showing up in a section where Terris works with lists of aphoristic lines in some attempt toward turning them towards her own end of the thematic cores of the text, and here more than ever it feels to me the lack of imagination costs her heavily. The terse nature of aphorisms makes employing and tweaking them infinitely harder than perhaps writing them to begin with; the margin of error for dabbling in them in this way feels razor-thin to me, and Terris seems to clumsily teeter off this edge with an unsettling consistency. For instance:
“He who follows the path of least resistance will have least
And any man who tries to walk on water will surely drown”
What would often seem most striking to me were the numerous moments where Terris seems to lack all confidence that even these very easily leapt-to linguistic tinkerings will be clear or compelling to the reader, which seems to prompt her to explicate their meanings time and time again, undercutting whatever small momentum such lines may have had to begin with. From ‘Currants, Currents, Undercurrents’ (another example in its own right, as it goes):
“As she treads to stay above the glazed surface, she
watches mallards, webs sculling, circle her, creatures who
mate for life. Any female – mate lost – must forever solo.”
Add in stanzas like the following (I think it speaks for itself):
“O, song of the flagpole, sonata of wave and wind.
Out by the sandbar, in the shallows, wild
rice grows. Move toward it, wait, listen.”
And the seemingly relentless awkwardness of ‘witticisms’ such as the one in these lines:
“And marriage proves it’s easy to be a math atheist. Here,
one and one should equal one but still equals two.”
And the promise of Swensen’s praise began to feel more and more to me like a pitfall that I had all too quickly leapt into. Which feels very unfortunate, because the one complement the blurb paid that I felt was worth being given was that of honesty, even if no part the text pushed it forward into a velocity that would threaten to haunt after the book was finished. That honesty simply never felt it could muster itself through the strangely uncomfortable lines that promised its presence.
In the poem ‘Phoning Home / Salt’, the speaker offers the question “Is this one more B movie script?” This is a very resonant question, one of the few the book manages despite itself, dressed as it is in a tired cloth that itself isn’t without irony. This question cries for a more vulnerable speaker to feel its presence, once unconcerned with lazy linguistic tics and sadly crutch-like clichés.