Joseph Zaccardi's review of CONTRARIWISE, By Susan Terris
By Susan Terris
Life imitates art. Art imitates life.
In Susan Terris’s new book, Contrariwise, art and life combine to become poetry. These poems, based on, among others, the real life of Alice Liddell, who was the model for Lewis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and the art of William Bouguereau, whose best-known works are of life-size paintings of children and children portrayed as angels.
Carroll (Charles Dodgson) had Alice fall into a rabbit hole and find a gold key that opened a small door “perfectly.” Alice couldn’t fit in, but found a small bottle labeled “Drink Me,” which caused her to shrink; life and art joined through fantasy, bound through imagination.
And Bouguereau’s La Bourrique, (Horseback Ride), a painting of two young girls, the older playing the role of the horse, the younger riding on her back sidesaddle, serves as the cover of this engaging book and as example of art imitating life and in the poem titled “The New Model.”
Using extraordinary language, these poems rely principally on image and sound. Many have epigraphs by poets, artists, philosophers, and fictional characters as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Christopher Robin, Balthus, and Mrs. Rabbit. Epigraphs often have little to do with the poem and more to do with the poet’s likes and dislikes, but in Contrariwise they are fuse and fuel for the poems; taken together they propel this deeply imaginative collection.
The book has no divisions. It is seamless from the first poem ─ “Ruskin’s Advice to Charles Dodgson,” which begins with this epigraph, What we are like determines what we are… ─ to the last, “Honeysuckle Dream,” quoted here in its entirety:
A hut of clay and wattles
A bee-loud glade
We shall write
Upon the still water
And see words slowly vapor
Toward the sky
And then we’ll lie together
Rapt with wings
As always out of time
And there’s a “wonderland” moment where “Considering Pussywillow,” a chant-like poem that begins, “Take goose feathers to suck away lightning. / Cull spider webs and burn them.” faces “Wild Heart” with the lines, “Not the literal truth but the truth below / The truth.” Because they are left- and right-justified, one wonders, is this the body watching the reflection or the other way around?
In one startling poem, “The Real Alice,” Terris writes in Alice’s voice speaking of Charles Dodgson, “…he said he loved the soap smell / in my hair, that I smelled girlish…” and “…he’d arm-hug me, give me / Eskimo kisses, talk to me as people only can in the dark…” Dark indeed, but these are the quests and questions that drive Terris’s wise and contrary poetry. And it’s what compelled me to come back, again and again, to read these poems.
Susan Terris’s poetry books include Natural Defenses (Marsh Hawk Press), Fire Is Favorable
to the Dreamer (Arctos Press), Poetic License
(Adastra Press), Curved Space (La Jolla Poets
Press), and Eye of the Holocaust (Arctos Press). Her work has appeared in Iowa Review, Field, Calyx, The Journal, Colorado Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Denver Quarterly, Southern California Anthology, and Ploughshares. With CB Follett, she is coeditor of an annual anthology, RUNES, A Review of Poetry. Her prize-winning chapbooks include Block Party (Pudding House Publications) and Marriage License (Pavement Saw Press). Among her many awards are the George Bogin Memorial Prize, from the Poetry Society of America, plus prizes from the Florida Review, Many Mountains Moving, Literal Latte, Salt Hill, Southern California Anthology, Spoon River, and the Faulkner / Wisdom Poetry Competition. She is also the winner of a Pushcart Award for her poem “Goldfish: A Diptych,” published in Field.
From RATTLE 2009
Copyright ©2015 Joseph Zaccardi