Poems flare with precise intensity

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March 9, 2013

New Theatre
by Susan Steudel
Coach House Books, 95 pages, $17.95

Reviewed by Karen Enns

A short, untitled poem in the first section of Vancouver resident Susan Steudel’s New Theatre seems designed to look like a typewritten, anonymous message. Words are cut and pasted across the page, slightly off-kilter, but the images are clear and the phrases crisply articulate: “a study of channels”, “the coal bird”, “Grace in the/ noon water.” This sense of shifting ground under precision-tuned language runs like a fine thread through Steudel’s striking debut collection.

From the opening “sound list” translated into russian using both cyrillic and roman alphabets, Steudel invites the reader to listen hard and manage the grand leaps, not only between language and meaning, but between things themselves, the stuff of them. A meditation on time uncovers surprising (and delightful) aural and imaginative connections:

“Noon. A grumble. A black currant.”

“Tea. The stain in the iris.”

“Evening. River ice clinking into water.”

“The hour. Graphite on paper, a blunt guide.”

“Bath. Giant, silent elk.”

Central to the book is the section called Birch, inspired by Robert Payne’s biography of Vladimir Lenin. Steudel gathers points of illumination and lays them out, side by side, to form a kind of collage. Found poems, lists, quotes from Lenin’s own notes, and word games become the “multiple foci/ through which sunlight tapers to flint sparks.” Mayakovsky, Kandinsky, Tolstoy, and Akhmatova make brief appearances in this series of historico/political poems that bears the chiselled starkness of a siberian plain:

he saw in forests the hardness and purity of
a styled movement,
a lone person in a birch forest

closing his stride;
‘organization of professional revolutionaries,’
this one thought like circling wolves.

Scenes, a more autobiographical long poem, focuses on eleven different domestic settings. Stage directions offered in square brackets create a flickering focus; the reader is urged to step in and out of the poem to reconsider, listen, look again as “loose regattas of dark capsize and drift.” The question of what is real or solid is never resolved. Even clarity is fragile: “But here is the tree, bright as limes/ and the pure call of glass owls.”

In the end, Steudel’s committed vision crosses the spaces she creates. We are left with images that are tightly wound and visible, moving toward us from the outskirts:

I wake beneath dark lamps,
my window fractions into deeper darkness.

A flooded road,
faces of the brown deer and limping buck.
From an antler
grass trails by the roots.

 In Theory and Practice, love is “the magic of intersections: street crossings,/ intersecting lines/ converge momentarily then go streaming off.” This may be the most fitting description of Steudel’s poems that flare with intensity as they negotiate enormous distances.


Karen Enns is a Victoria musician and poet.

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