[lapsed insel weary] by Susana Gardner
(The Tangent, Portland, Oregon, 2009)
Susana Gardner is like a dolphin or a bat. Not the most orthodox way to begin a review, I admit. For one, dolphins and bats are animals and Susana Gardner is a human. And two, dolphins and bats inhabit fluid worlds of unfixed shape and place—the dolphin’s water is boundless, the bat’s air is groundless, whereas poet Susana Gardner lives on solid terra firma. What all three have in common is the ability to navigate the landless, to not just find but to situate in de-contextualized space that is, because of the murk, shadow, and shade, not reliably traversable using sight, and so requires sound, more specifically echolocation, to effectively navigate.
In the coda to her first full-length collection [lapsed insel weary] Gardner uses the echo-producing typographic ears of the bracket to conclude the beginning of an ambitious feminized lyric about “manied” unnamed narrating females who have been geographically conquered, colonized and mapped territorily like islands. (In Luxembourgish and German the definition of “insel” is “island.”)
[ even as a state of being ] [ first movement in…] [blue
] [is is not the ] [is is not the said crowned beauty ]
[ I meant garnet or sad cry of ruby ]…
…[ girl ] [ lapsed insel weary] [Were a woman an insel ]
The z sound in “as” reflects off the “is,” appearing four times in the second line, along with the s sound in the twice-appearing “insel,” creating murmuring, as though a group of women were speaking from a distance and we can’t quite hear them. This is a masterful and subtle effect that provides a haunting layer of subtext. As readers, we may not be certain where we are in the lyric, but because of the cadence and use of direct rhyme, we find ourselves relying on sound to move not exactly forward, which would be too linear, but toward—toward voice, expression, (her) self.
[this she must find]…[ that self ]
It’s basic survival. Given the lack of a solid landscape, neither dolphin, nor bat, nor poet, in this case, can base perception, that slippery human tool, solely on vision, which is all too often artfully fashioned out of image, or what “appears to be.”
Any statement that contains “to be” is probably an ontological one, and so is naturally one that concerns itself with “being” and whatever and all that means. Gardner successfully executes what many have attempted, and what even fewer have accomplished—poetry as ontological exploration that uses physical and metaphysical language. What Gardner understands—and this is why [lapsed] is so exquisite—is that such a poetry cannot authentically be investigated using one or the other; it must be investigated using one and the other, body and mind together. Ontological language tends to be abstract language, and so is, even when beautifully rendered, too removed—and too external—to illustrate what is, because it is felt (as opposed to perceived) visceral and internal, though the reasons for the investigation (who determines being? and, if determined by an other or an else, can that existence still be called “authentic” being?) might be mysterious and external. Because Gardner refuses other than very generally to label the labelers, we experience what her females experience, and so the heartbreaking isolation which had been emotional is now also intellectual. In skin and mind, we come to realize these women and girls have been islanded; once part of a larger mainland that has (been) broken off to finally exist in co-dependent independence with a father continent. Under the charge of a less-refined poet this paradox would read as an interesting, if not particularly new feminist poethic about the juxtaposed position the independently dependant, or dependently independent post-modern female places herself and is being placed in, and so might read as cold irony or cute paradox. There is nothing cold or cute about Gardner’s poetry. What is left in the absence of irony and paradox is optimism, empathy, and precision—an emotionally direct and brutally correct collection that upends pity, is oddly liberating and so is that much more, for the unexpected freedom it inspires, moving. From [were a woman an insel]…
[ Were a woman an insel ]
isolate and long in its
standing without other
Were a girl not rooted
[ &manied ] not lapsed weary
by waves her withstory tethered
Not weary in its grasp [ in-
delibile ] lines denoting many
small women within one,-
…the poem continues. As ontological investigation into female being (and who has determined it for “her”), this poem cannot, nor could, summarily conclude because it begins conditionally with “were,” which occurs repeatedly and is homophonically echoed back in “weary.” To address this visually, “her” existence (and upon what circumstances it may depend) might be illustrated using the three dots that make up ellipses, or the ever-handy Dickensonian dash to suggest continuance and/or omission. Gardner, though, chooses brackets to act as visual bookends and auditory sounding boards for image and sound of image respectively, using echolocation to show place and simultaneously that place is a linguistic and historical construct in perpetual shift, is, if it is to be named, just as dependent on the conditions making it.
Because most of the poems in [lapsed] are bracketed, we, too, must negotiate myriad emphases and de-emphases of context, especially as they apply to where women are, and, as implied by the space in and surrounding the brackets, where they are not. Dislocation, as depicted by Gardner, is a distinct and insular place that is a uniquely female one in which the “grandmany” speak from various suspended places and states of personal wreckage and psychological dislocation. Gardner could simply tell us that women have historically been defined, been categorized, by men, and there are certainly plenty of poetry stock-images she could have pulled from the misogyny folder to illustrate, but she doesn’t.
Instead, Gardner floats these females between unspecified periods of time, yet chooses to affix them to a present-tense page. She encloses and separates them from male context—and also as though by male-imposed context—and in so doing totally re-contextualizes feminine experience. She fragments, but in a way that is entire; they move, yet stay in one place. Am I them—are they me? Because I am potentially one of these females, I am not sure what pronoun set to use to describe all these narrators—use third person “them”s and “they”s, or first-person plural “us”s and “we”s? All possibilities are correct, and no answers are given. In poem XI of “to stand to sea” we are asked:
…what colored plume is
it that you see? Or, - as consequence
to words as stated—my foam cuts at
your feet with wax wings I fly above
you as the sea is mine stays
instrument turns garnet this wave
as your hand reaches out latent in its
sweep toward the shore— this stave—
again, not of your confine or surf (55).
As reply, this is maddening, disorienting, gorgeous, staggering; dislocation, according to Gardner, is both a contrived (as in determined by the outside) and personally legitimate place, and not one where what we see (“this wave”)—or seem to see (“as your hand”)—stays the same.
In [lapsed] sense shifts. We’re shown sounds, we hear images of the every and the many. This is a poetry of amazing confluence, of wide-open eye and undiluted ear. It is not easy, but then nothing about being ever is.
Nicole Mauro has published poems and criticism in numerous journals. She is the author of the chapbooks Odes (Sardines, 2003), Dispatch (co-authored with Marci Nelligan, Dusie, 2006), The Contortions (Dusie, 2007), and Tax-Dollar Super-Sonnet (Pendergast/Dusie, 2009). She is the co-editor of an interdisciplinary book about sidewalks titled Intersection: Sidewalks and Public Space (with Marci Nelligan, ChainArts, 2008). She lives in the San Francisco bay area with her husband Patrick, and daughters Nina and Faye. She teaches rhetoric and writing at the University of San Francisco.