Suzanne Lummis in “The New Yorker”

The first time I had any contact with Suzanne Lummis was a short letter passed on to me by Lenny Durso, the last of the three original owners of Intellectuals & Liars Bookstore to be holding out against the onslaught of Crown Books. Suzanne was looking for venues to give a poetry reading; unfortunately, I & L was on its last legs and so she never read there. At that time, she was collaborating with a songwriter, as well as working on plays and doing some acting. Her versatility and talent intrigued me and I was pleased to include her in my second anthology of Los Angeles poets, “Poetry Loves Poetry” (1985). Suzanne has gone on to become one of the major literary activists in Los Angeles during the past thirty years. She has edited or co-edited a series of anthologies, including the first thin volume of “Stand Up” poetry as well as a subsequent collection, “Grand Passion.” In addition, she is co-editing a new anthology of Los Angeles poets to be published with the Beyond Baroque imprint in 2015.

As a poet, she has not gotten anywhere near the attention that she deserves. Her first full-length collection, “In Danger,” was more than strong enough to expect that other presses would have solicited the next manuscript. Instead, her work has languished in that peculiar zone of incomprehensible marginality that frequently seems to be the birthright of many poets working in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, her writing has continued to gain widespread respect; in fact, as a successor to the wonderful poet, Eloise Klein Healy, Suzanne Lummis would have been my choice for the second poet laureate of Los Angeles.

Finally, though, 15 years after “In Danger” was published, her second substantial collection has been published. “Open 24 Hours” won a contest sponsored by Blue Lynx Books and the book is now available at Beyond Baroque Bookstore as well as the on-line outlets. Suzanne has just had another break-through occasion, too, in having a poem appear in “The New Yorker.” On one level, of course, such a standardized level of accomplishment is not something that changes my opinion of her writing, which I would respect no matter if she collected 184 rejection letters in a lifetime of submitting to that magazine. On the other hand, she should be justifiably proud of getting printed there. If Rae Armantrout feels comfortable about having a poem in “The New Yorker,” then why shouldn’t the rest of us lounge by its poolside, too? Rae’s poem, “Before,” which appeared in a mid-December, 2013 issue, is worth looking up.

Suzanne’s poem, “How I Didn’t Get Myself to a Nunnery,” which appears in the November 3rd issue, is probably the best “response” poem to one of my favorite poems of all time, “Dimanches,” by Jules LaForgue. The poem comes close to being an ekphrastic rendition of a teenage wasteland, and I suppose part of its appeal to me was how the landscape caught all the dreariness of Imperial Beach, the border city I had the misfortune to spend my adolescence in. LaForgue’s poem opens with an epigraph from “Hamlet” that points to the invocation of Ophelia’s fate that his poem makes use of. “Let her not walk in the sun,” Hamlet advises Polonius. As for walking in the rain, LaForgue picks up an impressionist paintbrush for his nine couplet poem, which begins and concludes with the same line, “Le ciel pleut sans but, sans que rien l’émeuve.” In between, yet one more frail young woman joins what Lummis calls “the season of self-drowned maids”:

Une qui n’a ni manchon, ni fourrures
Fait, tout en gris, une pauvre figure.

Et la voilà qui s’échappe des rangs,
Et court ! Ô mon Dieu, qu’est-ce qu’il lui prend

Et elle va se jeter dans le fleuve.
Pas un batelier, pas un chien Terr’ Neuve.

In contrast with the melancholy despair of LaForgue anonymous suicide, Lummis’s protagonist is a survivor. Her poem opens:

That girl they found ensconced in mud and loam,
she wasn’t me. Small wonder, though, they jumped.

A number of things happen here that have the touch of a chess master handling the opening gambit and its and counter-moves, not the least of which is how the diction and colloquial syntax pull the reader close for a moment of sneaky intimacy. The voice is more reflective than one might find on a dramatic stage, and yet what’s at stake is equally compelling. The use of blank verse in a nine-line stanza (but without any Spenserian rhyme scheme) is impressive. I particularly admire the spondee of the third foot of the second line and would argue that this accentual nuance (SMALL WONder) is exactly what underscores the irony trembling throughout the poem. That spondee, in turn, can only be fully appreciated if one notes that the placement of the caesura in the poem’s first line is not necessarily in the “obvious” place (after “found”). The fact that there is not a comma after “found” is a clue that the caesura’s placement is more open to interpretation than the naive reader might think.

That girl they found ensconced in mud and loam,

she wasn’t me. Small wonder, though, they jumped.

If the caesura is placed after “ensconced,” one magnifies the sense of a fateful anticipation being fixed in certainty, as opposed to the counterpunch of the opening of the second line: “she wasn’t me.” In other words, the sense of displacement in the narrative gets underscored by the spot, in the first line, where the hemidemisemiquaver of an internal pause gazes inward at itself.

I have my doubts that anybody who wrote to Suzanne to congratulate her on the poem commented on her metrical tactics, but if Suzanne has brought her knowledge and skill to the task, then it deserves some measure of specific commentary. As is often the case, I wish I had more time to extend my analysis. This is merely a start on her poem’s subtle effects. I urge all of you to turn to it with ears wide open.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/03/didnt-get-nunnery

— Bill Mohr