The Fortunate Islands by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
Reviewed by Shawn Pittard
“At the center / of my being / an inner eye / bled open.” Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s inner eye is an eye of compassion and close observation. In her newest collection, The Fortunate Islands (Marick Press 2007), Kelly De-Witt’s poems arise from memory, landscape, art, the great mysteries, and hope.
in the way a bee enters a Rose
of Sharon with its whole gold dollop
of a body, expecting to back out
again, into the dry daylight
expecting to return
home to the hive of the busy
and living, loaded with the stuff
in the night-crazed
boats of the crickets, their wavery
flotations of song, more steady
than my heart-
in the deeper grasses
we call love —
in their fevered appetites,
their pithy sermons
As much a naturalist as she is a humanist, Kelly-DeWitt poses provocative questions throughout this collection. In “ The Trees,” she asks: “Who is to say / the trees aren’t frightened too / waiting in the cold in the dark.” She asks us to consider the prison guard’s arrival in “Waiting for Garcia,” asking, “How not to see him as God-like when he comes, / with boots, billy club, handcuffs, gun?”
The Fortunate Islands is an especially well-arranged collection of poems. The book is organized into five parts. Part II, “Whiskey Nights,” is the most narrative and provides a family history that resonates in poems throughout the book. This is one way the parts correspond with each other. They also correspond through shared imagery and diction, and Kelly DeWitt’s unique and personal voice.
The poems about childhood’s terrors are the most “confessional” and bring to mind James Dickey’s remarks about Jack Gilbert’s poems. Dickey wrote that Gilbert “takes himself away to a place more inward than is safe to go; from that awful silence and tightening, he returns to us poems of savage compassion.” Kelly DeWitt’s “Whiskey Nights” is clearly a poem of “savage compassion.”
He was still human
but he grew guttural and cruel.
he would trash at us and howl
like a wounded animal.
What was it that tore
Once he wrapped himself
in an electric blanket, plugged it in
and stretched out on the grass
“to watch the stars.”
We prayed he would
(Dear God, those howls — )
Those were our moonless nights,
love at such low tide we felt death
was the only possible future.
When the priest offered
the blessing at the funeral, I saw
a light in the shape of a man rise
out of his coffin and walk
soberly toward me.
An accomplished painter herself, Kelly-DeWitt also looks to visual art for inspiration. She often enters a painting empathetically. For example, she begins “Nuptial” by writing, “I recognize the look of dislocation / I wore in my early twenties” in the woman she describes in an Edward Hopper painting. Other times she enters through knowledge of an artist’s work. In “Odalisque,” she imagines Matisse, who thinks of his model’s body in terms of the pears he will paint tomorrow. Those pears, in turn, are described in human terms, as “a tilted harem.” Her most exciting ekphrastic poem is “Red Hills and Bone.” A Georgia O’Keefe painting summons a nightmare scene in a restaurant, where a family is humiliated by the father’s outburst of rage. Here, the reader hears the relentless echo of “Whiskey Nights.” It is in “To Van Gogh: A Confession,” though, that the depth of her humanity is realized through a hypothetical mea culpa.
TO VAN GOGH: A CONFESSION
I too might have despised you —
found you smelly, uncouth
and your paintings garish.
I might have passed you by
on a country road and laughed
at your raveled straw hat,
your ravenous eyes.
I might have joked with the others
about the crazy, the lunatic
colors — wild sunflower
yellow, petals dripping
like wax from your ignited
fingers. I might barely have noticed
your carefully arranged
patience, the paint box
on fire, you like an écorché
in a corner of landscape
at the edge of a saffron field.
The poem that follows “To Van Gogh” provides another example of how well the The Fortunate Islands is arranged. The poem is titled “Writing Class” and it takes us into a prison where Joseph, an inmate, “presents me / with a small arrangement: / French marigolds, Shasta / daisies, pansies – which / I put into water / in a Dixie cup. // Rule Number One: No / picking flowers.” Throughout The Fortunate Islands, Kelly De-Witt asks us to consider how we judge those we don’t know.
Frost said the whole of the book itself is its final poem, and that is true of The Fortunate Islands. It is true of this book’s cover art, too. Rafael Trelles’s lush, lyrical imagery is so compatible with Kelly-DeWitt’s poems that it comes close to serving as an additional poem itself. This attention to detail makes The Fortunate Islands a complete work of art. When I read the final poem in this collection, the title poem, I may have heard that sound Yeats said a poem makes when it’s finished, like the click of the lid of a perfectly made box. “In the ink-dark temple / the past seems far away // I can cross the wooden bridge / in either direction.”