Susan Rich The Alchemist’s Kitchen
Margaret MK Hess
Susan Rich, in her third collection of poetry, finds the threads that connect us—foods, flavors, flowers—and pulls on them so that we feel both the wonder and the smallness of the world. This is a book of grief, inclusion, and praise. In this dense and varied collection, Rich considers war, mid-life love, photography, and prayer. The poems of this book open outward to the world and fold inward to the interior lives of people and things, much like the tulips she invokes throughout.
In the first section, titled “Incantation,” Rich establishes the images that form the pillars of The Alchemist’s Kitchen: food, markers of the modern world, and war (often considered from a place of domesticity). The first poem, “Different Places to Pray,” orients us quickly to these themes as Rich writes, “—as long as some god rolls away the gloss // and grime of our gutted days, our global positioning crimes. / Tell me, where do you go to pray—a river valley, a pastry tray?” This voice is at once focused on the small and the immediate, and on a larger, more sweeping view. It is intimate and insistent, asking us on the first page where we go to pray; it is revealing, suggesting places as though offering up favorite spots of her own. In “Tulip Sutra,” a praise poem for tulips, Rich calls on tulips to serve as a common place for the world to meet: “Praise tulips from Turkey, / tulips from China, // tulips from Afghanistan—” She moves to her local landscape, praising “the farmers of Skagit,” swings back across the world to “the sultan’s son saved—” and then says, “Bless the thread that connects us to him.” Bless the tulip for giving us a shared vision. She ends the poem with the lines, “Praise the curious tourist / appearing late April // despite winds, and rain, and muck— // who finds her way / by the edge of lit fields— // to witness in one / collusion of color // the return of tulips in flight.” This poem moves from a list of places around the world to one lone seeker, who is bearing witness to a moment of beauty. This is both the wonder—the awe and grandness—and the smallness of the world. Tulips bloom everywhere.
In a series of poems based off the photographs and the life of Myra Albert Wiggins, Rich again locates the universal in the specific. The poem “Polishing Brass” begins with a small domestic image of a maidservant, who polishes brass with “one breath- / takingly long // and sexual arm / which grasps // the ledge / of the cauldron // as she curves onward.” It is a breathtaking description, which comes to full reward as the end of the poem opens outward from the 1800s in the Northwest to the world: “a maidservant, an ingénue, / swept forward— / into what this moment you / in Almeria, Soho, Barcelona— / might admire, must revise—” and once again we, all of us, are pulled into the poem, it asks something of us, it demands that we recognize our commonality.
From here, she carries us to a poem about the burning of the Sarajevo National Library in “What to Make of Such Beauty?” and next, to a poem of war in “The Usual Mistakes” in which a veteran outlines what war brings: “problems with hips and knees—.” The poem ends with understated, stunning lines: “The body remembers / he tells me; // the body is trouble, he makes me repeat.” These are lessons of war that extend beyond war, beyond death, and into life. The next poem, “The Hospital Room in a City Where I Am Not,” begins, “On the last day // her body appears like a tulip—” and we all return together to our own bodies, our own tulips.
The last section of the book, “Song,” is full of coaxing songs, love songs, prayers, and odes. This is where Rich’s full range of praise comes to play. There is an aubade set in the Pacific Northwest, a poem in which the poet watches The Night of the Living Dead, an elegy for her father, her own instructions for burial in “Curating my Death,” poems set in the grocery store, and a poem ringing in the new year. These poems are full of lovers (ones lost and found, ones yet to arrive), and views and mornings captured and held onto. These poems are full of lessons learned from loving the world. In “Naming It,” the poet takes the shape of an estuary in water and gleans, “That same sense of direction— // staving off loss / by narrowing what we need.” Rich fulfills this premise with “Letter to the End of the Year,” in which she writes, “Lately, I am capable of small things. // Peeling an orange. / Drawing a bath. / Throwing the cat’s tinsel ball. // Believe me, this is not unhappiness.” This is life, full of small things, and yes, also grief—“Though there is winter inside of me— // there is also spring and fall. // Yellow tulips in need of planting / root in a basket by the door.” This poem is a private one, full of the poet’s life and placed in the midst of her home. Yet, even here, she opens the door to us at the end: “I am still impatient / still waiting for symbiant and swoon // the litter of blue-gold— // a one-time constellation: // Now, before you go.” She releases us with a send-off, a farewell, as if pushing a boat from a dock—out, out into the world.
Susan Rich’s The Alchemist Kitchen is a book of this world: it sees and captures objects and images, from television to rain that “takes aim with such brutality / of sound it’s like a Sarajevo rose.” These images and objects stretch and pull until they open outward, connect places across the world, some in conflict, some at peace. “A covered heartland,” Rich says in “The [In]Visible Architecture of Existence,” a place for “our small claims rearranged.” With one line, she takes the whole world and makes it a small and valued place—even if still in need of change.