Susanne E. Berger

The second book on my shelf (alphabetically speaking) is a book of poems called These Rooms by Suzanne E. Berger. I have no idea where this book came from. I don’t remember reading it before, and I have no particular associations with it. It was published by Penmaen Press in 1979, and a note on the back cover says that the first letterpress edition went out of print in six months. Of course, that doesn’t tell me much. I know that a letterpress edition could have been a very small run, 25 copies even, just enough to give her family and closest friends a copy. The back  is filled with accolades from  the right people and places: Maxine Kumin, Linda Pastan, Boston Globe, Ms, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, who praise the author’s “lyric intensity and fresh vision,” her “vivid and intense” imagery, her “mesmerizing lucidity.”  I fear I must be missing something (perhaps I am not a poet after all), because most of the poems in this volume feel to me like tight-fisted secrets, although I am unable to say quite why.

After reading this book straight through quickly, I feel a vague sense of loss, as though I have just wakened from a dream of someone dying, but I don’t know who died or how they were related to me. (After reading Baca’s book, by contrast, I feel that I know exactly what he has lost and how he felt about it and what he did after.)  I don’t get that same sense of shared experience from Berger’s work,  but there were two poems that reached out and grabbed me. One called “Desert” seems to be about a miscarriage. It begins with the narrator standing at the window, touching her belly,  “as quiet as a desert, as smooth and flowerless” and ends with an image of  the narrator imagining “a small mouthful of Kyrie there singing on in the dark” and tracing “it was nothing, nothing on the mute-faced glass.”

The other is called “New Pig Keeper,” which describes “a dreamless pig, a throne of flesh….the balding queen of fat.”  Although I love the descriptions of the pig in all her physicality, I don’t quite understand the pig keeper. Something about appetites, I suppose, and controlling them or being devoured by them? One of the most powerful stanzas in the poem describes the pig’s “freckled mouth…a universe of buds and warts, slop-tasters each and all.”

A quick search on the Internet lets me know that this was probably Suzanne’s first book, so I should not be so harsh. There is a power in her words, even when I can’t be sure where it’s coming from.  She published another book, Legacies, in 1984, and then, one day in 1985, as she leaned over to pick up her toddler, she felt a tear deep within the flesh across her back, which left her unable to stand or walk or sit, much less canoe or ice skate, as she had done before. The injury ultimately affected her relationship with her child and her husband, and challenged her sense of self, as well, as she struggled for years to regain mobility and learn to live with constant pain. Out of this experience, she wrote, The Horizontal Woman: The Story of a Body in Exile. Having had just a taste of what it is like to become suddenly disabled when I broke my leg a couple years ago, I can easily understand how an injury can change the whole trajectory of your life. Now I want to read about how a promising young poet suddenly became the horizontal woman.