Tensile Strength: Susan Spear’s Beyond All Bearing

Beyond All Bearing
by Susan Delaney Spear
Wipf and Stock, 2017, $16

As mousetraps capture mice and spiders capture flies, so poets capture poems – often amassing a considerable miscellany before they judge there are enough good ones to make a book. And unlike the unfortunate flies and mice, the ensnared poems are expected to live long (so the poet fondly hopes) in the benign confines of a few score pages. Poems in any collection, and especially a first, often represent a great range of occasions and moods; it’s difficult to organize them around pervasive themes, and their quality may fluctuate widely. But if, like Susan Spear, the poet has talent and a command of her craft, curious readers will be rewarded.

The present collection is divided into five sections, each seemingly intended to carry a broad theme – but some poems refuse to be corralled and show up unheralded where they are not expected. “Vacant Blue” is largely concerned with childhood and family. “Saints and Such” is devoted mainly to poems that have a religious motivation; more on that shortly. “Priorities” offers verse anecdotes, some poignant and some amusing. “Where Dreams Comingle with Dust” (a telling title) includes poems of regret and – not unrelated – of the author’s experiences as a teacher of literature.1 And “Beyond All Bearing,” the section whose name is also the title of the book and of the last poem therein, deals with the unimaginable loss of the poet’s grown son to suicide.

It’s important to make two points at the outset: first, this book contains a number of fine and moving poems that whet the appetite for work that Spear still might produce. Second, Spear writes as a believer in the Christian gospel and the associated Judeo-Christian stories and symbolism. A considerable number of her poems are imbued with her faith. Non-believers like myself will experience them as through a glass darkly. This reality does not invalidate the book – far from it – or even the poems most frankly religious in tone or language, but I cannot help viewing many of the latter with a skeptical eye.

That said, a reader of this book will encounter not a zealot but a balanced and humane individual who maintains a sense of humor and proportion even as she struggles with the paradoxically recurring presence of a lost and irretrievable past. In her first section, for example, the poem “Behind the Wheel” opens with lines from a Beatles song that the poet finds herself singing as she drives. These lines summon the presence of her late son, who seems to sit beside her, jauntily conversing with her as, she tells us, “Tears sprinted down my face.” She cannot escape the apparition: “You are dead. / Now act dead. Stop showing up.” But she doesn’t mean it. As the apparition fades she cries out, in words from the same Beatles song,

“Oh, no. . . ‘I don’t know why you say goodbye
I say hello.’ Hello, hello. . .?”

Despite its title, the second section, “Saints and Such” is hardly off limits to atheists and agnostics. It includes a poem called “Undercut” that narrates a grim short story in three quatrains: a woman abandons her seriously ill husband for a healthier man but then is herself struck down by cancer, leaving the former and current husbands to stand side by side at her grave. After a few poems in a more pietistic mode, the section concludes with an ironic prayer called “Hell-Bent” whose final stanza is a frank self-assessment:

Hallow my heart,
ambiguous, discontent,
doggedly stubborn,
and strangely hell-bent.

Secular readers, along with those more devout, evidently have the poet’s leave to take the last word in both its colloquial and its literal meaning. One of Spear’s most engaging qualities, in fact, lies in her suggestion that she is not altogether unhappy with her “hell-bent” heart.

In “Priorities” there’s a curious poem that tells of the time when Spear and her nearly grown son visited the Museum of Natural History and he took the occasion to tell her he did not believe in God. She remarks that she thinks his choice of the occasion was odd, but I confess the irony eludes me. “Priorities” is also the title of a poem in this section in which Spear offers perhaps one secret of a happy marriage. The poem lists all the chores the poet and her husband have accomplished during the day and concludes:

I matched containers to their lids.
You sorted clothes to get rid of.
We double-checked our eBay bids.
We’ve finished all the chores above.
What’s that? You’re bored? We could make love.

The section called “Where Dreams Comingle with Dust” contains several poems derived from Spear’s experience as a professor of literature in a college where professors actually work closely with undergraduate students. The experiences are both exasperating and poignant, but on the evidence here it is hard to turn them into effective poems. One of the more successful ones, for my money, is “A Narrative in Need of Words,” which tells of the author’s experience with a struggling immigrant student who cannot write coherent sentences in English. It is successful not as a fully realized poem (it lacks a containing form) but as a record of a frustrating and ultimately moving encounter.

The emotional center of the book is its final section, which deals mainly with the suicide of the author’s son. A poem with the innocuous title “Honeysuckle” tells, in ragged iambic lines, of the moment when the police found the young man’s hanged body beside a highway as she and her sister accompanied them. The poem evokes the double consciousness of the occasion: the recalled past superimposed on the here and now:

Time wrinkled,
as scene by scene,
the boy tumbled across
her memory’s silver screen.

The sounds echo in the poem’s final three lines that convey the sudden terrible loneliness:

Breathing in the holy
scent of honeysuckle,
she stumbled into night.

This is raw experience captured, preserved, and transmuted by language. Even to read it demands emotional fortitude.

And yet there is an even more powerful poem in this book. It’s called “the thin place” and it gets by without capital letters, periods, or, until the final couplet, rhyme. In unfussy blank verse it explores the shadowy, ever-changing margin between past and present, the shift that death brings (in Kay Ryan’s terms) from now here to no where. Again there is the apparition of the son who died, an apparition made possible by that unreliable margin. As she observes them both, in the third person,

tears move calmly down his cheeks, his voice
retains its gentleness, its thorn, its honey

grace dissolves her thick and foggy grief
and fuels her flight across that lucid place

The “grace” in these lines may be divine grace if one is a believer, but it is a credible grace for anyone – for human minds are capable of transgressing time’s inexorable laws. But not permanently. The vision must flee, as Milton knew. She reaches for him –

with her right hand, she clasps his left forearm,
his slender bones, the warm and threadbare flannel

when they touch, love like lightning surges,
but with that touch the here and there unmerges

The poem is a moving and hard-won achievement.

Spear’s book concludes with the title poem, written in response to a drawing that appears on the following page. The title is apt, and the poem has a cold sparseness marred slightly by a pervasive pathetic fallacy: natural objects are imbued with human feelings. She loses me in the last three lines, where God speeds across the cosmos. Yet the poem compels us with the surprising twist given to the title phrase: this frigid night-time wind-swept landscape is “beautiful beyond all bearing.” It’s an extraordinary sensibility that can endure what this book chronicles and still write that line.

 

1 Dictionaries generally recognize only “commingle” as a spelling, but some note that “comingle” is the more logical and historically authentic formation. Spear appears to agree with them.

Jan Schreiber

Jan Schreiber

Jan Schreiber was Poet Laureate of Brookline, Massachusetts from 2015 to 2017. His books include Digressions (1970), Wily Apparitions (1992), Bell Buoys (1998), and Peccadilloes (2014), as well as two books of translations: A Stroke upon the Sea and Sketch of a Serpent. A cycle of his poems, Zeno’s Arrow, was set to music by Paul Alan Levi in 2001. His criticism has been widely published and was collected in his book Sparring with the Sun (2013). He teaches in the BOLLI program at Brandeis University and runs the annual Symposium on Poetry Criticism at Western State Colorado University.
Jan Schreiber

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Author: Jan Schreiber

Jan Schreiber was Poet Laureate of Brookline, Massachusetts from 2015 to 2017. His books include Digressions (1970), Wily Apparitions (1992), Bell Buoys (1998), and Peccadilloes (2014), as well as two books of translations: A Stroke upon the Sea and Sketch of a Serpent. A cycle of his poems, Zeno’s Arrow, was set to music by Paul Alan Levi in 2001. His criticism has been widely published and was collected in his book Sparring with the Sun (2013). He teaches in the BOLLI program at Brandeis University and runs the annual Symposium on Poetry Criticism at Western State Colorado University.