Encore August 2018

Page 20

Kalamazoo poet Diane Seuss was staying in a hotel




Poetry Diane Seuss’ rural roots and love of art infuse her new collection


Brian Powers

in Portland, Maine, in April 2016 when she received a text from her editor that she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her book, Four-Legged Girl. “I thought he was kidding,” she says. “He said, ‘Check social media.’” She saw that he was serious. “I just flipped out. I called him immediately, and I was crying. … I don’t drink, but I got a cognac I was so flipped out.” Seuss says she doesn’t fit the typical profile of poets who garner major acclaim. The usual suspects are younger poets from big cities on the coasts. She’s a 62-year-old, largely self-taught poet who grew up in rural southwestern Michigan and lives in a smallish Midwestern city. But that rural Michigan upbringing provides some rich fodder for her poetry, which is filled with earthy images, inspired metaphors, astute observations and a deep sense of identification with people on the margins. As in Four-Legged Girl, Michigan images figure prominently in Seuss’ latest collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, released in May by Graywolf Press. In the new book, Seuss mixes her observations and descriptions of paintings by artists such as Rembrandt and Rothko with the kinds of people and scenarios she has encountered in places like Niles and Edwardsburg. She also works in elements of life in places like New York City. In blending these worlds, Seuss explores issues of class and gender, who gets to be the painter and the painted, the observer and the observed, and the desire to step outside the picture frame. In the book’s opening poem, “I Have Lived My Whole Life in a Painting Called Paradise,” rural images abound: “the milkweeds splitting at their seams emancipating their seeds,” “the gold fields / and stone silos and the fugitive cows known for escaping their borders.” But it is not a simple rural idyll that Seuss paints, for here there are also “fields of needles arranged into flowers / their sharp ends meeting at the center” and “in the air also are little gods and devils trying out their wings.” Paradise is a complicated place in Seuss’ imagination, and not everyone longs to remain there. Near the end of the poem Seuss writes, “I am told some girls / slide their fingers over the frame and feel the air outside of it / and some even climb over the edge and plummet into whatever / is beyond it.” The idea for the book came to Seuss after a dream. She could see the words “still life” written on the inside of her eyelids, she says, as she sweeps her hand across her face during an interview at Walnut & Park Cafe. The experience


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