From the astute to the humorous to the intensely personal, Susan Alexander’s 2020 collection Nothing You Can Carry provides us with a collection that is both accessible and introspective. Given the subjective and malleable nature of poetry, it becomes less a matter of discerning what a poem tells us about the poet and more about what the poem tells us about ourselves as readers.
Arranged into five sections, Alexander’s first suite, “Vigil,” is equal parts religious rumination and environmental elegy. Because of poetry’s ubiquitous relationship with nature, the trend of poets addressing climate change is echoed by Alexander with both grace and reverence. In “Anthropocene” (12), the gods of pre-industrial Earth retreat into fallout shelters to weather the storm of ecological meltdown (and the TEDX talks purporting to reverse it). In “Theophany” (24), we are trained to recognize divinity in the mundane; for example, “If God were a tree, this page / could be a sacred thing,” and in “Clamavi” (20), a prayer before God is directed back upon man and his runaway compulsions to manufacture and consume.
In the second suite, “Confessions,” Alexander maintains this conviction in writing about loss and familial growth. While “Behind the Door” (30) compares the rigours of childbirth to a “childbody lost / as if fairies raided the night,” through “Broody” (39) Alexander finds acceptance and affirmation of her role as mother in her daughter’s struggle to be born: “She sung me a body she’d been / building within.” In “Late, Again” (44), one of the collection’s most poignant pieces, Alexander attributes chronic lateness (for life’s major milestones, including being born herself) as the cause of missing her mother’s passing. Yet in grief, she finds renewed faith in the support and punctuality of the ones who were present: “Nurses refuse time’s slow number. / They hover above this silence on white linen wings” (44).
In rich contrast to the personal, the third suite, “Parables,” contains a series of poems that appeal to the imagination and the reader’s latent understanding of fiction and folklore. Each piece, akin to an abridged anecdote, contains imagery that evokes a particular narrative subset. “Fisherman” (54), for instance, is about a man whose only commitments are to the sea and contains distinct Ernest Hemingway overtones. Similarly, “The Pooka” (55) presents us with a literary archetype whose origins date back to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Bordering on the confessional is the suite’s closing tribute, “At the Group Home” (67), which finds home within the fantastical shown through Alexander’s use of imaginative medieval imagery and innovative use of repetition and line spacing: “I gave a girl my soul to keep it safe” (67).
Appealing to the wanderlust in all of us, the fourth suite, “Pilgrimage,” serves as a type of spiritual travelogue, bridging place with event in a series of poems that augment and even redefine our understanding of “there-ness.” From an observance in “Molino” (73) running tantamount to an unexpected resurrection, to “Anatolia” (71) where the death of an artistic method proves to be one of the greatest tragedies of all, Alexander charts a course with verse that is both effortless and heartbreaking. Providing stark contrast to flying buttresses and jacaranda trees, “Hemoglobin” (76)—an extended poetic metaphor where the congestion of a busy freeway is compared to the internal workings of the human heart—provides an unsettling tableau to how we have advanced as a civilization. As Alexander states: “The product deteriorates / What is your age in heartbeats? / Yellow taxis begin to circulate” (76).
The final suite, “Matins,” is the most experimental of Alexander’s suites. Here, conventional free verse is juxtaposed with a chaotic spill of words across white space during a traumatic fall in “Moving Home” (88-89). Barbs traded between an unnamed land developer and an environmentalist in “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One” (93), “The Developer’s Curse” (94), and “The Environmentalist’s Curse” (95) gesture toward a dystopian outcome. The sweeping aside of microscopic ecosystems in “Commerce” (92) prefigures a fate we continue to dismiss. Interestingly, however, “Matins” refers to a canonical hour in Christian liturgy: the morning prayer. Is this Alexander’s way of reminding us that faith cannot be found within clerestory walls or the sacrament of communion? As her imagery of celestial bodies suggest, we should perhaps set our sights a bit higher.
Alexander, Susan. Nothing You Can Carry. Thistledown Press, 2020.
Review by Jon Aylward, actor, playwright and eventual novelist from St. John’s, Newfoundland.