Wednesday, November 29, 2006



Natural Defenses by Susan Terris
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2004)


Fire is Favorable to the Dreamer by Susan Terris
(Arctos Press, Sausalito, CA, 2003)

Natural and Dreamy

In the equation of being a poet, writing poems is the mathematics to the left of the equal sign, to the right of the equation is the work of helping poems reach an audience. Susan Terris is one of the poets I admire for her ability to keep her work as a poet in balance according to that equation. Natural Defenses and Fires Is Favorable to the Dreamer were both published within a year of one another and each have numerous previous publication credits—thirty-one and forty-one respectively from a broad range of well-respected journals. Terris’ belief in her work and commitment to finding an audience who will appreciate her work is significant and note-worthy, especially because the work itself is strong and notable.

Natural Defenses is divided into four sections titled, "Afterimages," "Fugue State," "The Iron Handle," and "The Book of Responses." Afterimages are “when the first colors [are] gone” (p. 12) and Terris explores what remains in these opening poems of the collection. One of my favorite poems in this section is “In The Familiar Tense” about Mary Cassatt and Degas. Terris writes, “Stroking the dog’s muzzle, Mary let it silken warmth/soothe her. When we met, then I began to live.” The first line is but one example of the fine sonic sense that Terris infuses into her work, with the echoing “k”s at the beginning and end of the line and the sibilance which dances through it.

For me, though, the real treasures of the book are in the second two sections. “Fugue State” collects poems of memory. Four that I found striking address the Holocaust. In “Little Red Rose, 1938,” Terris writes,

Jew, he said, hooking her rope with

the end of his stick. Dirty Jew.

Oh, no, the child answered,

It’s my birthday,

and I’ve just had a bath.

The simplicity of a child’s response is developed further in the next poem, “The Hidden Child,” in which Terris writes about eating a roasted tulip bulb, “As I chewed,/I thought tulip, tulip and tried to let/the flower I could not see/bloom inside.” From these child recollections, Terris moves to the adult experience of memory in “Boxcar At The Holocaust Museum” where she observes, “After 50 years,/stench still saturates the boards” and “Sweaty heads/I can’t see butt me, begging for refuge.” Finally, in “Fugue State,” Terris writes of the experience of being in a fugue state where “For them, the past was always overture;” then she concludes “past is everything, for she is in a fugue state.” Terris’ blend of imagery, memory and language makes this a powerful sequence in the book.

“The Iron Handle” contains a series of poems that speak to places real and imaginary in literature. The second concludes with a sequence titled “Deathscapes.” These delightful poems tell the stories of people’s death, many with an end in a kiss. All are bound by a time and place. In “San Francisco, California 1973,” Terris concludes, “When I leaned down, he/kissed my lips, murmuring, Strawberries. . . /you taste like strawberries. That kiss more gentle than the on in “Detroit, Michigan 1962,” in which a fifteen year old girl watching her father’s sudden death says, “I’d never kissed a man on the lips,. . ./and there I was tasting my father’s saliva, giving him his last kiss.” Terris concludes her “Deathscapes” and this section with these lines,

Where and to whom when incantations fail

to protect, when shadows no longer couple,

when rags of dreams shred in the light

as I whisper, Yes. . . Or, No. . . Or nothing.

The final section of Natural Defenses, titled “The Book of Responses,” is a series of poems in dialogue with Pablo Neruda from his “The Book of Questions.” Dense and powerfully allusive, these conversations are worth overhearing.

Terris’ other book, Fire is Favorable to the Dreamer, published one year before Natural Defenses, is organized similarly, with four sections, each with a title from the poem within it. I was most attracted to the confessional poems in the collection, such as “1981: Sprite Lost, Sprite Found,” in which Terris writes of her daughter “As thin as she was. Honest Abe thought I could not tell a lie,/but I did, for when she began to starve herself,/I lost all liberty.” Terris ends the poem with her confession, “I poured out liters of saccharined diet drink/and refilled them with sugared Sprite to bring her – /my hardest, brightest, thinnest penny – back alive.” Terris transforms the experience of encountering a penny with newly infused meaning and by juxtaposing disparate images and experiences, she shares the difficult and often unspoken experiences of life.

Similarly, the poem, “Getting Tattooed the Hard Way,” tells of tattooing after surgery on the breast. Terris writes,
               After they twisted a back muscle

across my chest, grafted skin for an areola

they cut a fishtail, used

a purse-string stitch to form a small bud.

This they tattooed into a lovely pink rose.

Terris moves the narration of this tattoo from the direct recount through the imagistic machinations as “artificial on a man-made hill” to being “unclothed into a counterfeit image.” Her deft work with the image leads her to the final, haunting question, “There’s the rosebud, but how can I tender it?” While neither of these collections are exclusively confessional, the moments of confession, of perceived autobiography, are powerful and memorable as a result of Terris poetic skills.

There is much more in this collection -- including the lovely dramatic monologues of the third section, titled “Blue Roses,” where Adolph’s mother, Einstein’s daughter, and Mary Todd Lincoln, among many others make an appearance. Thematically, Terris offers a wide range in these two books. Both books are engaging reads, filled with lovely, strong poems.


Julie R. Enszer is a writer and lesbian activist living in Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One’s Own, Long Shot, the Web Del Sol Review, and the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual. Her poem "Six Conversations about Cancer" is in Under Our Skin: Literature of Breast Cancer, and her recent essay, "When Women Poets Die Young" is at ICORN. You also can read her essay, "Queer Culture: Our History and Legacy" at the Woman-Stirred Blog. You can learn more about her work at


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