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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Lisa Guidarini reviews

Jagged With Love
by Susanna Childress

80 pp. University of Wisconsin Press. US $ 14.95. 0299212645/cloth

This review is about 3 printed pages long.

Sweet Honesty

Can’t you feel it, this possibility of life
springing helpless and bold across our kitchen,
writing its language on the husks and skins,
which are also the inside of my mouth,
taut and cool, waiting, which is also
the palm of your hand.

— from ‘God is the Dream’

It’s refreshing to read a first poetic effort that’s so completely unselfconscious you can forget the poet is a novice and just enjoy the beautiful flow of words. Susanna Childress’s poetry is very down to earth, in a way that occasionally borders on the earthy. She writes in a style that’s at once sensual and sensuous, demonstrating very clearly that she knows the difference between the two.

Childress alternately flexes and releases her well-toned poetic muscle, employing an infallible ear for that perfect turn of phrase all poets aspire to create. The only word I can find to describe her is breathtaking. Her style is completely open, free and unselfconscious. Her writing is lush and sensual and almost animalistic at times, leaving the reader flushed and nearly panting by the time the book is done.

Not every first time poet has her work lauded by a poet laureate. ‘Jagged With Love’ was awarded the 2005 Brittingham Prize for Poetry, an award given annually by the University of Wisconsin Press. Childress’s book was chosen by U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, who selected her manuscript from the 930 entries. He observed that ‘… she unfailingly delivers rhythmic and linguistic pleasures to her lucky readers as they follow the course of these inquisitive, unpredictable poems.’

Susanna Childress is from Madison, Indiana, U.S.A.. While studying for her undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University, she decided she wanted to pursue a literary career. After completing her double major in English and writing degree from IWU, she went on to receive her Master’s in English from the University of Texas at Austin.

The themes in ‘Jagged With Love’ range widely, covering a variety of issues facing women, from battling life-threatening disease to overcoming the humiliation of being treated like a sex object. However, she does not use her writing to marginalize women in any way. Rather, she manages to achieve a tone of universality while writing largely about situations involving women.

In the title poem ‘Jagged With Love’ the narrator is undergoing therapy in an attempt to recover from childhood memories involving an abusive father:

… Last night, I start, I finally dreamed of Vietnam.
Good, she says, and marks it down. Good. No, I say, it was me,
giving birth in the jungle. My father was nowhere, not with a gun,
not hunting Charlie. My father, I say, was not even dead.

And then, as sometimes happens, my hour is up, and I am
standing outside. It smells burnt. I look up, watching for tar to fall,
but even that, I don’t know what it means: how do you
watch for something to fall? Just walk, I guess, and this

is what I do, chin tipped up to the sky, thrumming with the urge
to love complexity, as I know it, jagged with love.

The feeling running through these poems remains positive and hopeful, despite what may seem overwhelming odds. Even in the face of the aftermath of breast cancer surgery, as in ‘The Surgery,’ there is an impression of strength and resilience as a woman struggles to stay human in the face of a de-humanizing disease:

… Tubes drain blood from left and right
dorsal side, and occasionally pus seeps down. She
is falling asleep. Mother having brought a clean towel,

the fire still riding on top her ribs. Bearable,
she thinks, bearable.

Love, lust and infidelity are represented in more than one of Childress’s poems. In the poem ‘Krash’ Childress explores the feeling that infidelity can be like a punch to the solar plexus, bringing quick and surprising pain that can take the breath away :

even the sunshine was not flustered, though I thought things would slow,
time would thicken into some painful pudding around the bodies,

reducing the speed of eyelashes, glances, arching wrists
and elbows. Instead it was: I slept with her. As quick as the final

stage of birth, the way the pushing and moans slicken
into an immediate red life, your words bulked enough to allow

that weightlessness of confession…

In ‘Nude Self Portrait’ the narrator explores her own body, comparing her body with the images she knows as perfection. Realizing she comes up short, she’s left feeling a mix of disdain and frustration:

… There is nothing so prodigious
as a woman’s blundering skin, her torrent of resolutions,

her stolid disregard and self-love, despite hair on her neck,
too-blue veins, an uneven nipple, and there you have it,

that mention of the breasts you have been waiting for, yourself,
perhaps a pertinent body of water, blood, bile, stains,
your own delusions of nudity notwithstanding, guessing someone
will find you pleasing…

‘Jagged With Love’ is amazingly accomplished, exuding a very honest variety of humility not always found in first efforts. This is self-assured poetry showing skills honed to such a level of perfection it’s hard to imagine how she’ll top this book. However, having had the pleasure of reading her work I think she’ll manage just that, somehow.

Lisa Guidarini

Lisa Guidarini

Lisa Guidarini was born in Houston, Mississippi, USA, but grew up in a small, rural town in the ‘Amish country’ of central Illinois. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature from Dominican University in suburban Chicago. She currently works part-time as the program coordinator for her local public library district, and also as a freelance writer and reviewer. Lisa lives with her husband, as well as her three children and one eccentric Jack Russell terrier.