Susan Kelly-DeWitt — The Fortunate Islands

Two Reviews of Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s The Fortunate Islands

In The Fortunate Islands Susan Kelly-DeWitt writes as though she has seen ghosts, and she has. She has seen the ghosts of her own life carry her from the starkness of a difficult childhood with a father whose troubles with alcohol left their deep imprint on to the woman she has become, one whose credoes about spirit, work, dedication to art have placed her “in the deeper grasses / we call love.”

Kelly-DeWitt writes careful, studied poems where the things she invokes seem to throb with significance. Those looking for more surface in the rendering of a life need look elsewhere. There is an abundance of natural imagery — hummingbirds, mountains, crows, a snail, egrets, rivers — but most frequently there are flowers which acknowledge Kelly-Dewitt’s lifelong passion for gardening and other “thrills” of the botanical life. Most of the scenes are quiet ones — ripe for contemplation. Domestic scenes proliferate throughout the book and offer their blossoms of truth, sometimes beauty, sometimes something a little more brutal.

The “Credoes” section of the book provides many poems that travel through Kelly-DeWitt’s country of belief. The two greatest of these are belief in wonder, the puzzling out of a life, and the belief in love as the ultimate redemption. Arguably these two beliefs could be the cornerstones of spirituality. The puzzlement and wonder is never drawn out so capably as it is in the opening poem “Question Mark Cafe.”

Question Mark Café

I’ve been sipping coffee in the dark dafé
which is my today-mind uncurtained: stark café.

The morning started crying for no apparent reason.
The dreads were circling, shark café.

How marooned I feel on this island of thought.
I’m reviving like a half-dead verb in the word café.

Name a word, any word. Soul could be the one you
choose. Go ahead, it’s okay, in the last remarks café.

Who if I cried would hear me among the angelic
orders?
(Rilke. the same old question mark café.)

Today I’m that torn moth lipping the jack-
in-the-pulpit of history, who’ll fly away: ghost café.

The opening questions it puts forth are then answered throughout the book. However, the main question seems to be how one can find respite in a frequently dreadful world. For Kelly-DeWitt, her prime meridian, her zero line is the great fortune she has been afforded, which has made her path leading away from a bittersweet past more bearable, a path made possible by her dedication to those less fortunate (like the prisoners who frequently appear) and to her art.

The second section of the book entitled “Whiskey Nights” finds its thematic ground in the impact that the lives of men have made on her, particularly her father. Kelly-DeWitt paints a portrait of him as a troubled military man whose respect for order did not necessarily carry over into his private life. We see him in the throes of his military glory, ignorant of his future troubles. We see him as a fugitive from himself, engaged in all sorts of erratic behavior, including leading his family away from the house under the cover of night.

In the “Inventing Anna” section Kelly-DeWitt examines the impact that women have had on her life. However, her mother and other family matrons must share time with other women — women in a painting class, mail order brides, roller derby queens, a woman found dead on the side of the interstate. In all of these women, Kelly-DeWitt signals the female project of invention, how it can sometimes successfully transform, how sometimes it can leave a woman with a “puzzled ghost still wearing / it’s unfamiliar posture, its veil of brutal perfume” or as someone who “will be lost to oblivion and childhood fever three years / later, but the lover striking out across the plains / to meet his luck.” The stories of these women parallel Kelly-DeWitt’s own transformation, her shift from child of fear to woman of hope.

Her passage between these two is also marked by a movement from an “invention” phase to a phase where she becomes more rooted, and for a western poet, naturally, the thing that imposes itself on her inventions is the land, the geography, a sense of place. In the 4th section, “Red Hills and Bone,” Kelly-DeWitt enters at “fifty one,” where “this morning when I searched the mirror / I found someone so vastly unfamiliar / that I recognized myself / as that other who has passed / her whole life inside my body.” The long path to feeling familiar with one’s skin has set in. The landscape announces itself as both forgiving and unforgiving from luminescent trail across the river” to “the day’s interior darkness” and “the ultimate harshness of a man trapped by his own anger which leaves him alone like a vestigial bone.” One can see how this title piece for the section was abstracted from a Georgia O’ Keeffe painting. Finally, the gauntlet that Kelly-DeWitt has to run through geography and nature provides her with the impetus to ask her how her soul can get free.

We are treated to a glimpse of her response to that question in the last section of The Fortunate Islands. She appears to find it as she stares “through the portals of memory” and her homage to love. But this love is not entirely a garden of earthly delights. It is also “graves / covered over in haste / /by the side of the road — victims of the overland journey. Love for Kelly-DeWitt is also the devotion to the life of the aesthetic. Kelly-Dewitt invokes Giovanna Garzoni, a 17th-century artist-spinster who “willed a considerable / sum of money and all her possessions / to the Academy of Saint Luke.” It is Garzoni’s “vivid love” that carries the poem to its conclusion. Garzoni’s dedication to her art mirrors Kelly-Dewitt’s. their art is their salvation, their reason for being, their redemption from that which challenges the soul. It is the tool whereby Kelly-DeWitt’s “past seems far away.” Besides Garzoni, the spinster, we also see Dickinson whose poems give solace to presumably the young Kelly-DeWitt caught amid scenes of family tension where lives bubble over due to circumstances not meshing with expectations.

Living the life of the aesthetic as Kelly-Dewitt has done in Sacramento, a still largely agrarian town, is more like living the life of the ascetic. She has not given up much, though, in the intensity of her images and the transmitted feel of the objects in her world, each with its subtle weight. Her precise images and highly wrought phrases are suffused with a quiet dignity. One wonders, though, if a faster life lived in a faster realm would have produced as much depth. Still, in The Fortunate Islands she explores how gender, nature and art arc through a life and effect beauty, truth, and love. This might not be the most radical thesis, but it has legs. It broadcasts its own comfortable power. One might want to take it along to a place that “feels right” and read it, or like myself, you might take it along with you the next trip you make to New York.

— Victor Schnickelfritz

Review #2

The Fortunate Islands, Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s first full-length book, is glossed by a quote from Dava Sobel in reference to the Roman Egyptian mathematician, Ptolemy, who was “free to lay his prime meridian, the zero-degree longitude line, wherever he liked. He chose to run it through the Fortunate Islands…” With this kind of an epigraph, I had expected Kelly-DeWitt to expose her own longitudinal line in the guise of her spiritual philosophy, or the path that her life has wandered. The blurbs on the back cover of her book also presuppose issues of a tough childhood, father-issues, and a deeply impacted voice.

In the latter presupposition, Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s collection does not disappoint. Her language is wide-ranging and steeped in experience. The opening piece of the book suggests the cornucopious offerings to follow:

Question Mark Café

I’ve been sipping coffee in the dark café
which is my today-mind uncurtained: stark café.

The morning started crying for no apparent reason.
The dreads were circling, shark café.

How marooned I feel on this island of thought.
I’m reviving like a half-dead verb in the word café.

Name a word, any word. Soul could be the one you
choose. Go ahead, it’s okay, in the remarks café.

Who if I cried would hear me among the angelic
orders? (Rilke. The same old question mark café.)

Today I’m that torn moth lipping the jack-
in-the-pulpit of history, who’ll fly away: ghost café.

There is so much language to unpack here. The refrain word that terminates each couplet is modified over and over suggesting the multiplicity of mind in existence, indeed, of Kelly-DeWitt’s “today-mind uncurtained.” The third stanza also echoes the title of the book and established Kelly-DeWitt as a universal “marooned” speaker adrift on an “island of thought.” All of these foreshadowing events ground the text that follows in possibilities of un-exacted thought that stretches to the “angelic orders” and beyond. The “jack-in-the-pulpit” (a highly variable species) mentioned in the final line also connotes a sturdiness and/or variability to come.

The remainder of the first section, “Credo,” provides seemingly experiental pieces such as “Summer of Grandmothers,” which touches on “the way the dead always return when you need them the most;” in addition to more exploratory pieces like “The Trees” that explore ideas of religion, mysticism and death where:

…the souls of the dead

creep back to their graves
in the jungles of the faraway
in the absolutes of belief
or superstition…

Poems like these charge Kelly-DeWitt’s language with superstition and a strong belief in the supernatural where ghosts both act as counsel for the speakers in her poems, and romp in the backdrops of her landscapes.

To some, Kelly-DeWitt’s discussion of the soul, that most-personal, and tangentially sentimental poetic element, might seem overbearing, but the variation that she employs in her discussion of religion and the supernatural is constantly refreshing. In her poem, “Bypass,” she equates the breathing machine that keeps her husband alive to “God…” Still in other poems, Kelly-DeWitt’s language becomes mystical and is responsible for religious transformations of objects, as in “Egrets at Bolinas Lagoon” which accuses a quote of Van Gogh’s for the transformation of “birds that glowed like headlamps…into painters and poets.”

In, “Credo,” her final poem of the first section, Kelly-DeWitt posits her belief in the expectation of happenings. These happenings range from the mention of “the deeper grasses / we call love” to expectations of returning home, and observing nature at work and at rest. These types of broad expectations inform Kelly-DeWitt’s entire collection in various ways, but for the time being (at the completion of the first section), we are still left “marooned,” wondering where we are headed, or if we are ever getting anywhere at all.

“Whiskey Nights,” the name of the second section of Kelly-DeWitt’s collection, provides a solid backdrop for the variety of voice that she chooses to employ. Here is where we are finally introduced to “the child at the mercy of the loved, feared, drunken father made flesh by Roethke’s poem,” as Carole Simmons Ole points out in her blurb. It is apparent in this section of her book, that Kelly-DeWitt’s poetry is informed by the dizzying effects of her father’s whiskey breath; she is both intoxicated with her love for him, and by her fear of him.

In this more personal section, Kelly-DeWitt confronts her father as both an “angry man” as in “The Day Gandhi Died,” and a hummingbird as in “Sugar-Water.” The best reflection of Kelly-DeWitt’s confused attitude towards her father shows itself in her poem “Cold Sweat.”

Cold Sweat

Last night
I woke up
cold, in bed
next to you.

The hair
at the nape
of my neck
was wet.

Perhaps
my spirit
was weeping
into my pillow.

Perhaps
my father,
dead now
twenty

years,
came sailing
down the river
one last time

and I ran
to greet him
through the wet
grasses.

Here we are presented with a speaker who is both frightened and excited about the prospect of seeing her father, even if only her father’s spirit-body. Using this type of multiplicity of attitude towards a subject-matter is an echo of (indeed, most-likely a reason for) the admittedly pluralistic credo that Kelly-DeWitt lays out in the first section of the book.

Her third section, “Inventing Anna,” continues with Kelly-DeWitt’s personal exposé, but is more firmly established in the realms of feminism and the strength of women. Kelly-DeWitt focuses a good portion of the second section on experiences of pioneer women and difficulties in mothering and being mothered, but most in-line with the themes of the rest of the book seem to be Kelly-DeWitt’s emphasis of a stronger form of language. In her poem “Roller Derby, 1954,” the speaker is both in awe of the strength and the “unabashed toughness in women,” reflecting on her own female role-models as “docile, / genteel— their voices like silk / bandages over the wound of talk.”

All of this discussion of language and toughness in women is justified just in the fact that it so nicely highlights Kelly-DeWitt’s interpretations of the powers of language. Where she sees so many women being “docile” and “genteel,” Kelly-DeWitt is unafraid to make her language grunt and gasp just like the women at the roller derby. However, this third section of the book seemed disjunctive when compared to the previous two sections of the book. The last two sections of the book also take the overall experience of the collection in a new direction, so I wonder if this third section doesn’t represent some sort of transition or hinge from the first two sections to the last two sections.

In section four (“Red Hills and Bone”) and section five (“The Fortunate Islands”), Kelly-DeWitt leaves the single-voiced speaker of the first two sections and transitions to a speaker who is deeply concerned with the idea of the individual soul and the second-self. The first poem of the fourth section immediately establishes this duality:

Fifty-One

This morning when I searched the mirror
I found someone so vastly unfamiliar
that I recognized myself

as that other who has passed
her whole life inside my body,
the one who set-up house

like a small, worried, spider
at my birth. I found traces of her
torn webs under my eyes,

her busy scratchings at the corners
of my mouth. Later, when I sipped
my coffee from a warm mug,

I knew I tasted the full, bitter flavor
with her lips, her tongue.

Here the image of the mirrored self becomes dark and worrisome. In fact, this idea of duality becomes an obsession, perhaps one that is understandable to someone marooned in her own thoughts (as we are told in the very first poem of the book). This second-self brings darker imagery into the collection in poems like “Crows at Evening,” and “Storm Brewing,” that seem to focus on the question of mortality and the travel of the soul after life, of where our second-selves go when they lose their flesh-laden companions.

The fourth section is book-ended by a poem that asks these very questions: “How Will My Soul Get Free?” Is Kelly-DeWitt creating a map for her soul with this book? I think that is a probable conjecture. Not only does she outline her soul’s history in the beginning sections of the book, but she provides her soul with an ideal of language which it can communicate with. If other souls are allowed to roam freely betwixt the pages of the book, then why not hers? The only question still left unsolved, then, has to do with the epigraph that I mentioned so long ago, and which we have yet to fully comprehend in the larger overarching scheme of the piece.

The final section of the book is by far the most fragmented, sampling widely from many of the ideas discussed in previous sections. However, there is a sense of closure towards the end of the section when Kelly-DeWitt begins dealing with artistic interpretation and how that effects the second-self. In “If You Want To Know,” Kelly-DeWitt’s interpretation of what it means to have a second-self is most clearly defined in the final lines of the piece:

…You must imagine the two
white carnations as spirits, children

she would have had, twin palindromes;
that the red one tossed down so casually
spells out with tempera the name of her
equal, her vivid love.

Here, the red carnation (that is, the one instilled with life) is engrossed in the act of describing its equal in words which it “spells out.” Looking back over Kelly-DeWitt’s book shows careful exercise in spelling out vivid loves, experiences, and second-selves; she pays constant homage to the experience that has brought her where she is, and that allows her to spell out her vivid loves in such strong, unyielding language.

This second-selfliness finally blossoms in full form with connection to the epigraph. Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s collection, though fragmented in sections, provides a metaphor of the human body with one perfect prime meridian splaying the self on some undiscovered plain into two “twin palindromes,” equals. “The Fortunate Islands,” the final poem in the collection, extends Kelly-DeWitt’s sense of self into a larger context, describing where she draws her “zero-line;” suggesting that her physical and mental self represent the point of orientation for her world (indeed, the point of orientation from which we all view our worlds). She becomes the prime meridian wherever she is, and is therefore constantly left with binary oppositions where she goes, she can go forward from her zero-line or back, she “can cross the wooden bridge / in either direction” (from “The Fortunate Islands”).

What Susan Kelly-DeWitt provides for us as readers is a map for our own souls. She tells us that we are all “fortunate islands,” for we all choose where our zero-line intersects with the world. She is not only providing a map for her own second-self, but for all second-selves to learn to interpret their pasts, the language that they used, and the feelings that they encountered, allowing those experiences to come into being as robust and multi-faceted “islands of thought” where we are all constantly “marooned,” but also left in good company with our own vivid loves.

— Jordan Reynolds

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