Odyssey to the Self: Seven Minutes with Susan Rich and Nancy Mitchell
Susan Rich chats with us about her terrific new GALLEY OF POSTCARDS AND MAPS: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS https://www.amazon.com/Gallery-Postcards-Maps-Selected-Poems/dp/1915022134. This carefully curated “exhibit” of poems from her four volumes of poetry and a stunning selection of new work, trace the non-linear, life-long journey of a soul seeking itself through natural and surreal landscapes and “returns us” as Brian Turner writes “to the harbor of the self.”
Below are unpublished poems that display the same mastery of form, keen ear and eye, and powers of observation that have distinguished Rich’s literary career. We are honored for them to appear for the first time in Plume.
God could not be everywhere, so he created mothers.
When my mother took out
the small skillet, black and flecked
with silver, we didn’t know
she was cooking in sin—
the slice of Kraft American
comingling with kosher beef.
Her lunches flouted Kashrut
laws she’d learned in three languages.
Yet, she’d adhere to religious bans
on writing letters; never turn
on a lamp on Friday evenings.
Now, not adultery, exactly,
just her own open mouth
receiving melted cheese and meat.
What might it mean to be Jewish?
It was forbidden to take the body
of the young animal, to cook
it with mother’s milk or cheese—
designed to provide life—
although the Rabbis remain
uncertain what Hashem truly meant.
How could any God
forbid a prosciutto di Parma,
find fault in a bacon fondue?
My mother could justify anything—
butterfly shrimp, lobster rolls, cheeseburgers—
she’d finessed exceptional exceptions
for assimilation, coupons, pleasure—
and schooled her three daughters silently
offering us delectable, unmistakable power.
I wish to rearrange our lives with a compass
to chart the journey of steller’s jays.
The thief of the bird world suits you
endowed with complaint and daydream,
your mind a universe of woe-is-me and carousels
of the ups and downs of pretend stallions.
We come, again, to the impossible
and resurface in the middle of the night, the full moon
is an open wound stretched across our dueling laptops.
What was I writing as I erased my words
for the umpteenth time? What did I know
but not want to see? My muse wearing a housecoat
deep in his blues lamentation. A man tangled
in the colorful sheets of his own mind—
compromised, displeased—and then—here’s me.
Birthday Dinner in the Sahara
You carried a secondhand tablecloth
like a sash across one shoulder—
your only domestic act.
And spread the torn lace
lopsidedly over ginormous desert stones.
I don’t remember any bread or chocolate, or cheese—
no actual sustenance at all.
More like a ghost meal
readied for the afterlife
on a patched-together film set—
somewhat inept, famously difficult to please.
Even then I played an extra
in an unfinished tableau—
which was my life.
And for some reason still craved it,
still believed—in the action, the cuts.
Parisian Christmas, Avenue de Clichy
If his bathroom hadn’t been outside the apartment.
If it hadn’t just snowed,
icicles dotting the hallway.
Benoit was a believer. Devout.
He shouted; I am ready to be a father—
but not a husband.
In our nightmare, I craft a decision—
mail an aerogramme to him.
I’m keeping it, I write though
this might be a kind of lie.
Whatever happens to our never-born—
attached to a uterus, washed out in a storm?
Later, I’ll collage together different lives
into a shoebox diorama:
unfit mother/absent father/suicidal offspring
swipe left / swipe right—
a hundred times an hour.
The Roxbury Russet
Black Jazz, King David, and then, Roxbury Russet—
the ugliest one. I photograph cartons of them,
text my sister in another city, Ruby, look!
“First Grown: Roxbury, Massachusetts, known
as ‘The First American Apple.’” Not much to look at
with a greyish skin that appears as if blood vessels
had broken beneath the surface, if apples could have
blood vessels. Set near a Cosmic Crisp or a Pink Lady,
the others pull our attention. But I take home the Roxbury Russet,
famous for its overwintering powers, best for hard cider.
Roxbury, Mass where my mother was born,
where Ruby lives blissfully until she’s three.
Heirloom apples On Special for $2.99 a pound—
displayed by the sliding glass doors.
I make a pilgrimage to the triple-decker via Google Maps
Each floor now a separate condo. New countertops! Oak floors!
her arms appear relaxed as if enacting a ritual.
Found in thought might be the caption under the portrait. One fist
Historically, my family was also brown; legally forbidden
from owning land or living within the walls of most European cities.
This is why Jews became pharmacists. One can still read
Hebrew letters over the oldest pharmacy in Sarajevo.
My screenshot captures it years after the war, next to
click-bait for eco-hiking tours. Jews as brown people
was not mentioned in our family—which were mostly killed in pogroms.
But this is supposed to be a poem about apples
and instead, I need to tell you that last year in Massachusetts
hate crimes towards Jews spiked 94% in middle schools.
Devon Street is on the news again, my mom calls to my dad
in Yiddish, her first language, which she made sure not to teach us.
This might only be of interest to this woman writing
who has not scripted family history before; like an aerialist
who clasps the swing the first time, the dismount, a little shaky.
As for the Roxbury Russet, they earn a 4 star rating
but are still phased out at the Cloud Nursery,
not succeeding in the new economy, not right for portrait mode.
Like some people, my father’s best friend, wasn’t built
for this new world. On Shabbat, he drove out to Revere Beach
and planted the barrel of his gun to his lips,
not far from Jew Hill Avenue, near the old Devon Street home.
A Suitcase for When She Leaves
In the side pocket: snail shells and moon opals
lifted from several ex-lovers. In the depths of the carry-on:
a fingerprint from the boy in the alleyway who stroked her arm,
then disappeared with the long stare of the barred owl.
The suitcase fills with bluebells from an overanxious mind,
packets of wild berries, the scent of linden trees. Alcohol.
No room for second guesses or prize roses. This woman
who looks like me, must hide desire—muffle its cries.
She’ll bring sheafs of stationary and an imagined
accordion player reclaiming water music with buttons and keys.
Her future is moving so fast, not yet in the bag—
expansive as blood from a wound or rare as opium
perfume. When leaving forever, she won’t look
back over star jasmine; she’ll ignore the climbing wisteria.
Instead, she’ll swallow heirloom seeds, draw a star map
on the garden gate, sniff indigo petals until they wet her face.
Eating for God
“And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go
and speak to the people of Israel.” I opened my mouth, and he
gave me the scroll to eat. —Ezekiel 3:1-3
And did God listen with pleasure to the acoustics
of the snack—small crunches heard across the valley?
O, Ezekiel—what was he thinking? Did it taste of honey—
the parchment spun light as a crepe?
Can a scroll be kosher, gluten free?
Did God offer him Shabbos wine?
A glass of Cabernet to wash it down? A pony?
Clowning around with God—and then what?
When Ezekiel delivered text to the people of Israel
was he meant to regurgitate each verse, one by one?
And what about Her? Too busy carving tablets
to go? O, God—he could feel
her mind close tightly like a child’s diary
embossed with faux gold leaf. No explanation—
O Ezekiel, Ezekiel. Soon, he kissed words
good-bye, took up the wheel, worked from home.
Still, he missed dining out—a gorgonzola with something
to say. The brined taste and scent of the divine.