By Sue Walker
River’s Edge Publishing Co., 2010
Reviewed by Celia Lewis
She Said demonstrates Sue Walker’s finely honed ear for poetic language (including the nuanced rhythms of southern speech), an unerring sense for authentic characters, and a command of the lyrical narrative.
She sets herself the daunting task of consistently engaging the reader while using “she said” in each poem. A Houdini of a tale-teller, she seamlessly succeeds, never allowing the tension of these forty-eight poems to falter or fail. It is a tour-de-force of word play, brimming with joyous riffs of sound.
The poems are arranged in six sections, each with an epigraph that loosely serves to set their tone and purpose. The section titled “Rx” explores the betrayal of the body through illness. “And Is It Still a Matter of Law” concerns the tight-lipped anguish of terminal disease, evoking the question of euthanasia through a wife’s last days with a dying husband.
“Meniere’s” is about the disruptive and sometimes frightening manifestations of the disease—loss of hearing and balance—which are apt metaphors for a poet exploring how illness affects our emotional equilibrium:
she lay back
on the pillow and the long days of her life
threaded through her eye and ear,
through her mouthmouthmouth
that was moving moving trying to say,
tryingtosay, lips moving
Yet, Walker’s almost imperceptible humor, even in the most somber of poems, nudges impishly through her nuanced lines, as if to remind us that life is, after all, of such brevity it’s best to enjoy it as simply or outrageously as we will. Again, from “Meniere’s”: “and the doctor said / idiopathicendolymphatic hydrops, / and she said, ‘what? what?’”
Walker’s voice uniquely qualifies her for the poetic tale. There are few poets with the chutzpah and skill to create a woman who sues a crematorium for burning “Baba,” her late husband’s cherished balsa leg. Or the man who sues his former wife for the return of a kidney he donated to her in “Left Kidney Syllabics.” She acknowledges The Week as the stories’ source, but she takes them on an ultimate lyrical run and makes them her own.
Throughout the collection, Walker conjures the dreadfully funny gestalt of Flannery O’Connor, a writer whose work and life she has written of and deeply admires. However, the humor and voice are Walker’s alone. She doesn’t obligingly tote the southern grotesque out of a tool-box, backspacing to insert it, de rigueur. It springs, almost obliquely, from her close, though seemingly casual, observations of people at their most vulnerable and absurd.
The reader isn’t simply drawn into what she says, but into how words are misinterpreted, displaced, omitted, often with humorous results. From “Said by Someone Who Said Not to Say”:
She said she didn’t know
how to counter what she didn’t say,
how to make amends for what
she didn’t do, or how to make
someone who wouldn’t listen
understand what she really said.
Walker also expresses a deeply ingrained grasp of life’s tenuousness. From “A Wreck of Syntax to Match Scattered Phosphemes (On Reading Jake Berry)”: “Time might be the longest distance / she didn’t want to imagine, / but there are no absolutes.”
“Every Day Last Week” finds grace in unexpected places, and is a fitting end to the collection:
she wasn’t looking for Him, really,
but on Monday he was in the classroom
reading a poem by Mary Oliver
about building the universe.
She Said is a fine read, riveting from first poem to last. It evokes the same stilled excitement as eavesdropping on conversations, some hushed, in the Pullman car of a train filled with infinitely intriguing and often exotic travelers. But more, She Said is a benediction: Walker’s breathtaking book, unerring and yet generous of spirit, reveals a sensibility that can only come from a lifetime of nudging others toward the poetic experience, an apt role for Alabama’s poet laureate. May 2010
Celia Lewis is a member of the Canebrake Poets, Mobile.