Breaking Into The Safe Of Life
by Susan Cherry
Chicago Spectrum Press, 2003
Reviewed by C. J. Laity
Susan Spaeth Cherry's Breaking Into The Safe Of Life is a groundbreaking collection of eighty poems divided into three sections, each section distinct in its style and subject matter. Some of the poems are dynamos (such as "Visit Number One") and others are small wonders that become much larger poems within the context of the book (such as "A Visit To The Healer").
First, Cherry tries the delicate approach to breaking into "the safe" of the Self, by searching for the "Combination" (the title of Section One), with deep poems which keep the reader alert. Often times, in the "Combination" poems, the connection between the title of the poem and its content must be carefully listened for like a tumbler.
Next, as if at a loss for patience, Cherry resorts to brute force, trying "Crowbars" (the title of Section Two). The "Crowbar" poems deal with harsher subject matters; they rapidly descend in mood to a group of related cancer poems, less challenging to read, as they present the cold splash of reality. A large portion of this book is dedicated to death and dying: from the sense of emptiness created in "Parents' Weekend" to the series of after death poems in the second section. Some of the rhythm and musicality is sacrificed during the more serious poems.
What we find once the safe is opened are the "Treasures" (the title of Section Three). The "Treasure" poems are stripped of overwhelming symbolism. They deal less with the mysteries of life and more with the tangible rewards of living, such as success, mercy, heroics, religion, patriotism, relationships, interaction with other people, and the enjoyment of food, sex, love, music, poetry, art and beauty.
The first two sections of the book stand together as a complete story of life and its mysteries: from the surreal birth image of a car passing through a car wash at the beginning of Section One, to the blunt descriptions of death by cancer at the end of Section Two. Section Three, however, feels like a chapbook in and of itself; the writing style of the third section is less encoded with metaphor than that of the first two sections, with fewer of the similes which give the previous poems their magical element. This less mysterious, straight-forward approach to the final section keeps within the overall metaphor of cracking a safe--after all, the mystery is over once the door is unlocked.
Together, the three sections act as a microscope that examines the human condition in this changing world.
The great majority of the poems in this book pull off an impressive stunt, personifying feelings, states of mind, or mental conditions (such as doubt, optimism, anger or insomnia), while at times turning the barer of these conditions into objects (such as a tree or a cup of coffee). What at first seems grounded in the ridiculous, by poem's end becomes a deep examination of behavioral motivation. In the poem "Anger", for example, an emotion is transformed into an object (a bottle of pills) and the object is then animated. The personification allows the object its own free will, and the will of the object causes action with effects equal to that of the emotion.
Cherry takes advantage of this formula often, to varying degrees. In the poem "Stress", the state of mind becomes a parasite, the victim becomes a host object, and the interaction between the parasite and host mirrors for the reader the mental condition. In "Seizure", illness is transformed into dancers, the victim becomes the dance hall, and " . . . breath becomes a gymnast / on a trampoline". Very few poets writing today are relaxed enough to create something as transcending as Cherry's poem "Insomnia", which is both abstract and quite clear at the same time, demanding that the reader crack the code without losing sight of the poem's lyricism. Strong writing and sheer confidence allow Cherry to pummel us with one state of mind after another, without the repetition of this formula getting old:
is a giant dune
that changes shape with every gust
showering grit on daily life
like rice upon a bride and groom.
It plugs the ears and floods the eyes,
peppers tongues and opens wounds
piles up in socks and shoes
until it hampers every move
growing fast despite attempts
to bulldoze it with intellect.
Notice, first, that without the title we probably wouldn't know what the above poem is about, it's extended metaphor is so self contained. After reading it, one looks back at the title and says, "Of course." The confidence of this poem begins with the first line's use of the word "is." Obsession is first turned into an object (a dune) and then it is personified into something that can "pepper" or "hamper." Strong use of similes ("like rice upon a bride and groom") add a visual element to this poem that defies spatial and temporal borders. We are left tasting the essence of Obsession without knowing exactly how Cherry has pulled it off.
Even something as untouchable as silence is given form, life and purpose, evoking floods of emotion, and creating bizarre vantage points and points of view. Very seldom are these points of view as obvious as they are in "On A Downtown Street", during which the subject (an ex-racehorse pulling a city carriage) is the narrator. Nor are they often seen from an external vantage point, such as they are in "Reagan Succumbs To Alzheimer's" or in "Awaiting Chemo", which deals with the oblivious state of mind of a child. More often than not, these points of view and vantage points are as elusive as fever dreams, as in the poem "Rejection", during which the point of view is that of the personified mental condition which ". . . plucks / the engine / from our confidence / and sells it shamelessly / for scrap."
Just as seldom is the narration as linear or grounded in the physical world as it is in the brilliant piece of work "Maternal Instincts", which, despite its prose-like nature, inspires a sense of astonishment through the use of the musicality of its language, rather than by a mere description of that state of mind. Instead, the book is decorated like a holiday tree with thick symbolism, enjoyable to decipher. It jumps around freely through space and time, in and out of the physical world, riding parallels like skis and leaping over the opposites. In the poem "A Journey Through The Day" (a collection of haikus) the book as a whole is itself paralleled. The poem does this by creating gigantic images with the masterful use of brevity:
Dawn showers in snores
laces up her shoes of dew
and puts on makeup
The parallels as well as the opposites of this world are studied insightfully, such as the behavior of a bird to that of a woman (in "Maternal Instincts"), or the essence of a son to his father's (in "Parents' Weekend"). In the poem "Motive Unknown" Cherry paints temporal as well as spatial parallels. Although the poem is very much in the now, it illustrates a cross continental Doppelganger, and ponders the wisdom of youth. These comparisons deluge the other elements of the poems, even finding their way into the similes:
sometimes, like a basketball,
sometimes, like a classroom note--
The comparisons of parallels and opposites ask profound questions, like which suffering is greater, dying of cancer or having to watch someone you love die of cancer, or which pain is worse, giving birth or not being able to conceive.
Time is presented as colorful images and is traveled through like flipping through a photo album, with clear comparisons to past and present, illustrating changes in the self as well as in the world around us (as in the poem "Pantheon") without beating us up with morals or answers. In the poem "Missing The You I Knew" the effects of time are captured (once again by use of personification) with the lines:
until Motherhood rewrote you
in an alphabet I didn't know."
The acknowledgment of the contradictions time creates are food for our soul:
past and present grind together
like bones that have lost their cartilage,
creating a scraping I can't ignore.
And, of course, time is not spared from Cherry's insistent personification:
I ask the hours why they fashioned
tinder from your tenderness,
Even through all of this magical invention, Cherry clearly conveys her themes to us, such as how people can be close without ever really knowing each other. The brave poem "Daisies" invokes the idea that a man and woman can never know each other as well as two women can know each other. And in the poem "Tae Kwon Do Class" Cherry writes:
. . . I wonder why I never knew
that thunder and lightning
were sparring behind your tranquil eyes.
Another theme induced by Cherry's poetry is the great struggle for patience, the struggle to realize that what seems melancholy at first will make us strong in the long run. For example, there are several poems that relate to the departure of family members, which also hint at growth. In this book, life is a lengthy battle to achieve power over internal as well as external factors. We may be able to overcome a heart breaking tragedy, but we then find ourselves powerless against something as simple as a clarinet. In Cherry's world the corrosive effects of mental anguish upon the human spirit and the merciless effects of time on the human body are kept under wraps by the creation of art. In this case, the art is poetry that deals with the duality of the human spirit, the constant battle between the rationalist and the thinking mind.
In brief, what makes Cherry such a dangerous locksmith is her ability to make us feel what she wants us to feel without giving us a clue as to what she's up to. Instead of invoking these feelings with even the suggestion of these feelings, she creates extended metaphors which scramble through our mind like opium dreams, mysteriously leaving in their wake some sense of dread or joy. She also uses archetypal objects to invoke memories and emotions within us.
The tightly worded poems in this book are also interlaced with mythological characters (such as Jupiter or Pegasus), which are often used as images of infinite power in vivid contrast to simple, every day items, such as in the following haiku:
blistered from its macho vow
to avoid sunscreen
Cherry also creates her own fantasy world of astrology:
while Papa glowed like a supernova
when the heavy coats that have long eclipsed
the waxing moons of the mothers-to-be
move into other orbits, revealing glories
("Trying To Conceive")
But these are only at the top of Susan Cherry's bag of tricks.
Cherry uses many other fancy tricks to pick the lock of the human heart. One of these tricks is the use of verbs to create sudden changes in mood, as in the verbs "plunder" or "needles" or "pummels" which all are used to describe the contrast between inner city life and an "Opera In The Park."
Another trick is the use of colors. In these poems, colors are a key element in grabbing hold of our senses. Cherry's style of writing allows her the use of very few words to tackle tremendously complex subject matter, and presenting "golden robes" or "silver wings" before our mind's eye helps her skip the steps one must take in order to establish place in lengthy prose. It's an illusion, but a most effective one.
Cherry also creates the illusion of repetition. Sometimes the reader is confronted by a word that seems redundant. Wondering why the author would repeat the same word twice in, say, a 52-word poem, the reader looks back at the poem, only to discover that the repetition of that word is only an illusion. For example, in the poem "Leviathan", Cherry presents the simile:
like a whale who aches
for the open sea
but cannot flee
Then the last word of the poem is "free," which seems to be a redundancy. But it is only the sound of the word "flee" combined with the connotations of the simile--the combination of the two stimuli fool us into thinking we have already read the word "free." We are left with an eerie sense of deja vu. At times she manages to do this in a single line:
that glow in the light of growing life.
("Trying To Conceive")
In a similar way, Cherry creates catchy but elusive rhythms with her use of near rhymes:
I cling to you like a child who fears
abandonment for inadequate grades
and pray your eagerness for me
will not be jailed by middle age.
("Return To Romance")
In the above four lines, we can see not only Cherry's talent for near rhyme ("grades" and "age"), but her use of simile ("like a child"), her use of extended metaphor (nowhere is the female body mentioned, though these lines are about the body), and her use of personification of the mental condition (that "eagerness" could "be jailed").
Of course, as can be seen by the examples above, one of Cherry's greatest tricks is the use of similes:
large and flaccid
(Six Surreal Minutes)
The similes ring true, adding a sense of realism to often abstract concepts:
. . . kick the air like January
(Tae Kwon Do Class)
hard-headed as December
(God's Little Oddities)
The similes continue the frantic personification of intangible elements, as in the poem "Self-Pity", during which ". . .light begins / to dissipate / like reasoning / at sleep's approach." Using too many similes can be a risky investment for a writer, but Cherry pulls it off without missing a beat:
limp as post-alarm clock dreams.
With all of this brilliance going for her, Cherry manages to make her poetry a profound statement about womanhood in general. Only a woman in touch with her Self could have written "Trying To Conceive", during which opposite worlds of pain felt exclusively by women are compared. Certainly only a woman could have written the poem "Sexpectation" and nary a man will understand it.
As the world changes, so will the writing styles of American poets. And Susan Cherry is a master in this new, millennial age of poetry. She finds her place among the changing times and flaunts it in her poem "Reading 'The Greats'", which dares to describe the effects of studying the accepted styles of yesterday as being touched by "... fingers / ...cold and rubbery as whales." This wouldn't be a Cherry poem if she didn't personify the dying styles as well:
The poems arrive in tails and cummerbunds,
roses in their white-gloved hands,
and escort me to five-star establishments,
where every waiter knows them by name.
What Cherry offers us, in place of post-modernism, is this book, one of the best post-9/11 books of poetry to come out of the mid-West. Cherry proves that not only did the world change on that fateful day, but that 9/11 was the final nail in the coffin of the post-modern era. She touches directly upon this theme, not through preachy, righteous poetry, such as can be found in the struggles of some local writers still clinging to the corpse of post-modernism. Instead, like a dead-serious Pamela Miller, Cherry invents a fresh, contemporary style, creating vivid metaphors "still wet as tears / without a frame." (from America, 2001).
Each word in this book is like the click-click of a combination safe. This book, from its creative cover (which allows the reader to see through the word "Life" to the other side) to the masterfully crafted poems inside, is a true gem in the field of modern art, found only if you have the determination to crack it open.
--C. J. Laity
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Note: Susan Spaeth Cherry's Breaking Into The Safe Of Life is a groundbreaking collection of eighty poems divided into three sections, each section distinct in its style and subject matter.