Maryanne Hannan on Suzette Marie Bishop

Horse-Minded by Suzette Marie Bishop. CW Books, 2012.


Many of the rhetorical strategies Texan poet Suzette Marie Bishop employed in her previous collection, She Took Off Her Wings & Shoes, winner of the May Swenson Poetry Award Series, appear again in her latest volume, Horse-Minded, Poems.

She bifurcates experience, the inner and outer worlds, and then reattaches the two realities without comment, side by side, achieving more poignancy and sometimes even humor than any direct approach could achieve. "Pulling at the Center," "Thorn Forest: Refuge or Refuse," "Postcards," "Horse-Minded," the title poem, and "So I Rode There," the final, long poem, are all successful examples of splicing together multiple realities. The perspectives must stand on their own, undercut or supported by adjacent material. While these poems might be considered experimental and look so on the page, by virtue of a different typography to render each reality, nevertheless, they are fairly accessible. The author even provides source notes in the back of the book.


Her persona poems, "Ship Sunk into Sand or Sea" (Kay Sage), "I Start Out as a Spacemaker" (Helen Frankenthaler), and "They Think They Move Freely" (Remedios Varo) fold direct quotations from these women's (note they are all women) writings, titles of their work, and biography into Bishop's own searing analysis. This form, which she used expertly in her previous volume, continues to balance the many lyric poems, which often center on personal pain and illness. Bishop suffers from CFS, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; her intention, in fact much of the intention of the book, is in service of courage, but as a poet, she holds herself to a high standard of honesty. Exploring self-pity in "Ship Sunk into Sand or Sea," she quotes Sage's words, "I killed myself. I do not like / the person who replaced me," and it rings all the truer for being words other than the poet's own.


How low the poet goes? "Paper Dress" is explicit:

antidepressants take me

                                         under further,

and my body rejects

minerals and vitamins,

malnourished for years,

my immune system mistaking

food for toxins,

lesions bloom on the left

side of my brain

Yet this is a book about transcendence, at least a limited personal transcendence. Horses to the rescue! In a simple lyric, the first poem of Part II, "I Gave Her More Rein," Bishop describes how:

We found it together,

the soft ground

and then rising into the air

until the fire from inside us

streaked the sky.

Both on the literal level, horse-riding as therapy, and the horse as mythological embodiment of high-flying imagination, Bishop is saved from her physical prison. The list poem, "Symptom Journal: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome," juxtaposes two lists, "Body" and "Mind." The latter is filled with visions of free otherness, "the stallion (who) leaps into the air / Galloped boldly out of the / page." The former largely chronicles her list of physical symptoms ("Felt like passing out," "Fevers and chills woke me up," "Even yoga hurts"), but proffers signs that the mind's joy is healing her body, "Cadence trot," "Obvious yet invisible / communication," "Pefection of balance."


"Horse-Minded" juxtaposes officialese about exercise for CFS patients with the spectacular story of circus equestrian Dorothy Herbert, interspersed with extracts from the poet's journal along with an article about CFS sufferer Ken Wilber who continues his work with extraordinary effort: "Wilber's many years of yoga practice have taught him to lie so still that he can relax all muscles except those he uses for typing"; "He uses assistive technology that holds the computer so he can write lying down." The poem finishes in Herbert's voice, "a memory of being nearly weightless, again, bodiless."


I felt closure at this point of the book, but two additional sections remain. Part III consists of a long poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Car Accident," and Part IV, of an even longer poem, "So I Rode There." This latter poem seems a departure from Bishop's previous book and this book's earlier sections, but with it, she enters powerful new territory, a fusion of personal grief with almost unimaginable, impossible to quantify environmental loss and degradation.


Aldo Leopold, an early American philosopher-conservationist, pointed out, "The erasure of a human subspecies is largely painlessto usif we know little enough about it . . . . We grieve only for what we know." In "So I Rode There," Bishop accepts the poet's mandate to articulate what is to be grieved, traveling to the Pacific Ocean to scatter her father's ashes, then to New Jersey to visit her sister and family.  Meanwhile, the poem uses material from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the recollections of Tulitas Jamieson from the Mexican frontier, childhood memories, physical ills and current dreamscapes, Sonora Webster Carter riding diving horses off the Steel Pier at Atlantic City, catalog advice on choosing a swimsuit, a visit to the Ocean Life Center Aquarium, and "a deepwater dumpsite . . . . Sludge, acid, incinerated, and dredged waste wait in the eight ocean dumpsites off New Jersey."


Bishop compares herself to the manta ray, "Like it, I hide under the sand." She wants to go home, not the home in the Hudson Valley whose absence she has previously grieved, but to her current home in Laredo, Texas, with her husband. Before any such withdrawal, Bishop successfully articulates all there is to grieve. An earlier poem had played off writing advice she apparently received, but felt unable or unwilling to implement: "You should write about the world." In the last poem of Horse-Minded, she clearly succeeds in expanding her focus beyond the personal to our poor, suffering world.

Maryanne Hannan has published poetry in Rattle, Pearl, Gargoyle, Sentence, and Innisfree. Her website is



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