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,
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
How low the poet goes? "Paper Dress" is explicit:
antidepressants take me
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 painless—to
us—if 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 www.mhannan.com.