Teaching and learning.
Embellishments by Virginia Chase Sutton. Aptos, CA: Chatoyant, 2003, 71 pp., $12.00 paper.
What is teaching anyway?" Phoebe MacAdams asks in the introduction to Livelihood, her fourth poetry collection. A veteran public high school teacher in Los Angeles, MacAdams explores teaching in all its joys, frustrations, and sorrows. She writes of students and classes, faculty meetings, and tragedies that occur in the course of the school year. She also writes movingly of the conflicts that occasioned the 1989 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers' strike, and in the final section of the book, captures a year in the classroom in a poetry journal. MacAdams says that the book was inspired by "the Buddhist idea of Right Livelihood ... a profession that is honorable and which does not bring harm to others." Teaching has been MacAdams' right livelihood, and while many writers teach, I don't think I have ever seen the process revealed with as much intention and attention as it is in this gritty and luminous collection. A teacher too, I found myself nodding my head in agreement over something in nearly every poem. Here are the students with seemingly insoluble problems, the endless papers, the exhaustion. Here too are the realities of inner-city schools--shootings, murders, pregnancies.
MacAdams' style is supple and varied. The poems in the first section of the book, which gathers work written between 1986-2002, are condensed and lyrical, distinguished by an approach both meditative and incantatory. In "Again, Teaching," MacAdams evokes "Hathor, goddess of schools," her "companion here at the lore house/ in the complicated halls/ where we often feel lost," and exhorts her students to "take words ... /and learn to make your life with them. Make your barge of words/ and make it strong." In "Lesson Plan Prayer," she reveals what all good teachers know that they are students too--and requests
Beauty be with me now, gods of the Jurassic, of the then and now, stay with me as I plan these lessons this life. (p. 21)
MacAdams' language is spare, unadorned, and piercingly direct, infused with heart, intelligence, and human warmth. Mini-portraits of various students emerge. She grieves over one of her brightest students, who has been absent for over three weeks, "trying to hold on to her spinning life" in the face of family dysfunction, only to return pregnant.
She consoles a boy whose friend has been shot:
"Frank took the bullet for me," he said, head held high. "He was sitting by me in the car." I told him to make his life twice as good for his best friend. He nodded. Now Frank is gone. (p. 34)
"This is a hard season for my students/ who grow anyway," MacAdams writes. "This is for them." There are also moments of joy. MacAdams writes outside with her students, turns them on to Hamlet, gives witty instructions for reading Gertrude Stein ("writing is the matter of the matter,/ the matter is what we write").
One of things I find most admirable about MacAdams' work is her ability to define the interrelatedness of her work as a teacher and the rest of her life. In "Connectedness: My Students, My Husband," she writes:
I teach the roundness of things, which starts with my wedding ring, the circle of teaching, of notebooks, of writing done in class, then at home, the roundness of words, of work, of the sky filled with stars, the moon each night around morning, then evening, and later your arms. We are round like a bear. The year is round, and all of us go round full of sky, like stars. (p. 30)
In the second part of the book, MacAdams takes on larger subjects in poems tided "Bilingual Education," "A Day in the Life of L.A. Unified," and "Teacher Strike: 1989." Difficult to excerpt, these pieces are extended meditations, characterized by a longer line or, in some instances, mixtures of lineated and prose poetry. Quietly revolutionary in their insistence on the integrity of the individual, they should be required reading for school administrators.
In the final section of the book, MacAdams returns to the short lyric, capturing the daily round of teaching and school in a richly detailed poetry journal (which she says was inspired by Ed Sanders' 1968, a personal history in verse), where she attempts to answer some of her questions about teaching. In her introduction to the book, MacAdams says that teaching "is a process, a journey I have been on with my students. Teaching is something we do together." These taut, honest, and heartfelt poems provide an invaluable map of that journey.
The title, poem in Virginia Chase Sutton's exquisite first collection, Embellishment, is about a tattoo, "[t]he bite and stain forever/on the skin," a "slur" of colors, which when picked away leaves ones that are "raw, sharper than a scar." Like the poet's skin, etched with "fine lines tallied before the gushing glut//of color that filled each individual petal/and leaf," the poems in this collection are embellishments in the finest sense, beauty wrought from a world that is both painful and lovely. Sutton's subject is the memory of a compelling and at times dangerous family and the story of how the narrator rescues herself, learning to love even in unloving circumstances. Her work is a wonderful balance of experience and reflection, as these first stanzas from "Above the Beach" illustrate:
Though it's summer, we stand above the beach in stiff dresses, dead husks of alewives near our patent leather shoes, in the photo our home-permed hair frizzes over the snap of small waves creeping close to our feet. We are moving to this new place, away from the lost business, lost house, lost jobs. In Chicago, Mother plans, things will be different. But what do we understand this afternoon about promises of journeys? It's lunch at Howard Johnson's, Mother interviews for a teaching job, Dad happy to be selling anything. They rent the cheapest house, a flat green suburb where we'll hide gallon liquor jugs in the trash next year and the next. Gin bottles glint against the moon behind the house. (p. 23)
Upstairs in this house, the narrator and her sister hide, practicing holding their breath, wondering, "Who will pass out, disappear into the rug's white nap?" Looking at a photo, the narrator wonders about the sisters, "forced/to hold hands and pretend that their small faces/ haven't been creased by the sun." When she "shows the picture to her sister, revelation comes: "the girls in this photo/ already recognize that the sun's luminous gleam/ won't shield them. It's what they cannot see."
Making things visible, speaking out of silence, and giving the ravaged body words are all part of Sutton's poetic task, which she performs in a variety of ways. Some of her poems, like that above, unfold in plain yet haunting diction. Others employ more lavish language. In "Perfume," a delicious love poem, "Roses still flower in the yard,/ their thick colors blurring in a coil of night air." In "Amphetamines," a chilling poem about enforced adolescent weight loss, the narrator's "rushing heart empties small tires/ in a quick slap of blood." In the haunting "Tia Maria and Blue Sugar Cubes," the lovers' voices are "a polished curl in the sharp night air."
Sutton creates muscular, haunting poems out of the spell of words themselves. Though her poems are narrative in structure, they are lush, sensuous, and richly detailed. In many, the process of remembering becomes a kind of spell, driven by an intense lyricism that seduces the reader:
The sky is lovely: a sudden slur of night dropping a furl of grey clouds that overlap until real color is forgotten. Minutes ago, the town's disaster alarm rushed us to the street, loud pitch pulsing against the drape of heavy air. Today's sky is astonishing, the quick slide of night to mid-day, a greater sweep of jade.... ("Twisters," p.7)
Though her imagery is striking, it's never just for effect. Sutton is first and foremost a poet of the body. Her work is visceral, forceful in its insistence on bodily understanding. A compact, stolen when she was a child, "gather[s] a slow pinch of skin." Memory exists in a "stitched shelter." Someone's face is "fisted shut." Drinks with a lover are described as "fire and color, shot silk// the savory slur of desire." This sensory apprehension of the world gives the poems a precise authority, as in the first section of "Night Terrors," a prose poem that examines motherhood and daughterhood from multiple perspectives:
It's the light that wakes me each morning: a smooth triangle widening over the bare floor as the door quietly hinges and Mother's big body eases all the way in, ribboning the light to shadows. Her flat white face glimmers along my bed's blanketed edge, amber fumes of bourbon sift through her teeth. Listen, she says, I never wanted a daughter. Her breath burns my eyes. I know how you are: lazy and selfish, sleep when I need you. She can spin the words for hours until her voice blurs into the sounds I never recognize as my own tears. (p. 50)
The mother's accusation and the child's perceptions work in concert toward the stanza's unsettling conclusion. This poem, which later mores forward in time, charting the narrator's experience as a young mother and, finally, her thoughts as she keeps watch at her dying mother's bedside, is an example of Sutton's uncanny ability to braid the past and present together into a seamless whole.
In the brilliant "My Mother Spontaneously Combusts at Marshall Field's and Richard's Swirl Shoppe," Sutton weaves together the past and the present that illuminates it even more tightly. In this magically surreal poem, the narrator describes a fashionable mother, so self-centered she says, "When you lose the weight I'll invest in pretty clothes./ Then it's your turn. Now it's mine." Midway through the poem, the narrator notices "sequined smoke misting above// her curls." Smoke and fire are metaphors for the mother's dissolution, as Sutton alternates images of the mother shopping with those of her "tied to a chair in a slippery hallway, white straps// centered over thin breasts," of "snapped into a rayon housedress//with slashed pockets, roomy cotton underpants/tugged to her ribs." At the end of the poem is this extraordinary image:
She reaches for another cigarette. Bronzing lips steam into a smile, dumplings boiling on the stove. Wait awhile. Some tires smoulder before they explode. It takes time, I remind myself, liking the operator's curling iron as it teases gathering smoke into a nest of full flame. (p. 41)
One of the things I admire most about Sutton is her honesty. The poems are strikingly undefended. In the devastating "Blackout," for example, she remembers being raped when drunk:
... That gin's a dream snapping me upright in bed some nights, reminding me of the two of us wrapped inside an ice-storm of blankets and sheets. How you took what you needed. How you never asked me to open, but waited until the glass was empty and I couldn't speak. (p. 14)
In other poems she recalls the child who accidentally steps on a coal that spills from a backyard grill, but knows she's "... passing/ some test, of walking barefoot and sweaty/ over new coals, keeping my careful silence," and the girl who "realized years/ ago: it was either swallow of drown."
Sutton illuminates loss unflinchingly, in shapes so deep and primary that they seem etched on the reader's consciousness. Ultimately, her poems summon that most important emotion, empathy. Walking through an exhibit of portraits by John Singer Sargent with her young daughter, the narrator thinks of her mother, realizing how "... even she wanted/that split second of illumination, the perfect scrap/ of trembling light." "What does the sea give back after water/ has slipped away and returned," she asks in "Beach Glass." "Is it beauty or mystery?" It is both, as these moving and courageous poems attest.
ALISON TOWNSEND is the author of two books of poetry, The Blue Dress and What the Body Knows. Her poetry and essays have appeared widely, in journals such as The North American Review, New Letters, Fourth Genre, Margie, and The Southern Review, and anthologies such Are Your Experienced?: Baby Boom Poets at Mid-Life and Boomer Girls. She is an associate professor of English, creative writing, and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.