Nina Bennett reviews Travel Notes from the River Styx, from Terrapin Books
I’m a sucker for titles. Susanna Lang’s newest collection, Travel Notes From the River Styx, has a title I simply cannot resist. Just from the title, before reading any of the poems, I intuited there would be poems of loss, of ambivalence, of the ultimate journey as one crosses from this world to whatever is next. The stunning cover photo by Nancy Marshall, with its dark, bare trees lining a river, reinforced my guess. Lang has won numerous awards for her poetry, including two Pushcart nominations and a Best of the Net nomination, and it’s easy to see why after reading her work. These poems are soft, subtle, often just a hint of the underlying loss. They morph between descriptions so clear you aren’t sure if it’s a memory or a current scene, and absence. This gentle back-and-forth reflects the way one’s mind works when faced with loss.
The book contains five numbered sections. Each section seems complete in itself, and yet they all connect to make a whole. The travel notes are actual and metaphorical. The opening poem “Road Trip,” is a long one which sets up the mood of the book. In the middle these lines:
My father was still in his nightshirt but he stood unaided
as he had not done in years, a glass in his hand,
proposing a toast. Has it been like this for you,
have you found the house where your dead linger
along some other road, in the course of some other trip?
Haven’t we all looked and yearned for a place where we can relocate dead loved ones, whether it be a physical place such as a childhood home, or in our memories and the stories we tell?
Water, rain, and mirrors abound. The second section opens with the poem “Welcome,” where the speaker tells us:
Now that you are here, I want you to know
the difficulty of water.
If there is not enough water, a river barely moves, won’t carry a traveler far on the journey.
The title poem starts the third section, and yes, there really is a River Styx in Mammoth Cave. In Greek mythology, this is the river that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld. The infamous ferryman exacts a toll for the crossing. The speaker’s “father leaves, he comes back.” Is it the father who isn’t sure it’s his time, or does the ferryman make that decision? This poem mimics the journey of many chronically ill people who seem close to death, then rebound for a bit.
The poem that opens section four, “Both Here and There,” talks about two people walking side by side, and it is so skillfully written that it takes a moment to realize the two people are the living and the dead:
If a story like that
can be believed, why wouldn’t he stroll beside his healthy self
Although difficult to identify a favorite, I keep returning to “The Long Way Back,” which is a crown of sonnets consisting of seven linked sonnets. According to Wikipedia, “a crown of sonnets or sonnet corona is a sequence of sonnets, usually addressed to one person, and/or concerned with a single theme. Each of the sonnets explores one aspect of the theme, and is linked to the preceding and succeeding sonnets by repeating the final line of the preceding sonnet as its first line. The first line of the first sonnet is repeated as the final line of the final sonnet, thereby bringing the sequence to a close.”
Lang accomplishes this smoothly and with grace. I’m not usually drawn to long poems, but found myself mesmerized by these three-and-a-half pages. The segue between the sonnets is skillful and natural, not forced. The form should never cry out for attention, it should answer to the poem, and that is exactly what occurs.
From her author’s bio on the Poets and Writers website, Lang says:
“I want my poems to turn outward, towards other lives and other worlds, and the physical world we are all immersed in, rather than to recount my own small existence. This is how I understand the poetry of witness—witness not only to the injustices and bereavements that we should all find intolerable, but to the wonder of other lives. I want my poems to pay tribute to what we all live, and to what we all could lose.”
Lang truly is a poet of witness, and these poems certainly do pay tribute to the human experience of life and loss.
Nina Bennett is the author of Mix Tape.