A Review of Susan Maurer’s Josephine Butler: A Collection of Poetry By George Spencer
Susan Maurer’s new book of poems, Josephine Butler: A Collection of Poetry, was recently published by Phoenix Press International. This publisher has just opened an office in Washington, DC. It also has offices in Paris and Montreal along with representation in Africa.
Maurer’s book is an excellent start as Phoenix Press International moves into the U. S. poetry market. They are a block from the White House. Their focus is on social justice, gender equality and human dignity. Maurer’s book should be required reading for the political class and their paymasters on K Street.
Josephine Butler (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Butler) was a Victorian feminist social activist who would neither sit down nor shut up. She accomplished an enormous amount.
The first poem in the collection, “Josephine Butler”, is a good fore taste of what follows.
The Exxon Valdez, undone at Bligh Reef, is
Rent, oil blackens ice cold water, slithers
She was there and
Heard the comments of the fishermen, how fat she was
How ugly were her gloves, her boots.
And from the next segment in the poem about a child.
She may take your hand
And whisper, “I want to go with you.”
Tell you confusing stories of what happened to her
How she came to be torn,…
And later about Butler.
“During one tour, Butler was “covered
with flour, excrement,…”
So here we have it: abuse of the environment, sexism, child abuse and attempts to silence those who speak out against these and other atrocities.
Maurer never walks away from a fight and is happy to take on all the bad guys at once. As she says in the Introduction, “Political poetry occupies a strange place in American literature. From the folks who feel the elitist course is to be sniffy about, to those who feel badly written political poems make them “unacknowledged legislators.””
Here’s her take, from “Strolling With Salisubsilious”, on some of the activities of the muckamucks:
There was a power crunch
amidst the deities. We were grabbing for titles
like shoppers at Macy's.
Spring was an obvious choice
but cereal was a sleeper.
I knew it, had seen it clearly in those
sometime muddy waters.
C.E.O. s eat Corn Flakes in the privacy of their home.
Cheerios, Rice Crispies, Puffed Rice
Shredded Wheat, Wheaties not so often
as you might think,
and some, the dour ones, do Bran Flakes
or sometimes the pathetic types like
poor aging Jack Lalanne do bran
trying to stay young and hard.
High muckamucks beware. If it is possible to be skewered by the breakfast of champions she has done it. And this is only one of the wonderful things about Maurer’s poetry.
Her poetry tells us that she is well-traveled, well read and has lived, and continues to live, a confrontational and principled life. However this is not enough to make a poet. She has the imagination to take obvious, hackneyed things, breakfast, deities, power struggles and to make them, these improbable combinations, into poetry that is memorable and meaningful. It’s hard to look politician in the eye and not want to ask (s)he what (s)he had for breakfast.
How does love fit into all of this. Throughout this collection there
are poems like “The Body Farm”.
I’m at the body farm.
The bodies in their seed hulls
buried six feet down.
A visitor tends a grave,
weeds it a bit, steadies a jar
of flowers on the grave.
My conditions are non-negotiable:
Bobbie back alive.
Inside their seed pods
they turn colors and change.
Angrily she tears at a weed,
as if to say, “Here’s what planted things did.
Why can’t you?”
This love poem illustrates another thing that makes Maurer’s writing so interesting and such a pleasure to read. While she knows the history of poetry, she is not awed by it. She does it her way. She knows when to pull out the stops and when to put on the brakes.
In “The Body Farm” she is working with the economy of a haikuist.
This is tough muscular writing.
She can also let the words flow in rhythmic patterns like in the “Arizona”segment of “I Been Search’ (O Yeah)”, one of the longest poems in this collection.
Lots of fragile, dried-out bones
Here in the Arizona sun
This is not quite charnel house where my aunt lies
Ticking like a clock, a taxi-meter
With long hair gleaming and precious still
We don’t discuss
The ga-ga men, tottering like windup dolls
With claw-like hands
And dead fish eyes
This book, Josephine Butler: A Collection of Poetry, is funny, sad, wild, constrained, conversational, formal and always worth while to read. In fact it should be kept nearby to reread to find out how the world is according to Susan Maurer.
Perhaps Marianne Moore summed it up best.
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gp0RVTsRsYo for interview where Susan Maurer reads some of the poems from this book.