Saturday, November 03, 2012

A Mind Like This, poetry by Susan Blackwell Ramsey

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 112 pages
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press (September 1, 2012)
Price: $17.95
ISBN-10: 0803243383
ISBN-13: 978-0803243385

Susan Blackwell Ramsey's first poetry collection, A Mind Like This, is rich with humor. Read it and weep, probably with laughter, sometimes with a wince, but never because she missed the mark. It is humor knit with wit, laced with the outrageous, intertwined with the meticulous and wonderful detail that makes up life. Because we all know life is in the details. 

First collection, sure, but Ramsey is already well known in her community, and in the literary community far beyond the geographical one, for her poetic skill. This collection, after all, has been some 20 years in the making, revised so many times, the poet says, that she's not sure anymore what's in it and what's not. 

I bet she knows. Ramsey's mind is crammed with detail, dates, places, odd but fascinating tangents, one branching off into another, and another, and another. She likens her mind to a junk drawer, but don't be fooled. These aren't the scraps; these are the poems that matter. Between the lines of seducing Jimmy Stewart, and pickling heads because we want to make things last, third wedding receptions and scarlet bird houses and useless beads that indicate an equally useless civilization, thawing turkeys and picking apart names like Kalamazoo, children in church and Pablo Neruda at Water Street Coffee Joint, Ramsey weaves pure and complex ideas, the deeper understandings of, yes, life. She gets it.

Her mind is like that. It's like this poetry. Witty, clever, sharp, precise. The poets among her readers will recognize the forms she uses as skeletons to build upon, layering muscle, flesh, skin. Sestinas, pantoums, sonnets, villanelles, iambic pentameter, yet nowhere does the poetry bog down with form. The flow is easy, even between chortles. 

And honest. She writes about Bell's Palsy, her own coping with it, and bladders that are forever too small to bear the hour-long wait. It's the honesty that makes the humor work. Yet for all the grins, this lacing of words is never without beauty. It's all in there, all of it. "Joy, daughter of the difficult," Ramsey writes in a poem called "Washing My Husband's Kilt Hose: A 32-Bar Reel." Light requires dark, and such keen humor requires a knowledge of suffering. 

Ramsey's mind, never missing a thing, is just as likely to make a quiet observation that haunts long after the reading (from "Why I Hate Storytellers"):

Good stories sneak up, they're glimpsed, overheard
from the booth behind you at the diner,
from the back seat, six hours into the trip,
on the radio, half over when you tune in.

Real storytellers are quiet, even reluctant.
Casual is their camouflage. After a long
march, supper cooked, night coming down,
the conversation passed around like a pipe,

one voice starts ambling down a path that forks
in unexpected directions and you feel
the great beast purring next to you in the dark,
its bristly chin on your shoulder, its breath in your ear.

Ramsey's voice of poetry is the one with its chin on your shoulder, its breath in your ear, and it is a voice you will want to listen to, again and again.

Susan Blackwell Ramsey is the winner of the Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry for 2011. Ramsey earned her bachelor of arts at Kalamazoo College, and her MFA at the University of Notre Dame's Creative Writing Program, where she received the department's Mitchell Award. She has taught high school, gardened for hire, worked as a horticultural transparencies librarian, and for many years as a bookseller. She is now an instructor of spinning, knitting and creative writing at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Ramsey lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband, Wayne, with whom she raised three children, her knitting, her garden, and with her Kalamazoo College writers' group closely circled in around her.