By Susan Snively, associate dean of students and director of the Writing Center. Cincinnati, Word- tech Communications, 2005. 96 pp. $17 paperback.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Galoozis ’05
For her fourth book of poems, Susan Snively takes as her title and voice the “skeptic traveler.” This figure is a person who says what everyone is thinking but won’t say; who remarks in a Sicilian catacomb, “It’s like the world’s worst party, / all vanity and no conversation.” She is, like a poet, a person who says what no one has thought of but what everyone wishes they had. The skeptic traveler debunks the familiar and self-important; she regards the strange and ugly with a level and humane gaze. And, as always, Snively fleshes out this voice in witty, inventive and highly readable verse.
In “Crawling Man,” for example, she responds to the prim language of a police report: “Man crawling in front of the fire station / was sent on his way. What does that mean?” This last line is a crystallized version of Snively’s answer to circumlocutory language. She puts the same question to many things in these poems—the pompousness of monuments, dinner party small talk, the prescription of antidepressants, a president’s immobility in crisis.
What does it mean, for instance, to travel to places that are historic, where something documented happened in another time? Snively admits there is a visceral thrill to it: “‘Just where we are standing’ — / A phrase I can’t resist,” as she puts it in the book’s title poem. She acknowledges, however, that imagination has its limits, that we can never know exactly what it was like to be standing there, then. In “Low Looped Fence,” the speaker attempts to imagine Nabokov in the same place she is standing:
…until we think we remember being here
a hundred years ago, watching a young boy
watching a young girl run out of his life,
seeing him grieving and smiling
as if he could see himself, a man and a woman
on a path, following a timeless design.
There is nothing wrong, still, in attempting to imagine, and when Snively does, the result is by turns humorous and touching. In the book’s third section, “Some Time in the After Life,” she takes several detours into the past and unknown present of the dead. The section’s title poem finds her trying to teach her mother, in the afterlife, to use the Internet: “In heaven, she says, she knows she has time, / but she’s no better at mechanical things / than she was on earth….”
The book takes a refreshing detour from moralizing against excess by illuminating the richness that comes from smaller luxuries—often, from good food. Neither denial nor overindulgence is the answer in these poems, but rather the sensual and the nourishing, as in “Invitation to Alice Waters”: “…bring us the simple heroism of a brave meal / to all of us darkening and dying.” (Which is to say, all of us.) Snively uses food, along with travel, as a fitting medium for communicating our attraction to the familiar and identifiable and for articulating how hard it is to break out of established routine. The end of “Throwing Out the Gourmets” incorporates both comfort and the pleasure that can come from abandoning one’s comfort zone:
One cannot get rid of old tastes
that still give comfort to eye and palate,
only serve them again and again
to mark the occasion of a happy table
where I have now dined on things
I once believed inedible:
shad roe, kielbasa, whole baby octopus.
This is part of Snively’s deftness: she writes poems that ask us to question the established without being obvious or reactionary. In less capable hands, “In Mantua,” could have been yet another “religion is meaningless” poem. Instead, it is an animated comparison of Italy’s churches to the nation’s opulent stores and restaurants, asking whether they might be equally spiritually satisfying: “We would still be worshiping the impossible, / an ideal we could neither afford nor fit.”
At the end of the poem “Floaters,” Snively warns eloquently against being too explicit in explanation or inquiry:
The only trick
is not to want
to know too much about the life within,
design or accident,
strangers or kin.
In these poems, Snively approaches her subjects with a distance, accompanied by both questioning and a certain respect for the design behind them. It is, in fact, the way reading poetry is most thoughtfully (and deservedly) approached. If only every poet exercised such skepticism.
The reviewer lives in Bloomington, Ind.