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Suzanne Qualls

As eloquent as they are colloquial, fiercely unspecialized in a time of rival aesthetic creeds, Suzanne Qualls's poems dramatize a subtle, deeply skeptical intelligence struggling with intractable materials. In a poem about a brother's mental illness, she wonders if both of them aren't culpable of having made careers out of emotion. This kind of quirky insight - as intensely scrutinizing of her own poetic motives as of her brother's affliction - typifies the toughness and originality with which she sees the world. Her unusual candor springs from the utter naturalness of her voice as she weighs one conflicting emotion against another, or as she moves with uncanny honesty between private insight and worldly knowledge. Born in the early '50s, she's an absolutely indispensable talent. Few poets now writing can match the gravity and almost visionary intensity of what she has learned, as she puts it in one poem, from "the cruel uses of grief."

-Tom Sleigh

Death of a Scholar

Insectoid, all instinct, his limbs drawn up
and atrophied, the body spindled, past
any moment of relaxation into the bed,
the bed permanently cranked up behind back
and knees - his olive skin, once famously soft
("I always thought he smelled like lemons," his first wife said)
now more olive, deeper into shades
of grey and brown, the color absolutely wrong.
All this and his sheets strung over him,
the angles of his limbs acute,
his drapery sometimes slipping
from a promontory, exposing all
luckless accidents: criss-crossed
abdominal scars, in varying degrees
of freshness, emitting fine clear plastic tubes;
everything permitted now, tolerated,
even the one infected scar
allowed to seep and redden, as the nurse, exasperated,
in tones fit for little boys too long
too quiet, and found to have misbehaved:
"There's nothing we can do for you. You're terminal."
But even she, the mythmakers now agree,
was finally brought round to "say hi"
through another nurse who helped you move
from hospital to home. This, we felt,
was testament of your worthiness;
we wanted to believe your suffering
had cracked the heart of someone for whom death
had lost all particularity;
a tired witness to our agonies
and transports, she had become
philosopher: she couldn't even see a point
in lessening your pain.
All angles now,
the skin too large, the heavy crest
of hair too fertile for what's left,
your head bent toward your chest, the dry
and wrinkling skin now more like hide-
but you, refusing to be purely animal,
would rouse yourself to say sardonic things.
We saw triumph in that, too, in your wit
and social graces, took comfort
in a weening pride and intellect
that lurked inside the face of a cadaver.
While you would be decorous to the end,
I cannot be - and though I mean no disrespect,
I dwell upon the vision that you made,
and feel that I became a student of your death,
learning a lesson I think you might approve:
to live in fear of Death, and live
extreme, unimpressed by his civilities.

Katie Can't Go Out Today

Today I wish that I could learn
some Eastern discipline,
exhaling all my need.
One needs, you know, (I do) - but need
becomes too large for our support:
I fear I'll need so much
I'll force myself to lose.
The little girl across the street
is angering her father:
"Okay, that's it," he says,
"forget it. You don't get to go."
I think she's learning what I'm learning-
something we don't want to know.
I listened to you speak
about the women you have loved,
the ones you had and lost,
and had and lost again.
For a moment I grew silent,
sobered by the thought
your love had touched you deeply
more often than my own.
Who's counting? It's useless
to compare-and certain folly
to defend this course of thought.
But think I do, relentlessly
in fact, and self-indulge,
and wrack my brain,
and lose, and lose again.
The saints and sages knew the truth-
there's bliss in letting go.
Ah, bliss-now I remember it,
that's where the problem lies.
Remembering is bliss's curse:
it gives, and it denies.
Katie can't go out today,
she disobeyed her father.
She's crying, now-she really hurts-
it's obvious she cares.
She can't go out and pet the cat
that's lying on the stairs.
I'd like to go and comfort her,
and let her comfort me,
to share the stoop and tell her
that tomorrow she can go:
I'll stroke her hair and tell her
she's a pretty little girl.

Letter to David

A man sleeps outside my apartment door
Three days now.
He believes he once lived here with me
That his place is inside and not out
And so vigilates, calling me by the
Wrong name and waiting;
Speaking of old conflicts
Old fences that can surely be mended
Waiting for the door to open and to signify
That I have recognised him.

In the tinted photograph, the one I still keep,
You and I sit on the second of four steps,
Slightly away from one another, but touching
At the hip. That was a hot day.
We were dressed for church, I held an Indian doll,
And the concrete smelled vaguely of the soles of shoes.
I had braids and you had a crew cut
We looked just like kids
And smiled into shapeless sunlight.

While you were away, I sent you poems
Not to create mystery, but to cheer you up.
I doubted they would reach you,
Not certain there was mail on sinking ships.
For weeks you believed they were sent by your wife.
Inspired by the faithfulness of poetic confession
You avoided the eyes of whores in Singapore and Saigon.
I was in college and you were at war
I thought that you would know me
By the Williams poem asking forgiveness
For eating the plums.

You buried yourself in the unfenced backyards of tract houses.
You began telling our father's stories with cloying aptitude.
I have been meaning to congratulate you:
On the phone, you cannot be told apart.
Master of the delayed reaction,
You drink the same beer in the same bars, mixing Budweiser
With thorazine, stelazine, artane, cogentin.
And once, when you were on the golf course,
The sloping mound of dichondra became

A pile of bloody bodies under your feet-
Human bodies tangled in unspeakable intimacies.

I have begun to suspect myself.
We have made careers of emotion.
Look, I mean to say
Insight is just fun for the moment.
It has no practical application.
You just need rules.
If your shooter is in the circle
Swap it with a cat's-eye or a three-toned molly.
Don't call this sickness.
Don't suffer: there is no virtue in it.
I have been trying to tell you
That a man sleeps outside my apartment door
Three days now.
He believes he once lived here with me
That his place is inside and not out
He is waiting for the door to open and to signify
That I have recognised him.

Lament for a Young Son Who Fell From a Roof

My son's wrist bindings are white
I save them to help me with my fate
A pearl necklace was cut from me
Where is the beloved who searches for it?
A pearl necklace was cut from me
Where is the dear one who searches well?
My precious bracelet fell from the roof

Your mother searches, your father is helpless
I saw your father coming into the courtyard
My powerful amulet fell from me
I saw your father running into the courtyard
My powerful amulet fell into the well
I saw children playing with palm leaves,
wearing caps, heads shaven.
I saw children playing outside-
I covered my eyes and said, "God's will."
A row of children in the alley met me
I covered my eyes and said, "It hurts me."
Say God's name over him, O tomb's worm,
Say God's name over him when he rises and cries!
Say God's name, O short-tailed maggot,
Say God's name when he gets up at night!
Mother, look at the gravedigger lowering me.
My father walked away and left me.
Your white skin is like paper in candlelight.
Your beautiful face, praise its creator!
If I say, O my son, my heart is torn,
the dust weeps: YOUR BELOVED IS WITH US.
If I say, O my son, my guts are cut up,
the dust weeps: YOUR BELOVED IS AMONG US.
My children are the rings for my hands,
the silver kohlstick for my eyes-
Children are beautiful, their bodies beautiful.
Happy mother who lives for them,
I search for you in all corners.
I tell myself that they were here,
they were three, and where is the third?
The evil eye possessed you
When you fell you said, "O master,
O pardon O Lord I am only a young boy."

(Transcribed and translated from Arabic by Susan Slyomovics, from a lament by Fathiyya Mahdi; collected in Luxor, Upper Egypt by Jamal Zaki Al-Hajjaji.)

Originally published in the September/ October 1993 issue of Boston Review

Originally published in the June-August 1993 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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