Susan Shaw Sailer
Good morning, everyone. It’s hard to believe it’s June already, really “bustin’ out all over” after what, for many of us, has been our long winter’s lockdown. I hope you used all your time indoors to read more of everything and to write as much as you could.
Our poet today is someone whose work I’ve known and admired for some time, but I was especially struck by the strength of her latest collection, The Distance Beyond Sight (Main Street Rag, 2020). One of the poems in it, “The Emigrant,” is included for you today.
Having grown up in Tacoma, Washington, Susan Shaw Sailer now resides in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she has lived for the past 30 years. At the age of 48 she completed a Ph.D. at the University of Washington and in 1989 moved to teach in the English Department of West Virginia University. After retirement she went back to graduate school for an MFA in Poetry at New England College and until last year continued teaching, this time in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at WVU.
Now fully retired from teaching, she enjoys working with a membership group called “Madwomen in the Attic” at Carlow University, Pittsburgh. “Besides my adopted state,” she tells us, “I especially love the Sonora Desert and the Pacific Northwest.” She also loves to walk, hike and read.
And now, with pleasure, I give you three poems by Susan Shaw Sailer.
In the Kitchen of the Mind
Take the tea-stained towel,
wrap it around fears dangling
like the wires left hanging after your uncle
gave up trying to wire the garage.
How do your fears connect—
warming stones to tuck your feet against?
indigestibles to close your stomach down?
hexes to cast on someone else?
You hunger—but for what? A balm
to ease the family pain that was your childhood.
A spell against subsuming energies that bog
you down, not quicksand, but tricky to negotiate.
Something leaning on your shoulder
presses too hard, diminishes your rebound.
You feel ragged, a patchwork person. Torn,
you find a corner, prop yourself, catch hold
of the warp, reweave threads that need a pattern.
You create it as you go, tucking this loose thread
into that knot, tacking down the other end
so it can’t pull loose. Startled, you begin to like
the pattern. Not what you’d thought, but ok.
Ok in its own way.
Learning the Song
I’ve been a long time sculpting me,
shaping each part into curves I admire,
finding the best degree from head to heart.
Just as I’m getting it right, I’ll need to leave
myself to go with death. Leaf detaching
from the tree, I’ll nourish what comes next.
But it’s a shame, the suffering into learning
into a sort of wisdom I can’t offer anyone.
I make my path, muddied often, flesh
scarred by error, unmoored, abandoned
to my own best self. I cast a line, anchor
it in hope, reel in what I can, sometimes
a broken shoe, a fish too big to land.
Sometimes the border’s closed, razor wire
at top too dangerous to climb. Zero sum
game? High stakes poker? Not the bed
I wanted, but I climb in, hum the tune
my mother hummed to me, radiate
the small that’s all I am.
scrub pine and wild almond
a small gray bird
they were free
he’d served the sentence
his crime teaching
children their language
Kurds like him
living in Syria
he placed left foot
left side of his body
weak from polio
and he was falling
falling again into the dog-kennel-sized room
soldiers had thrust him into
after he’d been spied upon
his school declared a traitor’s act
and so the tiny cell
where he could not stand
where he could only crouch
arms grasping knees
head on chest
12 hours 18 24
he feels urine leaking
he commands it
but urine spills
he is wet
the kennel is cold
after 72 hours he pounds on the metal door
I’ll sign anything
hand me papers or kill me now
the door opens
7 sheets of blank paper and a pen
in a land not his
his own land not his
grasping one low fir bough
a single drop of water
falling on his head