The Poetics of Dailiness: Dianne Suess’s Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary sonnets

Suess does the near-impossible in these poems, which is to elegise without even a hint of histrionics, to write tenderness in the plain, deflated language of the everyday.

The first thing that strikes me about Diane Seuss’s Frank: Sonnets is that it’s long for a standalone collection of verse. The book is 130 pages: that’s 127 poems, all sonnets, fourteen lines after fourteen lines and all in the same candid, wilted voice we encounter on its first page. “I drove all the way to Cape Disappointment but didn’t/ have the energy to get out of the car,” the first sonnet begins. “Rental. Blue Ford/ Focus. I had to stop in a semi-public place just to pee/ on the ground.” These are the reports of a depressed middle-class American, we figure, who’s come to the shore to kill herself: “I could do it,” she considers, “I could walk into the sea.” But while she’s “thinking hard about that long drop from the lighthouse” it’s her own laziness that stops her, and also her bladder, which forces her to “squat there on the roadside” and “pee and then pee and pee again.” In the end a poem about suicide is a poem about the poet climbing into the backseat of her rental to take a nap; for the first of many times in its 130 pages, Frank lives up to the promise of its name. 

My own way to poetry was through the conventional lyric. In high school I cut my teeth on late Romantics like Louise Glück and Mary Oliver, whose verse had an almost reverent quality, as if to read it was to be let in on a very profound and important secret the poet was whispering to you from a farther room. Consider the famous first lines of Glück’s ‘The Wild Iris,’ for instance: at the end of my suffering there was a door./ Hear me out: that which      you call death/ I remember. Or Oliver’s ‘At Black River,’ a poem I must have read at least     a hundred times when I was young: then I remember, death comes before/ the rolling away of the stone. It’s not that I’m no longer moved by these lines, or that I can’t recognise the considerable technical skill, even wisdom, of the poets behind them. It’s more that the deep earnestness of this kind of poetic voice can grow exhausting. The lyric takes itself so seriously sometimes, it can be so utterly free of irony, that it leaves you no space to breathe. 

I bought Frank after it won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in May and blew through it in one sitting (this is a terrible way to read poetry, but Suess seems like the kind of writer who’d forgive me). I was floored by the intimacy of the collection, its sad, plain images of a poor Midwestern childhood (“mock orange trees in the chicken coop… children tied to the clothesline/ like dogs”); its beautiful rhetorical deflations, which take the reader from lyrical profundity to the bathos of the everyday in the space of one or two lines (“the problem with sweetness is death. The problem/ with everything is death. Speaking of sweetness, for a time/ I worked in a fudge shop on an island. When I quit, the owner slapped me”). The poet naps throughout Frank. She pees in public, frequently. Sometimes she sits on a small bench by the sea and “crie[s] a little, for none of it! none of it will last!” (“how many exclamation points can I/ get away with in this life, who was it who said only two,/ Bishop? Marianne Moore?”). Nothing is mysterious or triumphant in these poems — not labour, which she can’t finish (“Cut me! Cut me!”), not sex, which she has frequently (“I was passed like bread among strangers/ For a couple of nights, I was the new thing”), not even beauty, which is continually returned to earth in the poet’s search for “a nonfussy definition/ of the Sublime.” Suess’s willingness to ironise every loss, every longing, her willingness to ironise even the lyrical impulse itself, reminds me of something Maggie Nelson said about the poet James Schuyler, that his poetics “were refreshingly without a will to power, even a will to perversity. They felt wilted, like so many of the flowers he paid tribute to.” The poems in Frank are not driven by anything. They don’t want to change or cajole you, either with beauty or with the force of some atemporal truth. They’re impotent as Schuyler’s flowers. They talk. They hang. 

Maybe it’s funny, then, that this collection is one of the most affecting I’ve read in recent years. Or maybe not; the more I re-read Frank, the clearer it seems to me that its refusal of transcendence or mystery is exactly what gives these poems their generosity, their almost reckless bigness of heart. There’s so much room in this collection. For the poet’s  humanness, which she pleads for most desperately in poems about abortion: “I was and am stupid, please no politics, I’ve never gotten over/ it, no I don’t regret it.” For America’s poor and cast-out, who she manages neither to damn nor romanticise in poems about her childhood in the Rust Belt: “June, can’t remember her last name, the tilt of her/ head like an off-brand flower on the wane, teeth/ the colour of lead, house dresses even in 4th grade.” 

Some of the most devastating moments in the book centre around Mikel Lindzy, a close friend of Suess’s who died of AIDS in 1980s San Francisco and who ghosts Frank from the start (it’s him flexing his arms on the front cover). She does the near-impossible in these poems, which is to elegise without even a hint of histrionics, to write tenderness in the plain, deflated language of the everyday. One afternoon late in his dying, Mikel uses “his last fifty bucks” to take Seuss in a cab to the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco. The two are annoyed at each other; he demands she admire the flowers, she “lies that I see the beauty” but waits to go home. Mikel is “covered in KS lesions” on “his nose and ear and neck/ and temple.” The poem’s wilted honesty hinges on full emotional disavowal for a moment when Suess admits that to witness his dying was almost unbearable: “I wanted to leave him to die/ without me. And soon that’s what I did.” But then it pivots lightly to a memory of Mikel “touching [her] upper lip.” “I felt love all the way then,” it finishes, “and never since.”