by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Susan Ludvigson is a paradox. She has published nine collections of poetry, and a couple of chapbooks, but her “biography” listings are one or two paragraphs about the number of fellowships she’s been awarded, and that she has spent much of her adult life teaching, mostly at the university level. Not even her birth year is listed.
This is as personal as the bios get: “She teaches at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where she lives with her husband, novelist and short story writer Scott Ely.”
Her poems do illuminate her inner life – a dream landscape at once strange and familiar.
Here she reveals the courage behind ‘ordinary’ lives which often passes unnoticed:
Some Notes on Courage
Think of a child who goes out
into the new neighborhood,
cap at an angle, and offers to lend
a baseball glove. He knows
how many traps there are–
his accent or his clothes, the club
Think of a pregnant woman
whose first child died–
her history of blood.
Or your friend whose father
locked her in basements, closets,
cars. Now when she speaks
to strangers, she must have
all the windows open.
She forces herself indoors each day,
sheer will makes her climb the stairs.
And love. Imagine it. After all
those years in the circus, that last
bad fall when the net didn’t hold.
Think of the ladder to the wire,
spotlights moving as you move,
then how you used to see yourself
balanced on shiny air.
Think of doing it again.
Depression – under different names, from ‘melancholia’ to ‘suffering a decline’ to ‘falling into a pit of despair’ – has probably always troubled humankind, but the pressures of this modern age seem to put it in even higher relief.
In the Absence of Angels
We want to believe
in the ones who take their children
to the zoo in strollers, murmuring
at lions and giraffes, their faces
lined with patience and sun. We think
they have never known days
when they must identify morning
by the relative lightness of gray,
have never felt autumn
rest on their hearts like fever.
But many, even of these
Must climb long ladders toward dawn.
I remember a decade of dark
when sometimes I walked
as if in the nightmare of chase,
my steps slow, as through deep snow.
Now I see, in child, lover and friend,
the same cellophane look in the eyes,
the same absence of angels,
and I ask again, into afternoon light,
how can we learn to be who we are
in the beautiful noon of no shadow?
I love this poem because it’s about a topic you don’t often see in poetry – the “ever after” of marriage.
Happiness: The Forbidden Subject
Is it because, longing for it,
so many have ripped up their husbands’
glossy photos, carried their wives’
suitcases to cars, everyone crying
as the Chevrolets and Volkswagens
and Renaults pulled out of driveways?
Because they trained so hard
to climb the pinnacles,
and when they arrived the air
was thinner than they’d imagined,
the views predictable? Because
they stood in gardens in the dark,
waiting for stars to fall
into their eyes, for new lovers
slimmer than the old,
with voices like the Adriatic
in calm weather? Is it because
they saw it at the ends
of black-and-white movies, too grainy
to be believed, but they believed,
and remembered Technicolor?
I tell you, we are among them.
So when we found it unexpectedly,
like the bed of four-leaf clover
under the dogwood,
we pronounced its name
with caution. We knew
the history of love,
had seen affection peel
from our favorite rooms,
the motley patterns behind.
We are so pleased with ourselves,
each other, that we hug the luck
of our bodies every morning,
every night, our prayers
the same each time,
sweet words they’d shake
their heads at, sadly,
muttering, as we would
have muttered once,
of fools who think that life’s
For as long as people have been aware that death is inevitable, we have had stories about immortality. Ludvigson’s version is a little different.
When the first radio wave music escaped Earth’s
ionosphere, it literally did become eternal. Music, in
this century, has been converted from sound into
the clarity of pure light. Radio has superseded the
constraints of space. – Leonard Shlain, Art & Physics
Imagine Vivaldi suddenly falling
on the ears of a woman
somewhere beyond Alpha Centauri,
her planet spun into luminescence
aeons from now. She might be
much like us, meditating
on the body, her lover murmuring
to the underside of her breast
before its heaviness suspends,
for the moment, the lift and pause
of his breath. A music she almost knows
drifts through the centuries, startling,
augmenting her pleasure.
When earth is particles of dust,
Orson Welles may still strike fear
into the hearts of millions
who wake one morning, unaware
that light has arrived
as an audible prank. Ezra Pound might rasp
his particular madness from an Italy
still alive in arias that shower
into open windows,
of a world youthful as hope.
When books are no longer even ashes,
and no heart beats in any space
near where we were, suns
may intersect, and some of our voices
blend into choirs, the music of the spheres
adrift among new stars.
There is something of the mystic in Ludvigson, and it shows here with great clarity.
The body is a boat gliding
down the river whose fragrance
spins us to the shady places
under apple trees
and into bedrooms. When
it ties up at shore,
the soul drifts and returns.
More and more I see
how everything goes together.
There is such grace
in this reconciliation—
even the stomach, that restless
loner, begins to understand.
Surely the body is mind’s
gift to the soul. How else
would the dance of ecstasy begin,
except in the muscles, in how
the eyes light on beauty
and expand it, blue
when it needs blue?
Think how love penetrates
like music, rhythm
as the nerves, the pulse,
propel us toward moonlight,
and how the body celebrates
wholeness, its first desire.
This poem shows us how imagination can transform something as innocuous as an orange into something quite different.
After He Called Her a Witch
Special powers were attributed to the orange in
Renaissance England, Italy and Sicily. It was
believed witches could bring death to an enemy
by pinning the victim’s name to an orange and
leaving the orange in the chimney.
When he comes in, late again,
the whole house smells wonderful,
but he can’t quite recognize the scent.
The fire is almost out, a few ashes
flicker in the absent light,
and suddenly he recalls
his mother holding orange peels
over a flame, the singed skin
curling back like petals,
releasing the fragrance.
She did it daily, all one winter,
just for the pleasure.
He doesn’t see on the hearth
the remains of paper, traces
of his name printed in clear
black ink. He wonders how his wife
knew about sweetening their rooms
with oranges, wonders whether it means
the air is cleared,
she wants to make up.
He breathes the evening in,
Imagining her in bed, waiting for him,
forgiveness on her lips
like the taste of oranges.
Ludvigson’s waiting room meditation offers a glimpse of how her poems evolve.
The man in the waiting room next to me
is speaking of perch and sunfish.
His friend tells him how to smoke cod.
I had been thinking again, just this morning,
of giving up eating my fellow creatures,
deciding whether fish should be on the list.
on the Times, a man’s delight in whales,
his photographing them. Snorkeling
near the islands of Tonga, he’s greeted
by a humpback calf. It swims so close
he has to lower his camera. A moment passes.
He feels a tap on his shoulder. Turns.
Peering into his eye is the eye
of the calf’s mother, who’d touched him
with her pectoral fin, weighing
more than a ton. The tap is so light, so graceful,
the man knows she means “too close,” but it’s like
a finger to the lips. He begins to swim with them.
More whales on another page. Bulls. Turns out
they’re learning each other’s songs—the songs
spreading east, Australia to French Polynesia,
melodies from one pod turning up
as phrases in another’s compositions. More variety
each year. One researcher says she thinks
it’s all about sex—new repertoires
to serenade the cows. This makes me think
of Coco, my canary, who pulls trills
from the outside birds into his April love songs.
If I knew how I’d combine those
whale and canary notes, then add in
the ones a composer captured from the sun.
Music, we’ve learned, changes the brain. So what if
someone wove a concerto
of stars, elephants, whales, birds, toads, mezzo sopranos, cicadas. . .
so we’d hear each as part of the other,
and all our brains begin to harmonize.
Still waiting, I doze,
hear armies choiring together,
percussion of carnivores laying down their knives.
After some digging, I did find an interview with her that Michele Pollock conducted via e-mail throughout March of 2002, which does open a window into how Ludvigson’s work has changed, beginning in the late 1990s, moving from fairly straightforward stanzas to more scattered lay-outs.
“… I’ve always used dreams as starting points or as material for poems.. But often, as anyone who does this knows, the dream slips away before you can get it recorded. It occurred to me that it might be more efficient to leave my computer on – my study is just across the hall from our bedroom – and go straight to the computer to write the dream. So I started doing that. Then early one morning I got up, marginally awake, went to the computer, and instead of writing the dream, I started a poem directly. Now I know that many poets compose on the computer, but I never had… I was so sleepy that I wrote with my eyes closed. And in the morning, when I saw what I’d done, I was intrigued by it… I started playing with the lines, moving them around – the spacing was already jagged and the language fragmented. So that’s how it started.
Since then I’ve taken this process a step further. I write drafts of two versions of the same poem… Or I write drafts of two different poems that have some relationship to each other. And then I splice the two… But the exciting part is the revision, when most of what I do is to cut. I find that this is where the unconscious material rises to the surface in ways it never did before… I think the defenses against self-knowledge are probably great in most of us, however much we think we’re in pursuit of it, and that somehow I’ve stumbled on a way of tricking my defenses into napping while the poem steals onto the page.
… It amazes me that they reveal more than any of my old poems did, are more intimate, somehow, and emotionally true in startling ways.”
From Escaping the House of Certainty, her 2006 collection which shows how her style continues to evolve:
I drive toward distant clouds and my mother’s dying.
The quickened sky is mercury, it slithers
across the horizon. Against that liquid silence,
a V of birds crosses-sudden and silver.
They tilt, becoming white light as they turn, glitter
like shooting stars arcing slow motion out of the abyss,
……Now they look like chips of flint,
the arrow broken.
……I think, This isn’t myth –
they are not signs, not souls.
again, they’re ordinary ducks or maybe
Canada geese. Veering away they shoot
into the west, too far for my eyes, aching
as they do.
….Never mind what I said
before. Those birds took my breath. I knew what it meant.
This is a section heading in Escaping the House of Certainty:
We paint thick lines
around the body, trust the brush
to say what will be allowed inside,
what must circle like a hawk
Ludvigson’s poetry is a confluence where aural and visual collide, dream and reality merge.
- “Some Notes on Courage” printed in Poetry magazine, January 1982 issue, © 1982 by Susan Ludvigson
- “In the Absence of Angels” from The Beautiful Noon of No Shadow, © 1989 by Susan Ludvigson – Louisiana State University Press
- “Happiness: The Forbidden Subject”printed in Poetry magazine, January 1991 issue, © 1991 by Susan Ludvigson
- “Lasting” from Everything Winged Must Be Dreaming © 1993 by Susan Ludvigson, Louisiana State University Press
- “Gratitude”printed in Poetry magazine, July 1994 issue, © 1994 by Susan Ludvigson
- “After He Called Her a Witch”– from Poetry magazine, November 1982, © 1982 by Susan Ludvigson
- “Grace”from Cold Mountain Review, Spring 2016 issue
- “Not Swans” from Sweet Confluence: New and Selected Poems. © 2000 by Susan Ludvigson – Louisiana State University Press
- “1.”from Escaping the House of Certainty, © 2006 by Susan Ludvigson, Louisiana State University Press
Poetry Collections – all published by Louisiana State University Press
- Northern Lights (1981)
- The Swimmer (1984)
- The Beautiful Noon of No Shadow (1986)
- To Find the Gold (1990)
- Everything Winged Must Be Dreaming (1993)
- Trinity (1996)
- Sweet Confluence: New and Selected Poems (2000)
- Escaping the House of Certainty (2006)
- March 2002 Interview by Michele Pollock
- Poetry Foundation – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/susan-ludvigson#poet
- Trapeze artist
- Sleeping toddler with Lemur
- Older lovers
- Dryad by Helena Nelson-Reed
- Dancer in blue light
- An Orange
- Whale shark with diver
- Canada Geese in V Formation by P. C. Wharton
- Gloria Swanson portrait by Edward Steichen
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud