by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Susan Elizabeth Howe (1949 – ) uses her middle name attempting avoid being confused with the other poet named Susan Howe (1937 – ), who is better known, and being older, has won more awards. Having a fairly common name can be an advantage for a writer because readers know how to pronounce it, and the name seems familiar even the first time they see it. But it can also lead to endless confusion when a writer has the same or a very similar name to someone already known, especially in the same field. When your name can also be confused with Elizabeth Howe (1635-1692), who was one of the women tried and executed during the Salem Witch Trials, it must really get frustrating.
So Susan Elizabeth Howe had both an advantage and a problem when she started publishing her work. The more established Susan Howe was born in Boston, while Susan Elizabeth Howe was born in Utah. They are very different poets. And of course Elizabeth Howe is long dead, and if she ever wrote poetry, none of it has survived.
Susan Elizabeth Howe described her childhood in a March 2018 Segullah interview:
“I was the oldest of eight children and had considerable responsibility in caring for my five brothers and two sisters. I thought of myself as the assistant parent; they thought of me as bossy (moi—bossy??). We lived in a rural area near what is now the Timpanogos Temple on an acre lot and learned to work raising apricots, peaches, apples, a big garden of beans, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and squash, not to mention two pigs a season, a calf, goats, and pigeons. I spent a lot of time outdoors and reveled in the beauty of the Wasatch Mountains above and Utah valley below us. That created my love of the natural world, often a subject of my poems. And I always read lots of books, although they were the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series, not literary classics . . . I didn’t realize I wanted to be a writer until the end of my college days.”
While they weren’t mentioned in her interview, this poem has details that make me think her family also tried raising turkeys.
“A Large, American Gallinaceous Bird”
Think of the turkeys in the turkey sheds,
Barbie-dumb, by which I do not mean
silent. Cacophony was invented
to describe their singing, ca-ca-ca-cophony,
which they warble daily at breakfast,
A turkey relishes
Its fellows, sits on their heads
In affection or terror, the two turkeys feelings,
Groupspeak blocking more complex thought.
But not pleasure – corns and oats in the mash,
sun at the water trough, an afternoon
bath of dust. Death is a confusion,
but so is the sky, which turns liquid and falls,
the splash on the head or wattle
a great surprise. Beaks open, they peer up
into wonder worth choking over.
Dim in the back of the brain
they remember a stir called flight,
but their breasts are too heavy,
their feathers unnaturally pale. And thin,
accounting for the pathetic display
of the males. No matter – no sex.
They come from the incubator, breeding
institutional. No wonder they trill
down answers to questions unasked, greet
guests with what sounds like the welcome
pitiful, pitiful, pitiful.
In the introduction to Salt, her second book of poetry, published in 2013, Howe says,
“One of my most vivid childhood memories is of looking over the lights of Utah Valley as the moon rose over Mount Timpanogas, the absolute peace and beauty of that scene. The Utah landscape imprinted itself on me as home, and I have long hoped to create images that express that landscape and its effects on my identity.”
She earned an undergraduate degree in Spanish and French from Brigham Young University, but then shifted to creative writing, getting her MA at the University of Utah and a PhD from the University of Denver. One of her biggest influences is her Mormon faith, and she talked about how her poetry connects with her spirituality in a 2009 interview for Mormon Artist: “Imagination, as I have experienced it, can be part of and lead to spiritual growth, and imagination is the natural province of the poet.”
Her first collection of poetry, Stone Spirits, was published in 1997, and won the Charles Redd Center Publication Prize and the Association for Mormon Letters Award in Poetry. Some of her poems had previously been anthologized in Great and Peculiar Beauty: A Utah Reader (1995).
The long-tailed Grackle is a fairly common bird in Utah, but Howe’s poems about them are uncommonly imaginative.
Advice from the Grackle
the seven songs
After joy raises you into the stratosphere,
ride earth’s colors as you wheel down.
Fear backs you into a cave,
only then do you cackle and hiss.
Curse at a tornado and it might curse back.
Why kick pebbles on your enemy?
You will die without burying him.
The ascent out of despair
must be steady, slow, or your lungs
will explode, your blood boil.
Which is wisest: to endure hunger
or waddle among wolves?
Warn those you love when the predator
approaches. Screech loudest when you
are the predator.
What Is a Grackle?
A comfort common to Southwest desert
parking lots, a familiar, a messenger,
an overlooked angel oiled by asphalt,
consolation of the casino, supermarket
spiritual guide picking at a free-today
hot dog, a dropped grape or lentil,
its purple-green head iridescent,
its long keel of a tail.
Black birds but not blackbirds
with their showy epaulettes blood-red
as a war field. Grackles glint
like lacquered ebony, the females brunhildas,
if by brunhilda you mean “brown-headed,”
not the German “ready for battle.” Blind
to centuries of borders, of battles, they waddle
stiff-legged at your feet, a janitorial sweep
to their tails, checking cart tires and light poles
for moths, beetles, singing their seven songs —
slides, whistles, wheezes, catcalls, chirps,
murmurs, clucks — to console you
for your losses: stolen cars, mortgage
payments spun to mist at a roulette table,
the beloved who breathed fire and scorched
your wedding clothes. Folly, wreckage,
they mutter, down among the packs
of backerboard and spackle. We’ve fallen
from Mayan temples. In a past life
we prophesied. In a past life we were gods.
Susan Elizabeth Howe is a contributing editor to Tar River Poetry. She served for 11 years as the poetry editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Her poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, The New Yorker, and Poetry magazine. She lives with her husband Cless Young and their three aging dogs in Ephraim, Utah, and teaches at Brigham Young University.
Nobody is happy all the time. This poem feels like the dead of winter to me.
My sadness eats sauerkraut because she’s allergic to sauerkraut.
My sadness roams heating ducts, shuffling through the lint.
My sadness sharpens her teeth.
My sadness starts the avalanche she gets caught in. Then I can’t breathe.
My sadness wears a crown adorned with plastic rubies and a circlet of rabbit fur.
My sadness weeps over the word adorned.
My sadness wanders the fields looking for kildeer eggs.
My sadness wades the shallows bare-legged, attracting leeches.
My sadness calls leeches bloodsuckers.
My sadness tries out for the hummingbird then feels inadequate when the meaty
tackle gets the part.
My sadness wears her hair down to her tush and irons it.
My sadness, believing sugar to be a thickening agent, ruins the pudding.
My sadness takes up throat-singing and wins a horse.
Sometimes my sadness shrinks to the size of a salmon egg.
But my sadness never washes away in the current.
Sometimes the Chinese fortune cookie prediction is not a positive message.
“Your Luck Is About To Change”
(A fortune cookie)
Ominous inscrutable Chinese news
to get just before Christmas,
considering my reasonable health,
marriage spicy as moo-goo-gai-pan,
career running like a not-too-old Chevrolet.
Not bad, considering what can go wrong:
the bony finger of Uncle Sam
might point out my husband,
my own national guard,
and set him in Afghanistan;
my boss could take a personal interest;
the pain in my left knee could spread to my right.
Still, as the old year tips into the new,
I insist on the infant hope, gooing and kicking
his legs in the air. I won’t give in
to the dark, the sub-zero weather, the fog,
or even the neighbors’ Nativity.
Their four-year-old has arranged
his whole legion of dinosaurs
so they, too, worship the child,
joining the cow and sheep. Or else,
ultimate mortals, they’ve come to eat
ox and camel, Mary and Joseph,
then savor the newborn babe.
This poem caught my eye because group names like ‘An Exaltation of Larks’ and ‘A Murder of Crows’ are so much more interesting than the more mundane ‘herd of cows.’
A Murder of Crows
Bevy of starlets casts them
frail, quail-like, propelled
by the current breeze. Shouldn’t
we say an augmentation of starlets
bursts onto Sunset Boulevard?
Or starlings, gender inclusive.
I’m for accurate names: the grease
of lobbyists frying the country,
the contagion of talk show hosts
infecting channel after channel,
the grimace of pop psychologists,
the clench of clergy. Yes, the labels
show me decidedly bleak, but not
about our tang of novelists, our paradox
of poets. I credit the pillow of EMTs
cleaning up all the wrecks. And claim
my angst, my prejudice, my right to
the raised eyebrow of little gods
directing my reportage.
Susan Elizabeth Howe hasn’t strayed very far from her childhood home, but that hasn’t stopped her from using her imagination and powers of observation to the fullest. There’s a breath of Utah wind and a little stardust from its vast night sky in her poems. But they also prove that a journey taken in the imagination can take you much farther than any plane, train or ship.
- Salt, © 2013 by Susan Elizabeth Howe, Signature Books
- Stone Spirits, © 1997 by Susan Elizabeth Howe, Redd Center Publications
- Sunstone Magazine and Twenty Years of Contemporary Mormon Poetry
- The Moral Imagination
- Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower Than the Angels and John A. Widtsoe
Interviews and Prose
- The Creative Process
- The Works of Terry Tempest Williams
- When Mormon Literature Becomes “Mormon”
- Women of Wisdom and Knowledge
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud