Joyce Sutphen is one of my favorite poets, and certainly my favorite local poet. I’ve recently finished her book, Modern Love & Other Myths, and I loved it. I discovered Sutphen many years ago, and I always do a happy dance when a new book comes out. Modern Love & Other Myths elicited two happy dances (I emailed Sutphen to tell her how much I loved the book and she responded; I am always amazed when writers respond to email, just like they are regular people).
The first poem I loved, the first time reading the book, was “You.”
You make me think in italics; you bring
exclamations to my lips! (I never
thought in parentheses)—I always dashed
my way through everything! I
want to quote you; I want you to appear
in every footnote. I want you to be my
opening line. Yes—I have a lot of
questions; there seem to be some missing pages…
but I could live in an ellipsis; I
could become a demonstrative pronoun
(if you wanted that) or I could be a
questionnaire and you could fill in the blanks.
And now, although I’d like to say much more,
I must conclude—or what’s a sonnet for?
When I got to the unexpected ending, I laughed out loud. Now, poetry often makes me smile, it occasionally makes me weep, but it almost never makes me laugh out loud. I would have loved Modern Love & Other Myths purely for this one poem (yes, poetry can be like that sometimes), but there were several others that I loved (and thrice as many more that I very much liked but didn’t quite tip into love).
In fact, the next poem that called forth my love was a mere two pages later:
Another word for that is astonishing
or astounding, remarkable or marvelous.
It’s also slightly startling, which leads to
shocking and upsetting, perhaps a bit
disquieting, and that is troubling and
distressing—you could say outrageous
and deplorable, which leads to wicked
and more precise equations such as
sinful and immoral or just plain bad
and wrong. It’s amazing, which is just to say
bewildering and unexpected, that
it happened out of the blue, and that we went
all the way from miraculous to absurd,
within the syllables of just one word.
This poem did not make me laugh out loud, but it did make me smile. It also made me think about language and words, and word meanings, and how easily we can hop from one interpretation of a word to another, and another, until you amazingly arrive at the exact opposite or where you started. I love writing, pondering, and playing with words, and this poem has given me new ideas for word games (which can be especially fun on long drives). Can one ask for more from a single poem?
I would prefer to mention him only
in passing. How lovely to go back and
never to have met him, a connection
missed, a quiet night at home and no trip
to that city across the river where
he was waiting, but not (it turned out) for
me. I would prefer him as a footnote,
in parentheses, one small entry
in the index, the one that will baffle
the scholar who is reading carefully,
who realizes how impossible
it is for me to forget those lost years.
These aren’t necessarily the best poems in the book, they are merely my favorites. And who can say what the “best” poem is anyway? All writing demands that the reader bring something to the table, but I think with poetry that is even more true. In some ways, poetry is an act of cocreation between reader and poet. Perhaps there is no such thing as a best poem, only favorite poems.
There are so many good poems in the book. Poems that I like on the first reading, thoroughly enjoy on the second, and then go oh! on the third. Nearly all poetry rewards rereading. But not all poetry is as fun to reread as Sutphen (and Modern Love & Other Myths in particular).
One more poem, that will perhaps make your next long-distance drive more interesting:
Things to Watch While You Drive
The trees, slipping
across the fields, changing places with
barns and silos,
the hills, rolling over
on command, their bellies
green and leafy,
the sun-tiger, riding
on your rooftop, its shadow racing
up and down the ditches,
a flock of birds,
carrying the sky by the corners,
a giant sheet of blue,
the road, always
twisting towards or away from you—
both, at the same time.
Sigh. I think that’s absolutely beautiful, most especially “a flock of birds/carrying the sky by the corners/a giant sheet of blue”. A poem within a poem.
Joyce Sutphen is the Minnesota poet laureate. She has published six books of poetry, and I think this is my favorite yet. Although truth be told, I went and got all the old ones off my shelf, and I can’t honestly say without reading them all again that Modern Love & Other Myths is my absolute fave. All of a sudden I want to reread Coming Back to the Body, tonight. I love this power of poetry!
And I have to say (because I have the inside skinny), Sutphen has a seventh book of poetry, soon to be released in the U.S. Why it was released in Ireland before it was released in south Minneapolis I cannot say, but it appears there will be yet another happy dance in the near future.