Poetry by Susan Elizabeth Howe

Western poetry with an unmistakably modern twist, drawn from the astute observation of humanity of both rural and urban settings.

January, 2013

SKU: 978-1-56085-222-3 Category: Author: Susan Elizabeth HoweProduct ID: 1474


Poets living in the American West often muse about the rolling cheatgrass, gnarled stands of scrub oak, winding horseshoe cliffs, the scent of freshly-cut ponderosa, and even the occasional mountain-hardened rustler shielding himself against a grey winter squall.

Howe’s poems are Western but unmistakably modern, drawn from the astute observation of humanity of both rural and urban settings. Her weekly commute from the heart of Sanpete County to Utah Valley causes her to reflect on her culture and to contemplate recent events as she winds through the long, broad canyons. She sees an occasional deer chased from the road, pinyon jays, and magpies. She thinks about death, marriage, blood, and yes, even the dreamy (and occasionally steamy), country girl’s attraction to men.

In her verse, she journeys into the psyche of several women: Charles Dickens’s wife Catherine; Charlotte Brontë; an Argentine woman who unknowingly carried a fetus for several years; a woman whose pet snake tried to squeeze her to death. She recalls the rhododendrons of Kew Gardens, the house of Shakespeare’s grandmother, the sheep of Ireland, and the dogs of the Sierra Madres, but mostly she writes about the Mountain West and her home there.

Susan Elizabeth Howe teaches creative writing, contemporary American poetry, and British literature at Brigham Young University. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, Poetry, and other journals. Her first collection, Stone Spirits, won the Publication Prize of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, then Best Poetry Award from the Association for Mormon Letters. She is co-editor of Discoveries: Two Centuries of Poems by Mormon Women and has seen two of her plays performed locally.

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2 reviews for Salt

  1. Tyler, Fire in the Pasture Blog

    This past Saturday, my review copy of Susan Elizabeth Howe‘s new book, Salt, arrived. I’ll be reviewing it for AMV and expect to have my essay completed and posted sometime in the next month or two, but in the meantime I wanted to post my initial response to the collection.
    While I haven’t yet read beyond the first poem, I’m anxious to sit down and keep company with Susan’s words, in part because of the first poem. As all stories arguably do, Salt‘s narrative begins with Adam and Eve—or at least with a revision thereof: his name is “Bob,” while she remains nameless. In the collection opener, “Python Killed to Save Woman,” Eve (I’ll call her) wrestles with a snake: “Lucy, / short for Lucifer,” the couple’s “pet python,” which they let “slither about [their] bedroom.” Probably not the smartest idea, as you can imagine, something Eve realizes the night she wakes because Lucy has “wrapped around [her]” like the snake would live meat. Which, of course, the woman is—at least to a hungry snake. Sensing the struggle beside him, Bob wakes and grabs his “Swiss army knife” to take care of the snake, but instead he gets “enmeshed” in the wrestling match, though not so much that he can’t grab the phone and call for help.

    And that’s where this allegory of a poem leaves the pair: struggling for life in Lucifer’s tightening squeeze, Eve wondering “whose death” will come first, although the poem’s title is a clue as to who wins. Little matter, though, because in the end, of this poem as of life, death gets the last word (until Christ speaks up, that is).

    Death: the heritage of a world fallen away from Paradise, the proper end of that system’s decomposition. By beginning Salt with Eden’s end, Susan reminds readers of their mortality, which was made possible by the Fall, and opens the way to explore the impact of death on life and language. Salt‘s opening poem, then, is a memento mori in a poetry collection that positions itself as a preservative—salt is, after all, essential to animal life. As such, it’s pretty valuable thing to have around. Hence Christ to his disciples: You are the salt of the earth—your presence here should preserve and thus extend the principles of Life. Hence Paul to early Christians: Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt—let your language tend toward preservation of the principles of life. Hence the implication of Susan’s title: here are some words dear to me as salt. May they preserve you as they have preserved me.

    Here’s hoping.

  2. Dayna, Doves and Serpents Blog

    Last summer at Sunstone in Salt Lake City, I had the privilege of attending a special session on poetry. One of the speakers was Susan Elizabeth Howe. She spoke about the importance of creating “tension” in poetry through the use of unusual word couplings, rare imagery, and experimentation with form.

    I was not disappointed when I picked up Howe’s latest collection, Salt (Signature Books, 2013). In these poems, Howe practices what she preached at Sunstone. Each poem in this collection is a little jack-in-the-box, tightly coiled and waiting to spring.

    Take for example one of my favorite poems in the collection, “Your Luck Is About to Change.” This poem I read to anyone who came within earshot during the weeks I spent enjoying this book. Speaking of surprising imagery, I love the phrase “marriage spicy as moo-goo-gai-pan” almost as much as I love the playful menace of the last few lines describing the neighbors’ Nativity scene:

    Their four-year-old has arranged
    his whole legion of dinosaurs
    so they, too, worship the child,
    joining the cow and sheep. Or else,
    flesh lovers, they’ve come to eat
    ox and camel, Mary and Joseph,
    then savor the newborn babe.

    Howe’s poems are accessible for readers who might suffer from metrophobia (the fear or hatred of poetry; yes, it’s a real phobia!) because she writes beautifully about ordinary things. Turkeys, for example. And family trees. And, alright, petrified fetuses are not so common, but that is one of those jack-in-the-box moments readers should expect.

    Simultaneously, Howe’s poetry invites multiple readings. The first poem, which is about an escaped python squeezing the breath from its owner, dissolves in the last lines to something like a stream of consciousness where eventually even punctuation drops away:

    Will the cops get here? whose
    bones, whose flesh? whose hunger
    whose God whose muscle whose coils
    whose will whose passion whose death?

    I’m going to indulge myself and mention just one more moment where Howe’s poetry struck me like some wind-up hammer. In her poem “Trying on Charlotte Brontë’s Dress,” the speaker describes the supreme discomfort of wearing a corset or “laces” while pregnant:

    . . . Her ribs bruised
    then broke in the tightening
    corset. The fetus grew. She
    gasped, wheezed, sucked in
    her teaspoon of breath.

    I can’t even describe to you how jealous I am of that last image, “her teaspoon of breath.” I wish I’d written it.

    Howe is a master of her craft. These are seasoned, carefully-crafted pieces. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on this book as soon as you possibly can. You can purchase a copy here.

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