Self-Portraits by Susanna Lang
Susanna Lang’s Self-Portraits is one of three poetry chapbooks included in a single Delphi Series volume from Blue Lyra Press. Delphi Series Vol IX also includes the chapbooks Year of Convergence by Jennifer Grant and God of Sparrows by Christina Lovin.
Review by Albert DeGenova
I have been acquainted with and have respected Susanna Lang’s poetry for a long time. As the publisher and editor of After Hours, a journal of Chicago writing and art, I have included her work in our pages several times and Lang’s poem “Shelter” was the winning entry for After Hours’ inaugural Mary Blinn Poetry Prize. In her new chapbook, Self-Portraits, Lang presents an all-ekphrastic collection based on the work of 24 women artists across creative disciplines—painters, a sculptor, photographers, a designer, and writers. Succeeding in the true spirit of the ekphrastic poem by going beyond a description of the subject work of art (where much ekphrastic poetry begins and ends), Lang powerfully offers her reader a physical sense of the artist with her own personal reaction and acute insight. Indeed, Self-Portraits allows readers to see the inner self of the subject artist as strongly as that of the poet.
Ekphrastic poetry is a type of translation. Translating poetry effectively is an act of absorption by the translator. To absorb the words, emotions, music and intention of the poet in her original language is only the beginning; the translator must then channel the original into the poetry of a new language with visceral understanding and craft. Reading Self-Portraits I could not help but think of Susanna Lang as a translator (which she is) taking a work of art, absorbing it completely into herself, and offering us a new experience of that art through a fresh and personal re-seeing: a re-saying.
I have a longstanding habit of bending the corners on the pages of books that I read; with poetry, these are the poems in a collection that render a gut punch, poems I am moved by and will return to again. Considering this chapbook’s size, my copy of Self-Portraits has more than a few bent corners and I felt that punch with each poem. Lang has the skill of nailing endings—knowing when to stop with an image that will not be soon forgotten. This is where Lang most often lands her punches.
The first poem in Self-Portraits, “Terra Incognita,” opens with an epigraph that is a poem by the late poet Helen Degen Cohen (another Chicago poet with whom I am very familiar). Cohen writes about the act of creating: “And I’m generating. I’m generating. / oh my babies by the millions where / will you sleep?” Lang reacts, echoing the etymological meaning of “poetry”:
we make things, as if we’d suddenly remembered
their flickering images projected on the walls of a cave.
(But we never entered the cave.)
Some of these things we make
inhabit our bodies,
then learn how to breathe on their own.
Some glow in the dark, poisoning our blood;
Lang closes the poems with:
the urge to put things together like red and blue Legos,
to make something not in the instructions that came with the box.
All of the poems here stand on their own without a reference to the original art. However, understanding the references (which I was able to do with most by using Google), of course, strengthened my experience of the poems even further. This was the case with “Icarus” which is a reaction to the sculpture of a naked torso (without legs, arms, head) by Jyl Bonagura. Lang begins with the images of failed refugee crossings (first a man and then a toddler, both washed up on beaches), and imagining the torso on a beach, she asks: “What if it were // my son, nails gritty with sand and hair slicked back by the sea?” From there she moves to the Icarus legend:
________He’d wanted everything, as every boy does.
The sculptor has felt that desire,
_____________A light wind feathered his arms as he rose
Into the welcoming air, never doubting that it would carry him
home, to the arms that waited to draw him close and then
release him into the rest of his life, that expanding vista.
One of the Self-Portraits‘ poems most memorable for me is “Lost,” inspired by poet/singer/musician Patti Smith. I am honestly not sure of the ekphrastic reference. It may be the song by Smith titled “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough.” Or it may be the story of a Smith reading/performance when someone in the audience returned sentimental personal items of Smith’s that had been stolen out of her tour van years before. The gesture brought Patti Smith to tears. But here is proof of the power of Lang’s writing, the ekphrastic reference is not necessary. I found “Lost” to be haunting:
But neither the dead nor my dreams will stay with me,
and there are friends I have not seen in years.
Our lost do not come back like the cats
that walk into the next room in order to cry out
and wait for us to call. It is tempting to think
that the lost return to the places we found them:
a favorite earring into the hands of the woman
who made it, the book with its marginal notes
to the dusty corner of a second-hand bookstore.
One of the starker poems in this collection, “Self-Portrait at 80,” after painter Alice Neel, may also be one of the richest. Lang describes the artist’s self-portrait, “Yes, her breasts sag. / Her belly sits in her lap like a child.” But Lang sees the artist in the image beyond the moment of sitting, sees her leaning forward eyes on her canvas ready to paint. Viewing the actual painting online, I would not have seen life in this painting, but sadness. Now, with gratitude to Lang, the painting and poem will stay with me as a testament to the unflagging “living” in art and the artist:
Even though everyone’s gone.
Left her with this body in its chair,
The work heals and heals
until it can’t.
Susanna Lang’s chapbook, Self-Portraits, was released in October 2020 by Blue Lyra Press, and her translation of Baalbek by Nohad Salameh is forthcoming in 2021 from L’Atelier du Grand Tétras. Her third full-length collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was published in 2017 by Terrapin Books. A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in such publications as Prairie Schooner, december, Delos, The Literary Review, American Life in Poetry and The Slowdown. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, and she is now working with Souad Labbize on new translations. She lives and teaches in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com.
Albert DeGenova is an award-winning poet, editor, teacher, and blues saxophonist. He is the author of three books of poetry and three chapbooks. His most recent collection, Black Pearl, was published by Purple Flag Press in 2016. In June of 2000 he launched the literary/arts journal After Hours, for which he continues as publisher and editor. DeGenova received his MFA in Writing from Spalding University, Louisville.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.