susan peterson | a quiet poet in the village

20 12 2007
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Poetry Dispatch No. 205 | December 20, 2007

A Quiet Poet in the Village, Susan Peterson

I suspect all over America, all over the world there are men and women putting words down on paper with no desire for attention, only to say something, maybe explain themselves.

I’m always surprised by the silence in some writers. At times, seek them out. Meet them by chance, discover them in self-published books and pamphlets, in libraries and small stores, read them occasionally, poets especially who pop up in the strangest places in local newspapers. We had a great ‘local’ poet here in the county, Frances May, whose poems were sometimes printed in the Letters to the Editor section. Recently I wrote about a California woman (Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel), a poet who died last spring at the age of 88 and was first published in her 50’s, when one day she dropped a shoebox of her poems on the desk of the local newspaper editor in Tulare, California.

This is not to say that any person scratching feelings down on paper is a writer needing or deserving attention. That they’re important because of what they have to say. Though they are, first and foremost to themselves. Which is where any writer begins. To define one’s own self. All the rest is extra. Norbert Blei

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Dry by Susan Peterson

Dry Silence
My typewriter is thick with silence.
I’m cobwebs, stultified.

I imagine Rembrandt waiting it out,
his silence woven with golden light.
He waits, sighs, hums a little,
tries on hats before a dusty mirror.
Yet his fingers are still heavy
when he finally faces the paintpot,
slowly starts
the beginning of a shiny helmet
with nothing better in mind.

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I have long had a fascination too with one-book writers. Both famous for that one book—or entirely unknown. Maybe they never expected more. But you can’t be sure. And you can’t help but wonder–was that all? Was that it? Why did he/she give up? Or is the writer still writing…but only for the desk drawer?

I have always found it difficult to accept the idea that a person truly driven to write to paint, to do practice any art form, can ever throw in the towel, give up, for whatever reason, including the toughest challenge of all–pure survival. Like Mark Twain: ‘I can quit smoking whenever I want to. I’ve done it a thousand times.’

I once knew a potter in the city who had a small studio and worked hard trying to make a living with her pottery but finally reached that familiar crossroad: keep going straight ahead or take a turn. Leave the dream behind. Go out in the world and make real money — since that’s what the real world is all about. I couldn’t believe a real artist would do that. Sometimes we have more faith in another person’s art than the artist. The potter had reached a point in her art where she envisioned parts of her own body as clay, as art. I’m not sure if this was the end or a new beginning. Writers at a certain stage (hopelessness or enlightenment?) tend to lapse into silence. Or write for the anonymity of the deepest, darkest recesses of the desk drawer.

Sometimes, family or strangers find these notebooks, crumpled sheets of paper, only after the writer has left the good earth. And sometimes it matters to others, sometimes not at all, and sometimes only to one person in the immediate family. It might be said that words left behind are better than old photographs. Norbert Blei

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Somewhere a Woman by Susan Peterson

August: 4:06 P.M.

Somewhere
a woman is full of joy
holding the first red sweet
sun-hot garden tomato
in her soft palm.
And at the same time
on the beach, alone,
a bikini covered woman
is bitterly realizing
once again
his betrayal.
In someone’s backyard
a solemn girlchild
gently pins hollyhock dolls
together with thorns,
while further up the road
a farm woman muffles sobs
over yet another swelling
of her prolific belly.
In town
the old bookkeeper
thinks of nothing
as she balances the daily numbers.
A swallow slices the air.
The hot high buzz of locusts.
A fish heads for the shoals.

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What I like most about these poems of Susan Peterson from her first and only book of poems, PREPARING THE FIELDS, published in 1985, is that you know precisely where she’s writing from — the village. And when: the seasons. Being in place is important. Which always leads (if you’re mindful) to the interior.

We happen to share the same territory, Door County, Wisconsin, from somewhat different perspectives. She lives in the village of Ephraim, about 15 miles south from where I write. I rediscover my own landscape through her words in ways that make me feel even more at home. Norbert Blei

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Village Post Office by Susan Peterson

one man says
Whose dog was it, anyway?
and the postman says
No one knows…didn’t belong
to a local
but it was awful to watch
anyway, big as he was
he couldn’t break through
the thin ice…kept swimming
farther and farther away
from the ice hole.
another man says
They tried poles, nets, everything
to steer him back
but nothing worked.
They could see him always
the ice was so clear.
and the postman says
Yeah, could even see his
dog tags, they flashed
under that ice like
shiny silver cleos.

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PREPARING THE FIELDS was published by Spoon River Poetry Press (then located in Peoria, Illinois), and beautifully illustrated by her husband, the highly acclaimed, ‘local’/national artist, Charles ‘Chick’ Peterson. A simple, stapled chapbook of only 33 pages of exceptionally fine paper, this is a keepsake of a book in every way. One-of-a-kind. Precious. The cover-price on the book (twenty plus years ago) was $4. One might still be able to find a dusty copy here or there in local shops for that price, though somewhere between $10 and $12 seems a fairer today. I wouldn’t sell mine for any price.

Not too many years from now, when the rural ruggedness of this landscape will no longer be what it is, what it was when some of us arrived forty years ago, and others a hundred years before then, visitors to the county and new inhabitants might consider themselves lucky to discover ‘evidence’ of what it was that held us here–local writers and artists who gave this place voice and image–and the greater dimension of the man or woman within. Susan Peterson’s poems, her only collection of work thus far, PREPARING THE FIELDS, is one of the books that will get you there like a hand-drawn map to the heart of the place. Norbert Blei

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Seasonal Passage by Susan Peterson

one of these days
horses
will come
out of the dark woods opening,
black brown white-spotted
tossing long manes
like rivers of clouds,
trailing across
my icy autumn field
crunch of corn stubble
warm steamy snorts
in frigid air
avoiding twisted wire
entering the gate, the old
bleached wood lean-to
and it will be winter








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