The Art of Narrative Finesse – The Poetry of Susan Browne

Maddona and Child with St. Anne by Caravaggio. Credit: Galleria Borghese, Rome


The Italian birds fly over the garden
where this morning I stood on sunstruck
tiles next to an olive orchard,
thinking how fortunate to land here,
eating the earth, drinking the vineyard,
traveling to Rome to a room of Caravaggios
that nearly stop me from breathing,
especially the painting where Mary,
her skin incandescent, leans out of the gloom
to help her young son try to crush the snake’s head,
his little luminous foot on top of his mother’s,
the details eerie and real as if I could touch each figure
and feel the plush of flesh, as if the serpent
could uncoil and slither out of the frame.
Later, in the taxi, the driver tells me about
the shooting—a nightclub in Florida—
and then I’m back in the garden,
mumbling a prayer although it’s only us
who can save us, as I watch the birds cross
the sky, sweeping the light into their dark wings.

Susan Browne from Catamaran, Summer, 2019

American poet Susan Browne

This poem, light and dark, sweeps me back to Rome and the Galleria Borghese. That’s where I first saw Caravaggio’s painting Madonna and Child with St. Anne. I was there with Susan Browne as part of a group that was attending a poetry retreat at the La Romita School of Art led by Kim Addonizio. What a great time we had in that retreat. Great poems, great teaching and excursions! But I especially remember early morning walks up a steep road, dodging cars, to a lookout at the top in a village aptly named San Libratore. Usually there were three or four of us most mornings including Susan.  We shared great stories of poetry and life on those 6 kilometer tromps!

Susan, poet and former full-time college teacher in the San Francisco area, is receiving a fair bit of press these days having won the 2019 Catamaran Poetry Prize for her Manuscript Just Living which is forthcoming in November. And yesterday morning her poem, Strange Ode, was published online by  the literary journal Rattle. But this is not new for her. Her work has been catching notice for a while. Her first poetry collection Buddha’s Dogs published in 2004 won a first book poetry contest adjudicated by the deeply respected American poet and essayist Edward Hirsch.

Susan’s poetry has a narrative simplicity that belies the heft her poems carry. A disarming wisdom there. In this way I think of her having a similar style (put perhaps more gentle and understated) to her older contemporaries Tony Hoagland, Thomas Lux and Billy Collins.  Her poem Chiaroscuro is such a good example of how she find ways to surprise her reader. And the importance of how she ends her poems. How her endings seem to shake up our expectations.

This poem seems simple enough. A woman in a garden thinking of her good times in Italy including a visit to a famous art gallery and a famous painting of Mary and Jesus stepping on the head of a snake. Crushing evil. But then the poem turns. The narrator is in a cab and is told about a gun massacre in the US. That active evil. And with that memory the narrator is back in the garden. But now this is no Edenic garden. This is a garden in a fallen world.

And it is at this moment an active metaphor emerges in the poem.The crushed snake as a representation of evil and darkness has not been crushed. Here the narrator makes a huge philosophical leap that suggests the divine (represented by Mary and Jesus) can’t save us. A simple narrative has become much more complex. Not just a tourist’s tale. And then that last line brings an even greater meaning to the poem. Carravagio is famous for his chiaroscuro, how he brings such light in his paintings, a light contrasted with darkness. And our world that holds light contrasted against great darkness like a nightclub shooting.But in that last line Susan, who has stated only we can save us, offers hope. The birds in the garden sweep light  into their dark wings.

Narrative that is more than just narrative. Susan’s trademark.  A simple touristy story becomes a discussion of God and the presence of evil, the futility of prayer and yet at the end light seems to sweep back into the poem, into the garden. Unexpected.

I first discovered Susan’s poetry about twelve years ago in an anthology of first experiences. her poem First Drink. What a ride:

First Drink

Valerie and I were only going to take a sip
from the bottle of tequila Jeff Hudson
had stolen from the Pierson’s garage
and hidden behind the bleachers, just one
little swig for two little tipplers
sitting on a bench, dressed for the dance,
bows in our hair, the green pool of the football field
shimmering in the sky still high
in the sky as I slammed my first taste back
which came right back up, but I wanted to know
the alchemy of alcohol, the lushness of liquor.
the buzz of booze, wanted to get drunk as a skunk,
plastered and hammered, tanked and stewed,
trashed and sloshed, bombed and blitzed,
sizzled and soused, pie-eyed and plowed,
it was my birthright, my bloodline, my DNA,
so with the strength of generations, I kept it down,
I said to my friend, “Let’s have another,”
and we passed the bottle around until
the field was drained and the sun was blind,
the worm turned white and the seraphs arrived,
each with three pairs of wings, then four then five,
swinging and singing and flying
us so far out of our minds our bodies levitated
and finally landed in our respective backyards.
I lay on a chaise lounge, bow tilted, head toppled
toward the vomit while Mother yelled,
Who the hell did this? And I didn’t say
I did it myself, it was awfully fun.
The next day I stood at the fridge
with an unquenchable thirst,
I would do it again,
I would have another and another,
I had not learned my lesson,
it had just begun.

Susan Browne from Never Before – Poems About First Experiences, Laure-Anne Bosselaur, ed, New York City, Four Way Books, 2004

So much to like in Susan’s poem. Its narrative drive. This mimicry of getting high through it use of language and its musical sounds. And the dizzy-making momentum of twenty five lines without a stop! That huge first sentence that rushes on and then slams to a stop as abrupt as the end of the girls’ high! The narrator close to passed out in her vomit. And then the surprise of the ending. Instead of the experience scaring off the narrator it is the beginning of a love affair with alcohol. And perhaps, addiction. Scary. A poem of a first drink that seem to start as harmless fun turns darker. Leaves us with the dark possibility of addiction.

When I told Susan about my work with men and women in recovery and that I had used her poem First Drink in my poetry therapy sessions, she suggested I might want to look at this next poem. I did. And it is now a poem I use in my work.


O those four long years of being stoned
and parting my hair down the middle

and stitching the armhole of my tie-tied dress
onto my lap in Home Ec. And the excitement

of a real date, besides trying opium with Bob and Jeff
on the railroad tracks behind the school:

rich lane took me to see “2001, A Space Odyssey.”
We smoked a joint laced with horse tranquilizers

on the way to San Francisco, and during the movie,
I went to the restroom, and it was so interesting—

all those faucets—but how to get out, I mean,
which door? Later, Rich parked on a hill

overlooking the lights of the oil refinery and put my hand
on his penis—it felt like cement—and I yanked

the car door open and fell out, and he said, Come on,
you’ve touched a penis before, and I started walking,

Rich cruising along, his head stuck out the window, yelling, Get in
your mother will kill me, but I walked the five miles home,

and my mother asked, Is that a twig in your hair?
Do you want to end up like Janey Miller? She had to go to Japan.

But you won’t go to Japan, Missy, you’ll go to a nunnery!
Grounded for two weeks, I still managed to take amphetamines and mescaline

and smoke hash during lunch, and learn about rocks—
O igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary—and the periodic chart,

and how many senators and congressmen and assassinated
Kennedy’s and civil rights leaders and napalmed children

can dance on the head of a pin, and a galaxy slung on a string,
hanging from thumbtacks on the ceiling.

I wanted to go to Saturn, sit on one of its rings,
think things through. I felt old and weary,

my mind like a ball of yarn unravelling under the desks,
until one summer day after I’d graduated.

Slumped in the car in the Foster’s Freeze parking lot
with an LSD hangover, I looked out the windshield

at balloons and little plastic flags, their sharp clear
colour—red, white and blue—was it the Fourth of July?

O I had lost track of time, and who I was,
I wanted to keep her alive. I sat up.

There was a tree, the leaves moving slightly,
just a tree and leaves, and that was enough.

Susan Browne, from Buddha Dog, Four Way Books, 2002

No need to say too much about this poem. It’s both funny and scary. And redemptive. The power of the poem’s ending:

O I had lost track of time, and who I was,
I wanted to keep her alive. I sat up.

There was a tree, the leaves moving slightly,
just a tree and leaves, and that was enough.

What a way to end the poem. A tree, the leaves moving. The narrator back in her body. Back in her life.  The hope in this poem. Why I use it in my work with men and women in recovery!

To hear a recent interview with Susan and Dion O’Reilly (featured in a previous blog post and a finalist for the 2019 Catamaran poetry prize)
please click here.


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