Venus in Retrograde by Susan Lilley
Burrow Press, 2019
Hardcover, 123 pages, $20.00
In his essay “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland asserts that many contemporary poets are leery of the narrative mode because such poems require commitment to development and continuity. Those holding that view, he says, are drawn to the poem that is “skittery,” that “would prefer to remain skeptical,” and that “prefers knowing to feeling.”
Susan Lilley’s collection Venus in Retrograde is an elegant example of the reasons narrative poems still deserve a place in our contemporary poetic cosmos. Her poems diligently interrogate the past while avoiding the excesses of sentimentality and self-indulgence that are often associated with narrative (“confessional”) poetry. Lilley’s poems also demonstrate that “knowing” and “feeling” are not mutually exclusive methods or goals.
In “Champagne Road,” the second poem in the book, is this couplet: “There must be an easier way to quit a house / than to touch everything in it.” Those lines encapsulate both the primary thematic concerns of the book—love, loss (and its corollary, new beginnings)—and the ways in which Lilley’s poems reach out to touch (and to clarify and animate) the “kitchen laughter, / hallway recriminations, [and] shower singing” that are the accompaniment of a life richly lived.
The book is arranged along more or less chronological lines, and some of the most endearing poems are those addressing the foibles and joys of puberty and sexual awakening. Lilley’s sure eye for the telling detail is evident in “Experienced: Jacksonville, 1967,” in which the speaker and her cousin attend a rock concert as an adjunct to church camp. In the bus on the way, a boy “stood up and burped the alphabet;” when a “boy way too old” showed an interest in the speaker at the concert, her cousin “grabbed my arm and close-mouth screamed,” and when he asked how old the speaker was, “I said, I don’t know.” And the result of these transgressions? “We had to write extra Ten Commandments / for not staying with the group.” Lilley maintains an affectionate distance from the stories the poems relate, relying on a wry tone to provide the commentary.
In a similar, if more reflective vein, is “Song for a Lost Cousin,” which nicely illustrates the ways in which these poems strike lyric notes as a complement to their narrative intent. The middle of the poem finds the girls “powdering our faces / geisha white, love potions / in the blender with nectarines / and stolen Cointreau.” And later,
Even the peacocks I love
are shadows of my first, a bird
now dead for decades, once
opulent and princely on a dirt road,
calling for love against black
storybook trees and a moon cut
from tracing paper.
The rich imagery makes implicit the importance of the experience and its indelible place in the speaker’s memory.
Lilley is a mature enough poet to have lived through the deaths of parents, and several poems focus on the circumstances of those losses. “A Man in a Hurry” chronicles the sudden death of her father, how “On the Sunday we now know was his last” “he fell / into a long moment and stayed there, / stayed no matter how we called him back.”
“Palm Court,” one of the strongest poems in the book, begins as an elegy for the speaker’s mother but expands to become a meditation on memory itself. Standing with her own daughter near her mother’s childhood home, the speaker wants “to ransack the air itself / for evidence of afternoon / piano lessons, dark braids / flying behind a rope swing, / hopscotch songs in the street.” But then comes the honest and moving truth:
But our faces are not
yet dreamed of,
here at the very place
her girl laughter might still
be trapped in the trees.
That lovely and unexpected juxtaposition of past, present, and future exemplifies just one way in which these poems often push beyond mere narrative to reach for the transcendent.
Anyone who is a Florida native, as is Lilley, or who has lived long in the state, will appreciate the elegiac allusions to mid-century Florida that appear throughout the book, the “burnt cake / perfume that citrus refineries blew,” the beach houses “at the end of two-track driveways / soft with sand and flanked by / crowds of hissing palmettos / and sea grape.” Nostalgia is an inevitable adjunct to such imagery but also there is the stamp of authenticity in it, that the reader is taken by the hand and led by a credible guide through a rich landscape that has vanished or is disappearing.
One of the greatest strengths of Susan Lilley’s poems is that they present the reader with a bifurcated subject. As the poems recall the physical and emotional landscapes through which they pass, what is also being discovered and described are the paths the self must navigate toward awareness. It is not enough for Lilley to remember and describe what happened. It is also important to discover the courage and the means to let things go. Venus in Retrograde succeeds at both tasks.
Please make sure to see Susan Lilley’s poem “Wedding Season,” included in Venus in Retrograde and previously published here in Aquifer.