Beside Rivers by Susan Adams
Island Press, 2013
The poems in Susan Adams’s Beside Rivers are arranged in three sections: Awash, A Wonder, and Wander By Water. The cover blurb states ‘Susan Adams’s first book shines with imagery and clear eyed veracity …’; although many poems do shine, I’m not convinced that I found the ‘clear eyed veracity’ worked as well as the blurb suggested, nor that the imagery was always as successful as the poet intended.
From ‘River Mould’ (p.58) a poem that did shine, ‘Mist/the colour of wet/shapes the river/moves/slow as growth on bread’ and from ‘Steeling’ (p.59) is a curious image that slips underneath the literal narrative, ‘Land is an easy drown/from the collusion of waters. The onslaught is havoc/as rainfalls become/sluts to rivers.’
Many of the poems in this collection detail shared witness and human intimacies, yet often the trajectory of storylines overwhelms the reader. The potential for Adams to realise a more engaging poetic is lost within an excess of words and information. Veracity is not always the best basis for poetry. Truth in poetry should be less about facts, and more about the parts of facts that sidestep into an authentic, better imagined truth within a poem or collection.
The poems that work best in Beside Rivers shed the narrative wordiness and embrace concision, allowing transitions to resonate, for example:
Put a straw in the sea drain it to desert dump my needs. ('Emptied' p.78)
Green ink-marked fingers idle the table forgotten as first date eyes fry light between them. 'Electric Stain' p.29)
A few poems attempt to detail sex, either the act itself or the musings after. It is difficult to write sex in poetry skilfully without the poems seeming mawkish or cliché. From ‘Uvular’ (p.43):
I've got a hair on my uvular It's yours when I gave you head now it's mine I love it there
and from ‘As It Was For Me’ (p.31):
You came in the wet, satin depths of me rogue wave broadside
Further into the poem, we have ‘I ride on it – the you of it.’
I don’t wish to diminish Adams’ collection, which has much to offer a certain kind of reader, but the idea of a hair stuck on a dangly bit at the back of a throat after oral sex (and the poet enjoying that and writing a poem about it) leaves me a little flat. The rather obvious Mills & Boon-like description of ‘wet satin depths’ did not encourage me to take the journey with the poet. Sadly, quite the opposite.