Travel Notes from the River Styx


Travel Notes from the River Styx
by Susanna Lang
Terrapin Books, 2017

Cover art: Georgia by Nancy Marshall

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor

An epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” sets a tone of acceptance for Susanna Lang’s eerie travelogue here in Travel Notes from the River Styx: “We shall not cease from all our exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Even if the destination is death, we will have traveled full circle, and may find ourselves at the beginning again.

Lang sets a mood of dreamy, elegiac mystery in the opening poem, “Road Trip,” with “Carla Bruni … singing Je rêve comme je respire” on the car’s speakers as the driver follows familiar roads to arrive at a motel room peopled by her dearest ghosts. On another road trip, in “In the Rear View Mirror,” “[t]he ways of traffic are mysterious” but may in this case result from a gaper’s block related to “the gangly forms of sandhill cranes” destined “for a migration very different from our own, not chosen but / folded into their cells, the routes passed on through generations.” We see many things, real and unreal, ordinary and strange, broadcast by signage or presenting themselves as utter surprises as we travel through the poems in this marvelous book.

We go by car, on foot, by train and plane and CTA, and, of course, via memory.

               How the evening is nostalgic for the voices
               of sparrows, how the wind

               when it rises brings only dust from the road.

Those lines are from “Welcome,” the poem that welcomes us to Part II of the book, about “the difficulty of water”—drought, heat, bereft lands and hearts, floods, and troubles. The book’s title poem opens Part III, exploring the myth of the River Styx with a daughter waiting tenderly, patiently, for the boatman to take her father safely across the boundary between Life and the Underworld. However, as in dreams where, for various inexplicable reasons, the desired thing cannot happen, the father is left drifting or walking the wrong shore.

I am haunted by the poem “Gifts,” which begins, “Nothing is entirely lost, she said.” But some things are. (You can find the entire poem in the October 2015 issue of Blue Fifth Review, here.) Several of the poems contain—hold within their boundaries—a deep, restrained sadness. The sadness may be relieved by beauty, by sugary dates, by pi, an infinite number, by music or “the blue-gray / shadow” of a heron, but it is still there. It is there in red tulips at their peak, or in “the moment after, tulips / with their mouths wide open,” beginning their inevitable end.

Part IV comforts us with “the new physics that might as well be magic” in the poem “Both Here and There,” which alludes to Schrödinger’s cat and posits specific parallel lives, so a dead man can “stroll beside his healthy self // along this path that both have known so well.”

Still, plain logic returns, linear time reasserts itself alongside meandering memory, and we return to death’s “Vigil” and the relentlessness of winter in Part V. Even in “Arctic Vortex,” though, memory complicates icy reality. There seems to be a ghost possible as the poem begins:

               The rocking chair rocks.
               There is no one in the room

               and the street is empty, branches
               cracking, brittle with cold.

A little later, after a travel back in time, we move from ghost to animal:

               …. The old chair
               rocks, empty—the cat

               must have slept in its arms
               till I came in,

the speaker animating the chair with metaphor, even as she dismisses the supernatural. The arctic vortex of winter, entangled with memory, somehow restores a father who “slept in his chair” watching a volleyball game on television. Winter comes early, like anticipatory grief, in another poem, “As If I Were My Mother,” which begins:

               My mother turns eighty-six today.
               On cue, the wind blows as if winter
               has come early, first week of October
               but there is snow in the suburbs.
               People shiver and hug themselves at bus stops,
               the trees muted though not yet bare.

And then comes a beautiful merging of “this world & the Other,” in the words of Ko Un and the vision of shining yellow leaves out the window. It is fall, after all, and these leaves have not fallen. 

You can read “As If I Were My Mother” here at Escape Into Life, as well as “Traveler” and “End of the Road,” the last two poems in the book. And, indeed, you will find yourself back at the childhood home, the family home, the homeland, “the same crooked stones, / the same family names, half erased.” If you cry, it will be from love, light, salt, memory. Just remember, “All roads / lead to heaven.” 

Susanna Lang at EIL 

Susanna Lang at Terrapin Books 

Susanna Lang in ABCs of Poetry at EIL  

Susanna Lang in Mother’s Day 2017 at EIL 

Susanna Lang in Father Poems at EIL  

Susanna Lang’s “Gifts” at Blue Fifth Review 

Two of Lang’s River Styx music poems at the museum of Americana