Review of Survivors’ Picnic by Debra Bruce
In one way, Survivors’ Picnic, by Debra Bruce, is no picnic. Its tough topics include divorce, breast cancer, and an emotionally ravaged son. In the poem “Someone’s Attention,” she’s straightforward about an awkward truth: “A woman can’t elasticize her years.” In “Plunder” it’s difficult even to say “surgery’s / savagery’s smoothed over,” let alone experience it, or even imagine it, but there it is, laid flat, so that “in the interstices / between catastrophes”—also hard to say, form still matching content—“you find yourself / enjoying joy” and a “most delectable…midsummer noon.”
In another “most delectable” way, this book is a gourmet picnic, with such international delicacies as the French ballade, the Malayan pantoum, and the Persian ghazal. With couplets, tercets, quatrains, the sestina, villanelle, and even a chained haiku, Survivors’ Picnic spreads a banquet of free and formal verse on a checkered cloth of history and mythology.
For instance, the poet survives her own divorce but also celebrates Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, ex-wives of Henry VIII. And her own suffering and joy exist in the continuum of humans understanding life through myth. In “Necessary Magic,” she’s speaking to her 13-year-old son through a closed door, echoing an earlier poem, “So What,” in which there’s “music in his pounding room, / …everything / in there smashed.” In the careful ordering of poems here, “Necessary Magic” leads into “What It Leads To,” where the poet is herself 13, with her own mother vacuuming on the other side of a closed bedroom door; the young pre-poet is solitary, reading, finding her own necessary magic in books. In the poem that explores her younger self, she’s in love with Odysseus, and mythology both overwhelms and saves her: “A girl who fell in love with a stream / got bedded under a wave.” In the other, now grown up, she identifies with Achilles’ mother, who
shot from the sea and promised
to plunge the surf and rise
to the highest, most dangerous gods
to save her child.
If reality’s too hard, mythology (or magic) can get the job done.
One of my favorite poems in this book is clever, short, and poignant, and gains great power in its placement in the last third of the book while echoing a situation and actual phrase from a poem in the first third, “Between Them.” In the earlier poem, the son, still very young, sits between the parents on the couch, sensing their conflict. The later poem brings it all back, so we, the readers, re-experience what she, the mother, felt and is currently feeling.
Her Ex Sits Next to Her
It’s far too soon for her to make a joke of it,
scuttle him away with a swish of wit,
This is a love seat, isn’t it?
but too late to reach across the child-size space
between them, or look directly at his face.
If you are in the Chicago area, you can hear her read and participate in an open mic on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend at DePaul University:
Friday May 31, 2013
De Paul University
Sigma Tau Delta Reading
Arts & Letters Hall, Room 404
2315 N. Kenmore Ave.
Chicago, IL 60614