The Achievement of Susan Bullock
David J. Rothman

[This beautiful appreciation of Susan Bullock as a poet and a person first appeared in the Winter-Spring 2009 issue of Literary Matters, the newsletter of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Professor Rothman. – Editor]

The task of the poet on Patmos
is to keep the miracle alive.
Susan Bullock, “On the Road to Hora,” VII

Susan Bullock left us far too soon.  When she passed away last February, many of us lost a friend, and the ALSC lost a gifted Councilor who brought a lifetime of experience to the position.  Not only was she the Director of Community Relations and Internal Communications at Pioneer Investments in Boston, she also sat on a wide range of non-profit boards, including several hospitals in developing countries, a women’s shelter in Cambridge and a Boston organization that serves children at risk.  She deeply understood how successful philanthropies work and she generously brought that knowledge to ALSC.  She was shy and had a charmingly squeaky voice, but when she contributed to board meetings people listened because she spoke with the authority of experience.  Most recognized that she probably knew as much about non-profit governance and management as anyone who has ever served ALSC.

What many did not know is that Susan was also a skilled, serious and ambitious poet.  She graduated from Wellesley in 1981, traveled widely in Europe (particularly Greece, Italy and Russia, all of which figure prominently in her poems), and subsequently studied with Joseph Brodsky.  Her poems appeared in some of the best journals (including Literary Imagination) and in 2006 she published a handsome and sturdy book, Selected Poems, with Ars Interpres Publications, a small Swedish house with an international list.

One reason many of Susan’s colleagues may not have even known about her poetry is that she rarely if ever mentioned it.  When she was with us her focus was entirely on serving the Association and enjoying the fellowship it provides.  The person was modest to a fault, yet the poetry brims with spiritual and emotional yearning and rewards sustained attention, for Susan was a committed poet of prayer, passion, pilgrimage, and revelation – or at least “patient endurance,” as she puts it in Part IV of one of her strongest sequences, “On the Road to Hora.”

Although Susan titled the book Selected Poems, she does not appear to have published any earlier books, or at least any that had a substantial distribution[1].  Instead, most of the poems seem to have been selected form her own larger works, whether published or not.  Every poem in the book is dated by year and they appear chronologically, running from 1985’s “Poem of the Gate” to the final sequence, “On the Road to Hora,” which is dated “Good Friday, 9 April 2004.”[2]

Fortitude

Bellini’s drawing of the cardinal Virtue “Fortitude”.

One fascinating feature of the book is that the illustration on the cover, a Bellini drawing of the cardinal Virtue “Fortitude” from about 1470,[3] appears in detail no fewer than five more times throughout the text, and then again in full on page 91, for a total of seven images.  Its ubiquity suggests that Selected Poems was intended as an extended emblem, one that gives a resonance to the poems that they could not possess as independent publications in journals.  The dating of the poems and the emblematic structure of the book also imply that Susan wanted her readers to think of it as a sequence, albeit a sequence that only represents a “selection” from a greater life and work.

We might as well begin with the drawing as a key to the emblem.  Bellini’s “Fortitude” depicts this Virtue as a woman fighting with a lion, literally pulling its jaws apart.  This is quite different from the typical iconography, in which Fortitude is a self-assured female warrior with a club, helmet, and shield.  The more I read Susan’s poems, the more her interest in this drawing makes sense, for much of the poetry chronicles a pilgrimage in which life again and again tests her faith with repeated and painful loss.  The book, taken as a whole, chronicles the stations of an internal life where Poetry, coupled with a Faith sustained by Fortitude, provides a measure of solace.

In Susan’s early poems, such as her first major sequence, 1985’s “Starry Heavens,” Fortitude emerges as a necessary response to devastating loss in love.  As Susan writes in the first half of Part IV:

Sweet Jesus, how to nothing breaks a heart!
Days stretch into years, years stretch into stars
So unreachable that in watching them,
Whether one divines a ladle or cart,
There are no ways out, no breakable bars,
No chariots through the black medium.

Soon, the speaker describes herself as someone “…knowing less / Of happiness than of doing without” (V).  That knowledge of “doing without” is what cries out so compellingly for a response throughout this work; this is the spiritual and emotional problem Fortitude must face.

“Starry Heavens” has twelve parts, each part divided into two stanzas of loose iambics in six lines rhyming abcabc.  The skillful play of the rhythms and rhymes (learned in part from Brodsky?) belies the intensity of the suffering from an erotic and emotional wound, “the memory of love barely crushed” (Part XI), where suicide seems like the only answer: “The only way is physical escape / From out of the room and over the sill” (Part XI).  And yet poetry intervenes, a poetry that in Susan’s work increasingly becomes a voice both pagan and Catholic.  Inspired speech, a Fortitude of faith, and poetic skill come together to make the world meaningful again, if not whole.  After despair, the penultimate stanza of “Starry Heavens” reads:

Somewhere, in some design, there’s a poet
Who is a woman and who will be heard
As emphatically as Tiresias.
She may be alone or disconsolate,
But in the scope and vision of her word
Lies a will entirely tireless. (Part XII)

Note the delicious off-rhyme of “Tiresias” / “tireless” and the punning of “entirely tireless.”  Although the poet then immediately says “I am tired,” and closes by saying that “Incurably I write my wits out, right / To starry heavens, to where I can’t reach,” still, the Fortitude takes form.  She continues to write even if “incurably.”

Susan’s subsequent work is a careful refining of this Fortitude in the face of otherwise inconsolable loss.  Again and again, in an ever more compelling idiom, she balances faith and poetry against loneliness and the silence of God.  This is the tension that gives her best work its distinctive force.   In her 1992 sequence “The Mask Poems,” she opens by asserting that “The spirit power dwells in all matter” invoking both “the strange intelligence of the soul” (Part I, “The Opening of the Mouth”) and the “inner incandescence” of poetry (Part V, “Requiem”).  The poet strives to reconcile this perceived spirit power, intelligence, and incandescence into some meaningful relation with God’s distance and silence – a difficult and painful project.  At the end of the final part, “Requiem,” she plots her response to this dilemma as “a quest” – in effect, a lifelong pilgrimage – to study how to redeem so much unfulfilled passion:

Once I wrote He had not answered my plea
Yet, initiate, passing the strait gate
And dogs, I have come to a sort of sea
With the tutelary mask, with the quest.

I take the “initiate” here to be herself, not another.  This soul has selected her own society, yet is not cloistered.  She continues to meet the masked world as best she can: in suffering but also with patience and even a fierce love.  As Susan writes in “A Wasp Stings” (1995), “The world is made up of wolves. / I give the world a kiss.”  Here as elsewhere, her poetry embodies the contradictions of faith and its frustrations.  Her response is to continue to seek a personal solace and yet also to engage the world.  Having known her a bit and watched her work with others, it seems to me that this is exactly what she achieved.

Who knew that such a gentle and generous person contained such a skilled tornado?  And yet we should not be surprised – in the end, part of her poetry’s power comes from its discretion:

The Russian amber beads around my neck
Know much about a life of discipline and effort.
There are those who will not know of my successes –
And those who will not know of my proceedings.

“The Russian Amber Beads” (1996)

This is a poetry in which an intense spiritual quest plays out in the uncertain hour before the morning.  It is not a trumpet.  At the same time, its author proceeded on an assumption of faith and served others everywhere she turned.

As this all suggests, Susan’s poetry stands in a tradition that balances Christian faith with a restrained worldliness, perhaps best exemplified in the last century by Eliot, although as far as I can tell she was a far nicer person.  Scripture, art, places, and even a few people appear, but most social details are refined away in a close focus on a personal, passionate questioning faith that seeks a silent God.  The verse is accomplished and loosens in the later work into cadences that also evoke Eliot, especially Four Quartets.  Susan even titled one sequence “The Hollow Woman,” and her tone and lyrical situations – not to mention her annotations! – evoke Eliot frequently.[4]  This is Part VII of “Patmos” (2004), the poem’s closing stanza:

I did not come to Patmos
For a revelatory experience,
But to cool a warm cheek on a rock
Riven by the voice of God,
And to escape the frenetic city,
But in Patmos lies the city –
Human culture and civilization,
The demonic and the divine,
And the truth that exhibits itself
In an ancient olive press.

The rock she refers to presumably the Holy Grotto of the Revelation, the cave on Patmos below Diana’s hilltop temple where the disciple John transcribed the Book of Revelation, but it is hard not to think of Eliot’s famous rock and its shadow.

In “Patmos” and in the following sequence, “Hora,” also set on Patmos, Susan’s pilgrimages of faith and poetry come together most powerfully.  At times she seems to be reconsidering Eliot’s fragments with a faith that is more stubborn, despite an equally silent God.  It is here, at the close of the final sequence of her book, that we find the simple sentence that serves as the epigraph to this essay: “The task of the poet on Patmos / Is to keep the miracle alive.”  Yes – isn’t that the task everywhere?  She did her part.  Her poetry is a painful, beautiful internal testimony to her spiritual and creative life, but it also helps us to understand how she lived the worldly part of her life.  It is a compelling legacy.

I have never quite understood the insistence so many seem to want to place on rigorous and verifiable separation of personal and literary life.  I suppose it has to do with money, as it seems unethical to dole out supposedly merit-based jobs and prizes based on personal relations.  We therefore seek to professionalize the poetry world order to keep corruptions of affection and vendetta out of it.  Fair enough; but isn’t this only a problem when people choose to be dishonest?  Doesn’t much of the best poetry in fact emerge from circles where poets and artists and critics – and editors and publishers and translators and scholars and teachers and readers – know each other, work together, live together, sleep together, drink together, argue together, fight like dogs, and then even occasionally kiss and make up?  I wish I had known Susan better, but the fact that I did know her a bit only enriches my understanding of her and of these poems, which I might not have discovered or appreciated in the same way otherwise.  Further, the spiritual questing in the poetry and the generosity of the life lived seem to me to fit together better than for most, and that appreciation only deepens – in fact, only becomes available – exactly because I knew her.  I reject any critical approach that would construe this relation, and a frank discussion of it, as a “problem.”  More, this sense of community, the opportunity to connect the life imagined with the life lived, seems to me to exemplify what the ALSC is all about: the creation and sustaining of a conversation where the invisible life of the imagination can breathe because it connects to life itself.  This is exactly what is perennially forgotten or obscured in many quarters, where literary study becomes a mere career and the general attitude seems to be that the devil should take the hindmost.

There might be those who would say that Susan’s quest was not successful.  Yet she did a great deal of good in the world; her company was always a pleasure; she was knowledgeable, professional, thoughtful and a very fine Councilor for ALSC; and her best poems balance a passion and grace, skill and feeling, faith and reason, life and imagination, in a way too rarely seen.  I know that I will turn to them again.

David Rothman’s poems have appeared in PoetryThe Atlantic, and The Hudson Review.  He currently teaches writing at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

 


 

[1] One of the sections of Selected Poems is titled “From ‘The Daphnis Poems.’”  The Daphnis Poems appeared from Firefly Press (Somerville, MA) in 1997, but I have been unable to locate a copy.

[2] A quick glance through the journals does show that Susan published a number of poems that she did not choose to include in Selected Poems, such as several that appeared in No. 4 & 5 of Ars Interpres (2005), a journal put out by the publishing house.  See www.arsint.com/2005/s_b_4_5.html.

[3] Fortitude is one of the four Cardinal Virtues, which derive from Plato via Ambrose, Augustine, and Aquinas.  The other three are Prudence, Justice and Temperance.  The drawing is in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

[4] The notes cite passages from scripture (Romans, Matthew Malachi, Revelation, 1 Corinthians, and Job) along with writers, books, artists, and places that appear more or less obliquely throughout the work (Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, the modern Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos, Simone Weil’s Cahiers, theological works by several scholars, Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi and references to the geography of Rome, Russian folk art, Piranesi drawings, and more).  The volume also includes indices of titles and first lines.

 

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