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March 11, 2010

House Beneath by Susan Telfer

On Monday, I read Susan Telfer’s first collection of poetry House Beneath over two nap times, delighting in its branches and its roots (and yes, its stunning cover design too). I would describe it as “a Carol Shields novel compressed into 78 pages”, which is high praise from me– that a book of poetry could have the breadth of a novel (a statement which makes me sound a bit ignorant about poetry and overly devoted to novels, both of which are true) and one by Shields at that.

In her collection, Telfer tells the story of a daughter who is losing her mother just as she’s becoming a mother herself, who has been let-down and betrayed by her father’s addictions, who is struggling to make sense of her parents’ history as she also faces forward to construct a family of her own. The book is explicitly maternal, breasts full and leaking, babies cradled, bodies aging and changing, and ovulating. It is the maternal that makes me think of Shields, of course, but also how photography is used, and the resonance of childhood, and its quiet feminism. Lines like, “On the tangerine trampoline, I/ levitated– all the new ideas/ of the world fell into my mind like/ shooting stars…

Telfer’s poetry is eclectic– “Mercy” is a glose; “Weaning Dance” is a gorgeous villanelle; “No Satisfaction” references The Rolling Stones, Betty Friedan, a family photograph and Dr. Spock. The collection is suffused with music– made-up songs a mother sings to he children, Helen Reddy on the record player, Depeche Mode a party soundtrack, poems are haunted by pianos, one is called “Mother Fugue”, another “Brahms’ Sonata in F Minor, 1853”. Some poems are songs, others dances, and a few are dirges too.

Some of these poem are rooted in pain, some in joy, and others come from a point of quiet solace. Their rootedness is important though– these are poems that are explicitly located, in dream-haunting houses, on the very edge of a continent, in places we don’t always want to go home to (but do).

(Read Susan Telfer’s poem “Staircase“)

4 thoughts on “House Beneath by Susan Telfer”

  1. This sounds amazing: thanks for posting about it!

  2. Kerry says:

    It was the kind of book I was glad to have encountered, so I had to spread the word.

  3. Nathalie Foy says:

    The Second Child by Deborah Garrison is a wonderful collection of poems about motherhood. I’ve added White Ink to my wishlist from Demeter Press. So glad to hear that the move to save ARM has been so strong.

  4. Susan Telfer says:

    Thank you for the great review!
    And thank you, Nathalie Foy, for the book recommendation.

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