Susan Kelly-DeWitt is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and the author of Gatherer’s Alphabet (Gunpowder Press, CA Poets Prize, 2022), Gravitational Tug (Main Street Rag, 2020), Spider Season (Cold River Press, 2016), The Fortunate Islands (Marick Press, 2008) and a number of previous small press collections. Her work has also appeared in many anthologies, and in print and online journals at home and abroad. She is currently a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the Northern California Book Reviewers Association and a contributing editor for Poetry Flash. For more information, please visit www.susankelly-dewitt.com.
Introduction by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
The previously unpublished poems here were written over many years—one of them almost thirty years ago and one just a few months ago.
I have always tried to include poems that address history–personal, political, social–in some way. I don’t think this has changed. The natural world and the visual image have always been important to my poetic vision and self (probably stemming in large part from growing up in Hawaii and living for several early years in a defunct artists’ colony surrounded by art and a tropical rainforest)–I’d like to think I have gotten better as an observer of those worlds.
(The above paragraph is excerpted from an online interview with me—”Becoming a Poet” by Mary Mackey, June 2017.)
I also hope that readers of my poetry feel they have seen or felt something expressed in a new way–perhaps something they have always intuited but could not articulate; that some of my poems will witness for others what they may not have been able, for various reasons, to speak about for themselves. Finally, I would like my poems, even the ones that are sad or difficult, or the ones that try to confront evil, to add to the good of the reader and the world.
(Excerpted from an interview with me by Michael Wyly for Suisun Valley Review, 2017.)
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Eight Poems
I was thinking how we all suffer
eventually, a kind of accidental
a death, a bad marriage,
debts—when I saw the old
couple waiting for the bus;
sitting on the brick edge
of an empty planter box,
the earth in it torn up,
as if someone in a rage
had pulled the flowers up
by their throats.
The woman stared off
into space absently,
as if thinking of some life
she’d lost. Her face
was heavily powdered,
a chalky scrim
for two poppy rouge
spots on her cheeks.
Her neck was in a brace;
her skull dotted its latex “i”
like a bud on a palsied stem.
The old man was turned
toward her in a half-twist,
like a landlocked diver—
his entire attention focused
on her, the only fine fish
in his sea–or, as if she was
the last magic flower,
the single most fragrant
and holy petal at the center
of his universe.
The two of them looked so
vulnerable there, as the bus pulled up
and they climbed in,
smoky leaves of exhaust
curling around them.
A mile from here two rivers meet,
two strangers talking river-talk,
befriending each other,
joining hands for the long trip home.
Those of us who live beside them
watch their water levels rise and fall.
In our dreams we hear them breathing
and the currents become exhalations.
Tonight we’ll stand along the pebbled shore
like herons and egrets, necks craned
skyward, as the wolf moon disappears
into total eclipse, blood moon.
Rain will fall, storms will blow in
but we will stand there, planted
among the cattails and willows.
We will think we are still dreaming
when the ghosts of the mothers and fathers arrive,
when they hold hands with us, singing.
after a painting by Joyce Poynter, 1993
The arrangement tilts north,
as if, in the compass
of the artist’s mind, the flowers were
seeking the Pole Star.
One generous pink zinnia
is chambered like a dried, wild
seed pod, riddled with a sunflower
heart, while the red-ringed field
daisy crowded into a corner
lifts away, a tired spirit or moon,
or a last, lost helium balloon.
It makes a target that siphons
the arrow of true vision
off, to the off-eye’s
The vase itself is swollen
Ming. (The model was dollar-store
cheap but this copy is rich
with blood-history.) Joyce painted
its white body with cobalt strokes
that mimic amoebas in milk.
A turquoise carnation
is trimmed with Mars
black fringes, a flamenco
dancer’s lacy hems–the wide
open mouth at the flower’s center
for Joyce, in memory
FEBRUARY: THE POET AS ARCHITECT
The blossoms are unfolding
a paper-thin pear and magnolia
glare against a Taj
Mahal of blue sky. A Michelangelo
inside the beehive brain, a laborer
posing as Bramante,
crawls the petal strewn
with measuring tape, chalk,
a ruler made of words
like “wire-strung sun”
like “vestibule of fogshine”
and “fly-spun spires
of redbud light.”
Some Battista Alberti of the frontal lobes
constructs a theory addressing
the architectural significance
of crows on a budding almond
limb, wants to carve them
into the inner walls along
with all the subtle tricks of color
adrift among the weeds—
with all the rhizomes of vowels
that branch, that bridge, that build
an underground dome
wears an evening gown
has feathers like a dove
closes the casket lid
over the bones of disaster
lights the lantern
switches on the light
has the beloved child’s
is a long letter written in cursive
an origami crane
a fresh sweet wind
it flutters toward us
out of the center
of the storm, perches
on a skyscraper, a billboard
a church spire–
it is both airborne and land borne
it tumbles along in the rapids
over rock, it drifts like a leaf
in the slowest currents
it has no shape
but it is a cloud of knowing
woven like the warmest sweater
on the coldest day
out of simple amazement
the moon snail on the beach
its shining hut its ice
the way the grasses on the hills
rising from the sea are dried back
to brown sticks and the fields have grown
an old man stubble
that will green again
that will come back as silks, tender
and supple—don’t forget
the young man nearby
who practices tai chi his body
a lariat a slow rippling whip
near the surf’s lip the way
he bows to the sea
at the end as we
lift the moon snail onto an invisible plate
of late sunlight as we pluck it from its place
in the amoral and fractured and timeless
universe as we dislodge it
(from Spider Season, Cold River Press, 2016)
POEM BUILT ENTIURELY OF QUESTIONS AND COUPLETS
Who wrote the expository essay of the sky? If the sun is our instructor
what grade will it give us? Who is the dean of the galaxies?
Who are the regents of black light? And what is our moon revising
with its white, reflective pen? Is it composing a love poem
or a lament? How many desert islands in the mind at seven minutes
until death? If we pry open the mouth of night will we find two rows of un-
even teeth? (Isn’t that what the old religions meant by The Devourer?)
Who will the dolphins vote for on election day? How will the sharks
cast their ballots? Will the grains of sand along the shore stand up to
be counted, the same old sly barracudas fix the results once again?
What is that tunnel of white light the fresh-from-the-dead claim to have
seen? How many watts is it at peak load and, when it burns out, who will
replace the bulb? Who booked our passage to the graveyard? Is it true
there is a border wall and we’ll be lost there without a passport?
(from Gravitational Tug, Main Street Rag Publishing, 2020)
The stars clicked on
late; I lounged aimlessly
in my room. Outside,
crazed moths were sucking
and grazing the crimped lips
of trumpet flowers.
It seemed like
everyone I knew had something
precious to give away
free for the taking.
When I lifted my face
from a book, I remembered
every happiness, every
(from Gatherer’s Alphabet, Gunpowder Press, 2022)