Jen Tynes on
Susan Briante's Pioneers in The Study of Motion
It is impossible for a woman to write
about love. To get it right she must slip
into the front of the taxi, palm the steering wheel,
and watch herself stride across the street,
traffic working at her skirt hem,
threads trailing from her sleeve.
-from "While the Bride, Miami Beach, 1999"
In Susan Briante's recent book from Ahsahta Press, automobiles become
touchstones for the author's ambivalences toward both motion and pioneering. While the
book's dedication – "For Mildred/ In The Pontiac Grand Prix" – strikes me as cheery,
affectionate, and life-affirming, poems in this collection often portray women's
relationship to the car, specifically looking through its windshield, as conflicted,
insulated, and dangerous. The first poem in the collection, "3rd Day of the Rainy Season,"
Mist treads down the mountain roof by roof to rest beside me.
White-tongued bougainvillea embrace a fishtail palm.
Romance plays no part.
Cuts of raw beef fill flatbeds hurling up the hill.
I sit with my legs closed, a single woman edging a plaza in Mexico.
My gaze zigzags like a taxi through this developing Tuesday.
The impression of an unrestrained and consuming "natural" landscape created in the first
two lines is not contradicted, but complicated, by the abrupt denial of the third line, only
to be literally "fleshed-out" in line four, to include an awareness of the raw economy. The
woman in lines five and six is self-conscious of both the image she creates –how do her
closed legs and her single-ness place her in the aesthetic, order, and economy of the
place?-- and her position as an observer, one who moves efficiently and impatiently. In
"7th Day of the Rainy Season," the relationship between observer and observed is
disorienting: "Between the window washer and the curb, a galaxy swirls.// Between
windshield and rag, office towers sway." In a description of a street scene that moves
between the interior and exterior, automobiles become landmarks, forces, living systems.
Briante writes, "Nutrient cycling occurs through a process similar to valet parking,"
making the latter our shared frame of reference. Wind, water, and vine reflect and
accommodate the human landscape, developing new, fierce, probably worrisome
ecosystems. The speaker becomes "the girl with the prettiest eyes," and her
uncomfortable sense of self ripples through the center of the poem, making the final
"slaps," "licks," and "slips" intimate and threatening.
Briante writes that "a seat by the window suffices to stitch the world together,"
and overall the poems seem to want to make us wary of this unification: think of
Frankenstein or a badly-tended wound. The Whitman-esque song Briante sings in
"Unquiet" feels motivated by desperation and thrown in reverse: "Vertex of the Chrysler
Building, pray for me; linemen, bartenders, muses, pray for me; crow covered highway,
sing for me; over the bridge of a Washburn 6-string, lay me; crazed molecule!" Highways
and hood ornaments become sentient, sacred, devastating: "I see the face of God flicker
in a commuter information screen above the highway." Movement becomes a neuroses or
a necessity, as the act of settlement infringes upon itself. From "Parking Space":
You find the country pricked with neon,
spread across the windshield like a centerfold,
until you smell the buckshot, watch the scout
who parts the branches with a lover's rough fingers.
As if there might be a place for us:
porch towns between the relay towers,
a folding chair just inside the garage.
Like a unified view, desire and love are identified as dangerous, examined for their need
to possess, their misappropriation of peoples, places, and cultures. In "14th Day of the
Rainy Season," the speaker "fall[s] in love with anything native ...Selfish love, anxious
love, detached love, primarily Western love." The second section of the book, which
shares the book's title, is made up of poems with titles like "The Missionary's Pupil,"
"The Archeologist's Lover," and "The Cartographer's Son" which speak to our official,
obsessive, once-removed, hierarchical, inherited, enacted relationships to place. In "The
Pornographer's Father," a body becomes a place becomes a body, its reality dependent on
metaphorical value, dependent on the viewfinder's interest. "The Groom Stripped Bare,"
which Briante identifies as "an assemblage of phrases borrowed from or inspired by
Vladmir Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale," is a history of motion and its relation to
heroic narrative in which our contemporary conflicts of place are lodged: "a handless
soldier carries a legless one," "a coyote ushers the hero through a desert." The final poem
in this section, titled "The Domestic," references both the settlement and those employed
to sustain it, who are variously alien, who observe both the literal and figurative
landscape with detail that realigns the poem's sense of fore- and background, moving
from the "traffic experiments" of Juarez to the view "beyond":
Out of bath mats and rubber cement, the grocer has a sale on brooms.
Everyone has to go sometime, blow dry the hair a little,
push, gather, enchant, save, resurrect, retch
cream the dust out of chaos.
The glistening far-off bristles, cholla wire barbed,
fields of broom corn, parking meters, the sweeping green.
The last section of the book, "How Cities Get Founded," is an ambivalent and
compromising dance, a quasi-narrative of human relationship which fidgets with notions
of and desires toward home and the road. Taxonomies comfort, but are sometimes
incorrect. Communications are binaries that throb alongside, hardening and becoming
artifacts, artifices. In "As a Series of Settlements," Briante writes, "You say: Didn't I
show you Russian thistle, organ pipe, October flush with russet sky? You say: This is
how cities are founded at the point where we refuse to go further." The book ends with a
poem that suggests a view of movement and moving landscapes from an unsettled
settlement, an uncentered center. I think it isn't too much of a spoiler to say that the book
ends with the words "in excelsis," which must I think be read as both ironic and hopeful,
a slap and a song, a woman watching herself from behind the wheel.