Crossing The North Sea, Susanna Roxman, Dionysia Press Ltd., 2013, 87pp. £ 7.50. $11.75
The poet and critic Susanna Roxman (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susanna_Roxman) died September 30, 2015, leaving behind a body of work we ought to mine with diligence. Her work deserves the kind of attention we too often lavish on writers who are better at working the levers of our culture than working their craft. Our obsession with money as a measure of success inclines us to neglect all too many deserving artists.
The Anglophone world is like a body out of touch with its parts. It seems at times neurologically incapable of collective introspection. We read the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books or any of the major Australian, New Zealand or Indian reviews and they seem only distantly and sometimes condescendingly aware of each other’s literary lives. The exception perhaps is North America, where because of their proximity, Canadians and Americans are aware of each other, but their relationship is marked by Canada’s struggle to preserve its identity.
This nationalistic adolescence is worn out and tedious. A shared language is an immense gift and its depths should be plumbed continually. The English language, largely because of Great Britain’s imperialist past and America’s imperialist present, is spreading exponentially. In Algeria, for example, English is now widely taught as a second language, even though France occupied the country and promulgated its language for more than a century.
Crossing the North Sea, a volume of poems that should have received a great deal more attention in the Anglophone world, reminds us of the reach of the English language. Like Arabic, it has a long history of adaptability. When English speakers like a word they embrace it without subjecting it to a decades-long customs search. The Arabs liked the words rifle and gas and saw no reason to search for Arab equivalents when rifel and gaz would do. The English liked the word hashasheen (hashish eater), and it became assassin.
Roxman is one of those Anglophone poets who knows what’s going on in the rest of the English-speaking world. She divided her time between Sweden and Scotland, crossing the North Sea, and writes about the world of fellow Anglophones, like myself, in ”foreign” countries. It’s implicit in her poetry that she would feel bereft did she not cast such a wide net.
Roxman, from the very first line of three poems selected at random, announces her intent to pierce the veil of illusion, the daily chore of the dervish:
Not a convincing name perhaps
Their posture looks martyred
We came of age when everything was over.
She dispenses with punctuation not as a matter of prosodic ideology but rather when it works:
The Lovers In Paris
still haunt that city
and i never knew
Another way of making this point is that she listens to what the poem wants to say. Her encounter with each of her poems is like an encounter with the Sidhe in a forest, respectful, attentive. She presumes the poem already has an intent, and it’s her job to walk a certain distance with it, hand in hand. She was, of course, familiar with Nordic and Celtic folklore, evidenced in her poem “Lappic Shamans”:
They left few traces,
heritage of feather and pelt,
sacrificed common speech
for spells woven in solitude.
Her poems evince a reverence for the hauntedness of our lives, a sense that perhaps we are observed more than we ourselves observe.
The popular press reveals from time to time a dogged grudge against poetry; Roxman’s interests and her way of peeling away our illusions about them, whether they’re Anna Pavlova or Adolph Hitler, suggests a reason for this grudge. Poets go to the elemental core of matters, making the press seem as if it’s beating around the bush. Miles and years of reportage tell us about Adolph Hitler, but never as aptly as her poem “Meeting Adolph Hitler.” It starts with a quote from Julian of Norwich:
“But I did not see sin. I believe it has no substance or real existence. It can be known only by the pain it causes.”
Then comes a piercing first stanza:
Many reported they found nothing there.
He appeared a no-man, no-mind, not human,
just sheer destructive force
flowing like ink at sunset
Her prosodic decisions are varied but not eccentric. She knows how to write a poem in many ways, and she negotiates with her original impulse to decide which way is appropriate. Take, for example, “The Fool, Twelfth Night.“ Here she splits the poem down the middle, nurturing a white waterfall to bear us to the pool of understanding below:
I imagine this fool as female, something
tough and casual clinging to colourful clothes.
The poems in Crossing the North Sea resemble an eventful passage, perhaps from Sweden, say, to France or, nearer, to Denmark. Roxman divided her time between Sweden and the United Kingdom, and she knew France well. She encounters rough seas and glassy calm. She is on the lookout for ice, for whales, for ships in the fog, for survivors, for flotsam and jetsam. She is standing watch, and there is underlying her working a certain etheric memory of the Viking experience.
She has no use for pretentious hornswoggling, as this lengthy title confirms: “Composed on a Cold March Evening of Extraordinary Splendour and Beauty, in Edinburgh.” The poem then proceeds in couplets:
Light squeezed from a green lemon,
moorhens marooned on their sedge-
bound islet. When the street opens
an edge of slate-blue north-western sky
rests on a mauve statement that collides
with horizontal bars, orange and slowly burning.
This is life exquisitely observed, making unbearably poignant her premature passage from our dimension. But the poems remain like encounters with the Sidhe.
—Djelloul Marbrook © Copyright 2016