The beauty and musicality of the English language cannot be overlooked in Susan Rich’s third book, The Alchemist’s Kitchen (a finalist for the Washington State Book Award and the Foreword Poetry Book of the Year). She invents new forms and reinvents the tried and true, exploring every device and tool with a keen ear and deft tongue.
Rich begins her play with form and language in the first poem, “Different Places to Pray”: “This is the way a life unfolds: decoding messages from profiteroles, / the weight of mature plums in late autumn. She’d prefer a compass / rose, a star chart, text support messages delivered from the net….” She weaves together internal rhyme and hard-hitting assonance and alliteration, stretching the mind and tongue in preparation for the hundred-page journey through Seattle; through markets and memories brimming with exotic produce and globalized cereal boxes; through the life and work of nineteenth century photographer, Myra Albert Wiggins; through lines from Lorca and Hayden; through the genocide in Srebrenica; through the history of tulips.
Rich has an incredible ability to articulate the essence of a moment or emotion in few words—especially through the use of striking similes and metaphors. In the poem, “The Never Born Comes of Age,” the slow pace of time is described as “hours / hunched like dogs no one could move.” This image alone, in the context of the poem (a mother mourning her pregnancy which ambiguously ends in “loss streaming across cow dung and thistle”), is enough to make the reader grow heavy with the speaker’s emotional burden—the heartache felt by an “almost mother.”
In “Re-Imagining My Life with Lions,” which meditates on the epigraph by Mahmoud Darwish—“There is no death, only a change of worlds”—the speaker reveals that he or she “want[s] to live another life—a poplar tree in a row / of blue pine along a cobbled road,” though it isn’t for lack of beauty in this world. The lines, “Each day unfurls, fragrant / as a botanist’s notes from the road,” are so saturated with the enduring passion one has for the world—the lingering scent, the cataloguing and acute observations—that only one sensitive to life’s ephemeral nature could articulate such a comparison. The speaker’s desire to live another life does not evoke thoughts of pity or disparity. Rather, it continues to evoke the journey.
Another of Rich’s brilliant similes is a poem in itself. Toward the end of “Homesickness,” written “after a photograph by Myra Albert Wiggins, 1901,” the reader is told that “Dutch dresses / donned in woman-made sorrow” are as “addictive as exile / from a water country / where you were never loved.” The unexpectedness of exile being highly addictive, and all that is suggested by leaving “a water country / where you were never loved”—escaping isolation, instability, remoteness, loneliness, etc.—creates a feeling of utter relief and liberation. Then one remembers that the exile is simply a simile used to express the desire for a certain type of dress. The simile, alone, takes the reader on a journey.
Readers will find themselves saying, “Yes! That’s exactly what it’s like,” to each of Rich’s carefully crafted metaphors. In “After Watching A Sky of Trumpeter Swans and Snow Geese,” the speaker describes the “March formation” of these majestic birds as “an aural sash / of silk and grace.” Their brassy calls, the ease of their “V” formation, and their winter-white feathers are captured, almost cinematically, in only seven words.
In “Curating My Death,” (which begins with an epigraph by Woody Allen: “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”) the speaker does not dwell on the idea of her death but rather desires to “order” it “as [she] would a party.” In what feels like a chant, she says, “Bring in rounds of mourners, not afraid to dance / or celebrate butter cream and layered cakes—a galaxy of frostings.” The speaker’s previously expressed desire to live another life is reiterated in the lines, “At the airport kiosk, I’ll offer up last good-byes, / to acrobats and rabbis; landscape painters / and Mt. Rainier guides—all the lives I intended to try.” The rhythm and rhyme of these lines adds to the chant-like quality, evoking all of the pleasures and desires of this life and the next.
Perhaps one of the most powerful moments in the book occurs in the third section of the poem “An Army of Ellipses Traveling Over All She Does Not Say…,” when the speaker describes a woman seated near her on the bus who “lost her bracelets, and her wrist / to the handiwork of bandits.” The ordering of bracelets before wrists adds to the sense of shock the readers experience once they realize the extent of this tragic event. The ordering serves to downplay the loss of the woman’s hand and emphasize the lure of the bracelets. The tragedy is further downplayed, almost justified by the woman (or perhaps the speaker) when she says, “I think he might have seen… / something expensive… / in the day’s broken light / three glass bangles… / taunting him like a god.” There is a sense of empathy toward the bandit—a level of understanding. How could he not be mesmerized by the possibilities, by the light, by the illusion? How could he not want to make them his own?
Though tragedy is acutely present throughout this collection, the speaker does not fish for pity. All of life’s experiences are simply life experiences. In the final poem, “Letter to the End of the Year,” the speaker says, “Lately, I’m capable of small things. / Peeling an orange. / Drawing a bath. / Throwing the cat’s tinsel ball.” This, at first, feels like an expression of sadness—of depression articulated. However, the following line turns that impression on its head: “Believe me, this is not unhappiness.” A few lines further along, this idea is brought to fruition when the speaker admits, “Though it is winter inside of me— / there is also spring and fall.” This speaker is not hopeless, is not asking for sympathy. Rather, she is simply expressing the emotions, the changes, the experiences of living and aging. In this poem, aging is, in itself, another life being lived.
While The Alchemist’s Kitchen is divided into three sections—“Incantation,” “Transcendence,” and “Song,”—all three of these elements appear throughout the entire collection. Rich lays out for her readers a banquet of gourmet food, of folk and Motown music, of tragedy and understanding, of life’s journeys. Her poems have many layers which can be enjoyed individually and as a whole. Among other qualities, readers will appreciate Rich’s fresh language, her stunningly accurate detail, and her sense of calm because of and in spite of the world. I recommend reading this book more than once, perhaps in the same sitting. Each time, something new, something surprising and true, will emerge from the pages.