Devon Musgrave-Johnson and Frances Saux
“I mean we push back people. / Harder than day labor. Harder than shoving a bull / out of the cow paddock.”
Diane Seuss spoke unusual words in the Cheever Room of Finn House as she read some of her critically-acclaimed poetry for an event hosted by the Kenyon Review on Tuesday.
This particular line is from a poem entitled “People, the ghosts down in North-of-the-South aren’t see through” from Seuss’ most recent collection, Four Legged Girl — which she fondly called “four-legged freakazoid” during her reading — published by Graywolf Press last year.
The book, a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, owes its name to Myrtle Corbin, a woman born with four legs and two pelvises in 19th-century Tennessee.
In a strange twist, Four Legged Girl is split into five sections of poetry: “blossomhouse,” “blowtorch the hinges,” “lush,” “free beer” and “a period’s period.”
The Juniper Prize-winning poet is a no-nonsense reader. Her voice is loud, clear and free of poetic kitschiness. The imagery in her poetry alternated between the delicate and the grotesquely frank; the word “marigolds” popped up, but so did the word “pee” — twice, actually.
“I go to a lot of these readings, and usually I am drawn to the poetry or the writer’s story,” Bella Blofeld ’19, a Kenyon Review associate, said. “But with [Seuss], it was the way she held herself that made her so great — probably one of my favorites.”
Somehow, with poems that use phrases like “testicular bur,” Seuss reaches for truth with an honest demeanor, pondering themes of beauty and womanhood and meditating about her hometown. Seuss, currently a writer-in-residence at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, grew up by the Ohio-Michigan border, an area her writing characterizes as a sort of ghost town.
“Haunting, where I come from, is a different sort of thing,” she said.
Oftentimes when reading her poems, Seuss would stop halfway through to comment on her work.
“This is fast,” she said to the audience. “14 lines, man. You can get through that.”
She also shared some of her more recent poetry, including selections from a current work in progress that she called a memoir in sonnets.
She noted that her new material was particularly autobiographical. Writing about the self, she added, is a good way for young writers to get started.
At the end of her reading, she invited questions from the crowd. When an audience member asked about life after the recent presidential election, Seuss admitted she thought the poems she read were too naive for a world in which Donald Trump is set to become the U.S. President. In the past week, she said, she had struggled to put pen to paper, unsure of what to write in response to recent events. But she also said she thinks a commitment to language offers an escape.
When Seuss came to Kenyon Review Fellow Margaree Little’s creative writing multi-genre workshop to speak to the students, she touched on this idea of language as an escape, telling them that writing is a “power” and that they need to “use it.”