The poems in Joyce Sutphen's third collection, Naming the Stars (Holy Cow! Press, 2004), ostensibly deal with love. But within that theme, a quieter, more compelling one emerges on a second or third reading: a preoccupation with distance. Sutphen's poems speak of the distance of the lover's soul from her own body, the distance of the lover from the beloved, the attempt to breach these physical and spiritual distances, and what it means to confront the distances that cannot be undone.
The geography of these poems is undoubtedly the heart. With the precision of a surveyor, Sutphen maps out the lay of this land, both its known and unknown regions, revealing a topography at once both sublimely beautiful and dangerous, a land love explores and stakes claim to. (How fitting, then, that the book resembles in its four divisions the structure of the human heart, as well.)
In the first section, the poet shows what distance does to love that has only memory to sustain it. Absence of the lover from the beloved for a prolonged period inspires forgetfulness and alienation, more often than fondness in the heart, as we've been led to believe: "In winter, you forget the colors\of flowers and the way the path felt\beneath your feet."
Just as often, however, intimacy proves to be more excruciating than both the mind and the body can endure. In the title poem, the speaker detaches herself from the moment of bliss, even as she is in it, as though the beauty were too unbearable, as though the body were not strong enough to endure the ecstasy and could rupture. She breaks away from the beloved as a way of surviving the sweetness of "her fingertips\touching his, the faint fusion\of two bodies breaking into light."
In the book's second section, Sutphen writes with irony of the difficult and unwanted distances silence creates between not only the lover and the beloved but the self and the body: "Silence, after however many years\it is not right, as if the body did not\know the dance, as if chestnut trees\had forgotten they were leaf and blossom,\as if we needed a use for anything." The eye learns through brutal scrutiny to see the real over the ideal.
Occasionally, the speaker deepens her perceptions of love, not through her own perceptions but someone else's, or whimsically, something else's: "I'd like to send a photograph to\\the moon to show her how you look from here." This voyeuristic wish to view the beloved through the moon's eyes embodies a desire to see more clearly, more objectively, and in doing so, to love more fully. Paradoxically, the speaker attains this intimacy not by drawing closer to, but by pulling farther away from, the beloved. However, the poet warns of the danger of too much distance. In one poem "the same moon (more or less) rising over\(more or less) the same world" suggests an indifferent landscape where nature does not stop to acknowledge loss or separation, does not wear mourning to announce the heart is damaged. In the end, the poet tells us this indifference too often becomes our own: "We went on living our missing lives\as if there were centuries between us."
Sutphen writes with a contrariness that embraces at once both the senselessness and the euphoria of love: "When we are\lost, then I am happy; when we\least expect it, the world comes\flowing back to us like this river." She speaks with uncompromising honesty of the quiet hell that the soul experiences when love is unrequited or relinquishedand the desire for oblivion that too often attends it. This desire to unmake the body expresses itself in the wish to fit inside a blade of grass, to become the most unobtrusive of objects: "I try to be as quiet as the grass,\clear as the empty branch against the sky." Here, the desire for effacement ultimately conceals a greater desire not for oblivion but for clarity, in which the soul achieves the transparency that leads to self-knowledge. The poet achieves this awareness in "Measuring the Distance": "I am always hungry now." Such honesty allows her to hear what was once hidden from her: "I never knew the world was so\taken up with the sound of distance." This understanding reveals a dynamic in distance that both fractures and unites: Too much distance shatters us from ourselves and others; too little distance in our intimacies and we become subsumed or destroyed. Knowing how much distance is needed and when, Sutphen seems to say, is the lifelong balance each of us must struggle to achieve.
The third and fourth sections, by far my favoriteespecially the very lyrical thirdexperiment with the sonnet. Given Joyce Sutphen's background as a Shakespearean scholar, her mastery and innovation of the sonnet form come as no surprise. In some of the most beautiful writing in the book, Sutphen translates how the distance between the past and present becomes a way of pinpointing the latitude and the longitude of where one is now in relation to what one has lost: "I looked up into the star\domed sky through the maple\roof and saw it clear:\\space was just a distance\between here and there; time\the thing between now and then,\\and I was somewhere between\body and soul, broken-hearted\and riddled with light."
This same relentless honesty pervades the poem, "What Comes After." Here, Sutphen tells us that repentance "is only one more\way of saying you would do it again." Haunting and lovely, this poem confronts the hard truths of living with loss. Sutphen never uses language as a sedative to numb us from the pain of our experience or the reality of what we are up against. The poem "In the Wake," ends with "Now that it's over, I don't know what\to make instead of a prayer. Now\the roof's gone, I can't\hear the sound of\the rain." I love the way the stanza pares itself down into the image of the rain itself, so that the poem becomes the sound not heard that comes into existence even through its absence.
The fourth movement carries the theme of distance, con amore, through to the tender finale of the closing poem. In the sonnet "In the Middle of Things," we are told that "distances do not\go away," that we must find a way to live with them. And in the stunning sonnet "Now That Anything Could Happen" the poet asks the questions that help us to confront the distances we cannot undo: "You know, now that anything can happen,\it's hard to know what will, and what will you\do now that you know? What words will you say\now that you could say anything? What hands\will you hold? Whose heart will be inside you?" She reminds us that the very impermanence and chaos of life fills love with such miraculous possibility.
These poems come full circle in their distillation of love, longing, and loss to end again with an affirmation of love in the closing sonnet "Now, Finally, A Love Song" in which "distance\hard to measure, two lives rearranged" is not dismissed but serenaded: "I know the song; I'll sing it to you." The poems in Naming the Stars close, appropriately, with a declaration of singing, because these poems transmute everyday speech into song that contains the lyric impulse of stopped time, of brevity, and elegance. Their wisdom delivers a quiet ecstasya synthesis of the language and the music of desire.
View three poems from Naming the Stars here
Joyce Sutphen is the author of Straight Out of View,
winner of the 1994 Barnard New Women Poets Prize, and
Coming Back to the Body (2000). She has won many
awards, including a Loft-McKnight Award, the Eunice
Tietjen's Memorial Award (Poetry), a Minnesota State
Arts Board Fellowship, a Salzburg Fellowship, and Travel
and Study awards from the Jerome Foundation. Currently
Associate Professor of English at Gustavus Adolphus
College in St. Peter, Minnesota, she holds degrees in
creative writing and Shakespeare from the University of