Review | Eden in the Rearview Mirror, by Susan Elbe

“Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden,” Genesis tells us. Countless rivers travel through these poems as Susan Elbe tends the garden that is her life. As well, the body hides a river of blood. The mind harbors a river of memory, pulling in what it can, gathering what it wants, carrying off what it needs, discarding and changing along the way. In her first book of poems, Elbe’s rivers become metaphors for movement, for sustenance, for change. 

Eden in the Rearview Mirror begins with poems that consider the narrator’s childhood and adolescence. The first and title poem sets the tone for the book, the concept of a journey:

Evening, and the river. 
The longitudes inside you. 
. . .
Change the river,
you change too. 

As you drive and look through the rearview mirror, where you’ve been rushes past while you continue hurtling forward. Even as you progress, “You’re already gone.”

Many poems reflect a lived life, a childhood of sadness and loss, and adulthood where the narrator exchanges these losses for something like acceptance. Still the longing remains:

The woman’s head floats in water,
the soul of the water,
the water of the soul,
the water of the woman,
the woman of the water,
the woman of the soul,
the head of the woman,
the head of the soul.

While personal experience is at the center of much contemporary poetry, what sets Elbe’s poems apart is her considerable skill with words. In her hands, “The rickety blues of dusk start / to ladder up to the sky.” Children “yap joy.” A mother “leafs through racks” of clothes. “Evening, russet as an old penny, drops into our open hands.” 

Yet with all this lovely wordplay, at the heart of most of the poems, the idea of the river, if not the river itself, honors the constant journey, the relentless recollections. For example, in “now and then, the lost,” memory becomes the bridge over memory itself when:

the room turns
river with blue light

the narrow bed,
a crumbling bridge
the river, freighted with what-if  
. . .
this bridge between
night and morning,
then and now,
not so far

it takes me over

Even the poem about a young woman who apparently falls into the Rio Grande Gorge becomes a sequence of what-ifs, where the poet deliberates about other possibilities for this woman’s death, and perhaps, the possibilities for her own. Written in sequence, the first section is a narrative about how it was:

So like her, they said, to travel alone,
stop by the side of a road and run
into foreign terrain, across
landscape as unfamiliar as the moon’s,
. . .
So like her, they said, to take risks,
. . .
And like her too to leave her car unlocked

The second section’s meandering words present the girl as a chimera, an illusion, a bird, a shadow “running / toward the silver vein, / toward the deep light.” This part of the poem snakes across the page, a river of words that attempt to explain the unexplainable.

The reader is, at times, required to do a little work with unfamiliar words like “sequela,” which is an abnormal condition resulting from a previous disease, a condition for which its only remedy is to write. Or “kerning,” which means to set type, placing two letters so there is no space between them. In matters of truth and memory, there is often no space between. Elbe explains, “but now, you’ve learned / light has a price.” She writes successfully of art in ekphrastic poems; she writes in poetic sequences and different points of view. She uses anaphora, plays with the villanelle, and structures poems whose shape is organic to the poem’s content.

Elbe succeeds most in her ability to gather into words the emotions for love, for loss, for the sometimes difficult tasks of living and dying and enduring. In the poem “Scheherazade,” Elbe’s narrator watches as “Another night washes up at my feet.” She sees lightning bugs and lovers, “damaged men” in alleys, considers “the whole street, an ark / of stories asking Why? / and Why not?” She asks dark and perhaps frightening questions about her own life: 

And mine too, a story with no wedding,
no milky-mouthed children,
a few hours of abandon in warm beds,
then abandonment.
Loss and lesson, all it seems I have. 
. . .
How did I get this far
thinking goodness would save me?
Once upon a time is what saves us.  

Perhaps living in the world of words is what saves any of us engaged in the act of writing—and living.  

Susan Elbe is the author of the chapbook Light Made from Nothing (Parallel Press, 2003). Her poems appear in After Hours, Ascent, CALYX, Crab Orchard Review, MARGIE, Nimrod, The North American Review, and Passages North. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin and works as a webmaster.