A Review of Susan Kelly-DeWitt's A Camellia for Judy
The poems in Susan Kelly-DeWitt's chapbook, A Camellia for Judy, are poems of grieving and redemption. They are poems of a place. They are humble poems. Kelly-DeWitt can invest nature with intense feeling, and yet not sentimentalize it. Sometimes she shows it in such brutal honesty as to be almost morbid, but the poems always end on a note of hope; they are never the condescending poems of one who feels superior.
Kelly-DeWitts's poems have been published in such places as Poetry, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, Another Chicago Magazine, and The Montserrat Review. She has studied with Sandra McPherson at U.C. Davis and with the late Denise Levertov at Stanford, as a Wallace Stegner Fellow. Her work has been anthologized, notably in Heyday Books' Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California's Great Central Valey (1996), She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and the title poem of this volume, "A Camellia for Judy," won the 1998 literary prize from Another Chicago Magazine. She deserves a shiny book from a university press, but that has not happened.
I'm glad Frith Press has brought out the few poems that are packaged in this unassuming chapbook. As if following the dictum of William Carlos Williams, "No idea but in things," Kelly-DeWitt's poems show so much in a few lines – a scene, an epiphany, a deeply felt emotion. They also share the craft and erudition, as well as the empathy and compassion, of Kelly-DeWitt's teacher Denise Levertov. Perhaps their humility comes from being rooted in a place whose time has not yet come. And that may be a good thing. They are not full of themselves.
The Sacramento Valley is popularly viewed as a literary desert, where people have poured in from other places and are rushing along freeways to get somewhere else. But Susan Kelly-DeWitt was born in Northern California and has lived in the Sacramento Valley since high school. She chronicles what is lost and preserves what abides. This is the landscape of her felt life. In their simplicity, these poems go to the heart of the place. Here, her heart opens to the people, animals and plants – some native, some immigrants – alongside the freeways, like "Egrets Along the Yolo Causeway," and under bridges, like Judy, the woman who inspired the book.
Having taught poetry to male offenders in Northern California prisons and to aspiring women artists who have often been rendered homeless fleeing the abuse of men, Kelly-DeWitt has seen individuals of both these groups wracked by alcoholism, addiction and mental illness.
In "Prison Garden," the poet contrasts a rose garden tended by prisoners with the "craft" born of the prisoners' will to survive. The prison garden has "a sculpture // built from manacles and prison rock. ..." Guards search there for homemade knives; prisoners will "craft // weapons from twist ties, paper clips, even melted plastic / garbage bags, last year someone was killed by // a newspaper spear. ..."
The poet, in focusing on clearly seen particulars, avoids sentimentality. "There's also agapanthus here—" she continues, "gazania, zauschneria, ceanothus: Drought // tolerant, xeric plants. They'll never have to pray: / Lord how I thirst in this dry place."
In the economy of her words, the enjambments and perfected line endings cascading to a surprising end, Kelly-DeWitt proves herself a careful editor of her work. Her wit detaches her enough to transform suffering. Some of her best poems are short and metaphysical, like the following:
Every year the river of fire
the fire though they know
it will consume them.
They exult in their burning
skin! This is the mystery
we were born for.
The poet may seem to anthropomorphize nature until you realize it is her own intense feeling that invests the subjects of her poem with pain and joy. Feeling life so keenly carries with it an equally keen appreciation of death. With the knowledge that everything will die comes a great love for all things.
"A Camellia for Judy," the title poem, and the longest poem in the volume, celebrates a woman who has gone uncelebrated all her life. She is a woman who has lived on river banks, among other detritus of the Sacramento, "Ticks, water striders, night feeders, rat // droppings, rat face opossums, ash / tree like Yggdrasils binding earth // to heaven and hell, earwigs, snake- / flies, skinks..." "Everywhere I go I ask, Have you seen Judy?" Which means to me that the poet is familiar with the places that Judy, with such a slender hold on sanity, might go; besides the poet, she is sought only by "A river patroller's flash- // light, badgers, wolf spiders, the itch / of vetch, white lie of the skunk, slime, // butts, grit, bum urine, owl scat, spit."
Many of the poems that lead up to this one have flowers in their titles — "My Grandmother's Lace Cap Hydrangea," "Daylilies," "Sunflowers," "Noticing the Reds in Van Gogh' Irises" — as though Kelly-DeWitt has looked at many flowers for Judy, but has decided finally that the camellia is exactly right, "...a lone camellia, a perfect double "Purity" / japonica, ruffled as Kahlo's extravagant bride // with the spirit of Judy painted invisibly on / it, like a third eye...." Some of these flower poems are ablut people in Kelly-DeWitt's own family, like her grandmother, wearing "Nothiing so dainty / as eyelet nighties / or brocade slippers," as the hydrangea that recalls her does, but a "shaved head... greased for a sixth // electroshock."
The people evoked by flowers demonstrate the poet's personal history of pain; it goes beyond pity to compassion for Judy, a woman Kelly-DeWitt likely met and befriended through her teaching, who, though beaten down by life, had a spark of artistic talent. The poet captures the uses of suffering in art.
of the fields, the birds
peck out your eyes.
Perhaps that is why
Van Gogh painted you
out of compassion.
What a pure light
he cast into your heavy
all that ragged
Although the poems may be political in that they ache for change and mourn injustice, they are not written from a political agenda. Kelly-DeWitt uses the skill of the painter in evoking redemptive beauty in a few strokes. It would have been so easy to end with "A Camellia for Judy," but one poem follows, "The Snail," a poem of grieving:
I watch his narcotic plodding
across the Great Web of Being
or this one radial of it
which happens to be my slate
walk coming alive to morning
sunlight. Last night I spent
hours staring into the agate wells
which were the eyes of the old
and sick, as if they were spirals
whirling at the center of the Great
Void. If you've been there you know
many cried out in their fright
and helplessness. I was gripped
by a spiritual paralysis. Then
I came home again. I plodded
up this very path past the beds
of flaring cosmos where the snail
is just now headed with his urges
intact. It was late and I slept
badly while the Sturgeon Moon bled
a luminescent trail across the river.
Once more, the poet moves from generalization ("The Great Web if Being") to the limited scope of her own life. At the end, the moon echoes the snail's slime, "narcotic plodding." The poet also plodded, "up this very path past the beds / of flaring cosmos."
In the end, we can see that Susan Kelly-DeWitt's small world is our world, and we are all part of "the Great Web of Being."