across the divide poems by bernita woodruff sundquist

picture of susannah lawrence
Photograph by Christopher Little  

Opposites cohabit happily in the poems of Just Above the Bone: the wild and the civilized, sorrow and joy, intellect and sensuality. The tragic death of a beloved brother weaves its way through these poems, but so does exquisite pleasure, including even the moment of the author’s conception. Full of generosities of love, Susannah Lawrence’s poems are also uncompromising in a search for truth. “In the Eye” conjures the joy at the wild heart of a hurricane as it looks down on the devastation it has wrought. But in the realm of Just Above the Bone, the natural world can also offer refuge, as when two lovers lie in a field of mint: “Under our weight / mint’s rinsed scent released.” Reading this cornucopia of poetry will leave you more aware, more in love with all the world has to offer. Nance Van Winckel says this about the book: “Just Above the Bone is a treasure. Susannah Lawrence writes spare poems that feel miraculously full, brimming with a fresh, effusive spirit. I admire the elegance of the language here and the luminosity of the physical world. These poems teeter between the everyday and the metaphysical, often replicating that state of being in which ‘to verge’ seems a natural condition, as in ‘The bird carries the fish like a bomb under its body,’ or:
  just above the bone cover image
  Photograph by Willard Wood

What flies up at her feet —
a wing-whistle, an under mutter.
A minute, less,
and like perfume now
on her skin’s bare swell
what she wants, what she doesn’t
coming closer.”

Susannah Lawrence lives in northwestern Connecticut. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Nimrod, The Comstock Review, The Cortland Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, The MacGuffin, and Poet Lore, as well as in the anthology Where Beach Meets Ocean: Ten Years of the Block Island Poetry Project. A lifelong environmental activist, she is also the author of the two-volume The Audubon Society Field Guide to the Natural Places of the Mid-Atlantic States.


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ISBN 978-1-943826-08-7

Copyright © 2016 by Susannah Lawrence

6" x 9" paperback, 80 pages



Copyright © 2016 by Susannah Lawrence

Family Photo, 1950

No one looks now anymore
the way she does in that photo,
postwar matron silk-buttoned
to the rise of her throat,
no apologies.

I’m on her knee in white.
My father is half-business,
suit and smile.
Around them six children
in a sunny harbor, but
my brother, his face half-
turned, the left eye
hidden, violent purple-black.
A recent fight, a punch landed.

The rest of us face forward,
toward the camera and our future
selves. But what has he fixed
his gaze on and whose idea, this pose?
Peter . . . how your name disturbs,
burdened with what it holds.
Years off still: that early-hour
road. That speed. That tree.

All, at 21, to be
over . . . . It seems a sign, your turn,
as though fate gave you that shiner,
but fate’s a word too straightforward.
More than four directions come
up for grabs, even late in a day.
We make stuff up about the dead,
and it’s like rubbing brasses
in an old and empty church,
the cold smell of the stone,
everything silent save the hssh hssh
of the chalk, wearing itself away.


The Flaw in the Plan

The Canadian scientist pretends
to be crossing a frozen lake
blind to danger. The falling in

looks true. Armored in Gore-Tex,
he bobs on screen, a yellow and black
straw stuck in a slushy,

chips his words out: the cold shock . . .
don’t panic
— pilot-steady
in spite of his shudders.

That first day her scans showed
the wrong shadow it came clear
she’d only thought she thought

of her death as real. Another woman
in disguise would drop, not herself.
A minute or two and you adjust.

Here, she can feel cold
burn into her feet, hands.
Just this morning she’d heard

the lake ice crack,
groan and belch, trapped
in its own freezing.

Don’t try to pull yourself out,
he pants, slips back
in futility, make believe

you’re swimming
and kicks his legs hard, spurts
up and out like a seal,

fire-rolls to safety,
plops in again. Crazy,
she thinks. If that fails,

stretch your arms as far
as they reach,
he says and lays them down
as if abandoned until

the sleeves freeze, anchoring him
like faith. Widen the window for rescue,
you have more time than you think,

and she can foresee her arms, hands
flung toward safety, toward a fixed surface —
sleeves latching on as they should —

and everyone searching for her,
lugging rope, ladder, blanket,
in the wrong direction, to a different lake.


Careful What You Wish For

As if he had a child in mind,
the man on the dock
had set his telescope low.
So I didn’t get at first
what he wanted or why:
to look wisely into the sun,
his round face one I’d trust
on the darker side of a road,
gas station a mile off.
So when he crooked his finger,
I went close, bent under
the black cloth, fitted my eye
to the scope. The sun’s flaming stare
turned me dumb inside
the lake’s fuss of voices.
His filter narrowed to red
light’s full spectrum —
all that fusing hydrogen aimed
like something hunting for us.
Spurts and threads of flare
licked along its rim
against space-black
as if it could hear me breathing,
its pulsing fire more like ruin.


No one waited up for us; far off lights
burned for nothing we wanted.
Darkness grew out of the ground
overcoming trees, fences, roads.
Outside them for a time,
we stood like sentries posted at a border,
an abandoned crossing under a sky
without birds, without clouds.
We unguarded ourselves.
Our words became
like breathing with a cracked rib.
Everything awake in us shuddered.
The stars fell back. Your hand’s
roughness cupped me. Under our weight
mint’s rinsed scent released.
In the after-quiet, just warm, we heard
some smaller mammal
passing by, the grass unsettled.

After Hours at the Eagle’s Nest

A drunk still hangs at the bar. Behind it, Will,
just old enough to be legal, wants him gone, clears
the glasses, parks his voice in neutral, says Closing time,
thinks Old fart. He should maybe call someone to pick him up.
It’s the worst of a good job — the wrecks who can’t hold
life together without enough liquor to trash them.
He remembers that girl, the one in his brother’s class,
her hair a black lake, a girl your eyes wanted to follow,
clipped from behind by someone too wasted to know
where the edge lay, too slow to swerve. All those lives burnt,
trees lightning-struck — the girl and her scorched parents,
the driver. He offers the guy a ride. Outside, the air feels
snow coming. Under a streetlight, the drunk turns to him.
Thanks, he says and Will knows him now, remembers him,
Mr. Clark, yelling to his kid at bat, Get a piece of it, Jimmy!
remembers himself covering 1st and Will says No problem,
starts the car, lets it run a minute, the two of them
quiet in the cold, their breath clouding.


Elm is to Oriole as Oriole is . . .

Orioles along the road to Canaan,
working into the elms overhead,
into the thinner stories, horsehair, grass,
milkweed silk, twine and bast,
their wispy nest-marvels, sixty feet up: safe.
On the way to school, past Holsteins,
past fields plowed and warming — spring
new-mown and manured, a sweet stink —
past Maddow’s, the Friday night auction barn
where the cheap horses used to jig the ring
led by boys in white t-shirts, their hands
on the halter ropes close under each chin
to keep the ponies good-mannered and moving.
My mother bought a mare there once.
Sweet-mannered palomino with a foal inside her —
a runty chestnut always head-shy.
We rode them, bare legs to rough-coated bellies,
and fell off, laughing, into long grass.
I’m not sure what went first,
Maddow’s or the elms, blight wood
cut and burned with rotted planks from old coops,
fences, cold frames, sparks the fire-coal glow of orioles
spurting, fishtailing up to blackout.

And then this spring, on a river sweeping
between cottonwoods and bony sycamores,
steering through flow, I see them, orioles,
their weaving flight from tree to tree, hear
each fluted note sustained, as if holding out.

Nantucket: Sunday, August 25th, 1948

seven miles    visibility
fog lifted    from 10 a.m. steeples
brassy peels purl
tourists    a couple stands
sings together    in a sun-washed church
inside the stark white of vow
years old now

midday    white sand burns
dried kelp litters the tide line
just the two of them
in the hammered ocean beyond
the breakers off Dionis beach
their white toes poke up
they float and bump    smile
through them a rolling    like waves

later    the half-hour-before-dinner-light
the cherry wood bed    just them
salty skinned, sunrough    making
me    he brushes with his foot
sand from her toes and ankle and arch
invisible beyond their window
sharp-eyed gulls
yawp and wheel higher, higher