Susan M. Schultz's Aleatory Allegories
Applecross: Salt, 2000

by Janet Bowdan

        If I have a fault to find with Aleatory Allegories, it is that Susan Schultz’s use of detail is so fascinating that I get caught up in it and neglect to attend to the larger configurations this collection produces. Take the movement of an idea into an image, and the flow from one poem into another: after Schultz reports on a poll on angels which found “half of all Americans believe actual,”(“Oceanic Feeling” 5) in the next poem, she deftly twists David Letterman into Emily Dickinson, “stupid/angel tricks, inebriate godsends (quite/literally).”(“Promised Notes” 7) Or take the hunger in “Spare Ribs” for actual solutions to real and spiritual poverty: this travels from Biblical laws to prophetic caveats for writers by way of commercial schemes:

signed only to be breached
when a better offer knocks at the door
like baby Moses. Brushes with fate,
as with Tupperware salesmen,
promise containment on the layaway
plan and corkscrew a horoscope's vatic
pronouncements: “Never use your own
experience!”; “Avoid semi-colons!”;
“Grow enamored of blue cars!” (15)

Or note how Schultz starts with Magritte’s denial that representation equals the subject in “Ceci n’est pas,” immediately shifts into an association with Coleridge—“And the hunger in this mouth/that aligns self to a pleasure dome’s decree,” offers to trade “two avant-/gardists for one hegemonic/Victorian,” as if they were baseball cards, and ends up with the beginning of Berryman’s “Dream Song 14”:

…this incipience, this
late morning sipping of tea before
the day clanks into gear and I go,
philosopher mechanic, scattering
my meanings and minutes, hearing
my tail pipe drag, which isn’t one.(37)

But this collection is more than a tour de force, a show of poetic pyrotechnics lighting up obsessions from baseball to brainwaves, the natural to the national, continuously changing angles to reflect more light. (“Submit most baroque life plans/to the zoning board,” she says in “Performance Art.”) The question of representation and its intersection with the real is always linked to the problem of moral agency. Schultz asks about life as art; how, as military strategy, you are to map it, live it happily, knowing that “happily” originally meant “by chance.” (“An arbitrary happiness is elicited by/dissonance,” she says in “Promised Notes,” and in “Ceci n’est pas,” “Accidental happiness is/what there is.”) 

The logic of this world may turn on random puns, allowing us to deliberate on the fall of spiritual to market values. The book is divided into five sections. In the first, Schultz opens her quest for art into the question of her own motives: “Is it art, or real/danger that confronts me when I/leave my white house to forage/among the witnesses of this world to find another?” (“Oceanic Feeling” 6) Associations take her repeatedly to history, political maneuverings, mothers and language. The second section continues to deal with these issues, countering selfish needs to social ones, examining how things go wrong somewhere between Murphy’s Law and planned obsolescence and attempting to settle there: “This will be/my paradise, this never knowing.”(“Prone in a Rowboat” 20) The third section disturbs this, facing terrible truths that politics and media sensationalize as drama—the war in Bosnia, the existence of death row, the situation of the homeless. “I think there is/such a thing as overload of meaning,/synonymous with the suffering that we/forgive ourselves for seeing.”(“Star-gazing” 49) Schultz directs a stream of questions for Oswald about Kennedy’s death, a paranoid media frenzy commenting on how even the portrayal of justice is distorted and thwarted.(52) In “Safe Haven,” she warns, “Put off posterity: madeleine dipped/in blood triggers centuries of worse.”(54)

The fourth part of the collection is Schultz’s long poem, “Holding Patterns.” Earlier, in “Oceanic Feelings,” she discerns, “Recurrence of pattern is confinement”(5). Here, against the “old specter of benign neglect”(62) and the “history of deprivation,”(63) Schultz plots our losses, in some ways caused by what we refuse to do without:

…Call me bourgeois, I need my music
and TV flickering like candles to absorb
the days I’m oversensitive
…Once dry, we’re all sober citizens
and our livings are insured by old habits. When
they die, so do our checkbooks; homeless shelters
in the near distance, the folks we once were
looking in, pity wrought in perplexity
…But “we” are not inclusive, for
some have no basements in which to play Twister…(62)

Homelessness runs through the poem, with even (or especially) infants threatened (in real estate language) by amortization; added to this is the crossing of language zones, the insecurity of language’s impact on people: “Are we convertible?”(61) There are moments of advice, the serious mixed with the parodic: “Only adapt”(65); “Attempt no field goal before its time”; “Scan refusal for clues of recompense”(69). Recompense is in the pensive, in the ephemeral transitions of language from one field to another, across the world on email or airplanes or inside the navigation of metaphors. “Our business is to relay possibility”: “screen messages stay fixed/like visualizations meant to/effect cures by symbolism…/…image/visioned to prove poetry’s worth,/the literal healing art of/substitution and eventual/decay.”(71)

From this holding pattern, a plane above the world trying to gain an objective view of it, we land precariously: in “Performance Art,” we are still on the mission “to overfly enemy territory, taking/care to avoid friendly fire, noting/…missiles /pointed, you suspect, at your own back yard. No landscape that is not/moralized interests the inner cartographer.”(77) We come then to a series of intersections mapped by the vectors of the recurrent images, the communications, commerce, relations and games (whether baseball or mind), and in these crossings, what was neglected, unknown, unexpected as love, rises to the surface to be cared for. “Finders sweepers;/to the early bird goes the trumpet,”(98) Schultz writes in “Major Funding for Despair.” In “At Chaos Gate,” “order conceived as dry land [is]/where line-ups of cartoon heads/turn to see caravans of power trucks/drive north, where the light was, and is.”(101)

In the end, it is those details, their fascinating and intricate connections, that make us see the complexity of the real world without the flattening attempts of media spins and sound bytes, without the superficiality we can fall for in lazily desiring simple pictures, obvious solutions. Schultz’s allegories reward their reading and deserve re-reading; their attention to the world demonstrates how it is in caring for the small, chance-met things that you find what you need.

BIO: Janet Bowdan teaches at Western New England College and publishes both poetry and criticism.



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