Review: Four-Legged Girl by Diane Seuss. 73 pp. Graywolf Press.
A child rummages through a new, perhaps forbidden place like an attic. Dangers abound: she could fall through the ceiling, or stick her toe in a rat trap, or discover something unseemly, hidden up there so that it would be forgotten. For the child, the promise of discovery is too electric to refute, so she goes forth, opening this drawer and that, hoping to find something luminously new. The poems in Diane Seuss’s most recent collection, Four-Legged Girl, follow similar impulses, as the speaker investigates memory, reopening past losses, desires, art, and beauty. Like a forbidding mother, the past tries to say no to the present, denies it agency and immediacy. Invigorated by Seuss’s imagistic and associative storytelling, the struggle to sever umbilical ties to the past reveals the subtle but profound difficulties of subsisting in the present.
Four-Legged Girl is the kind of book that teaches you how to read it as you go along. How to maneuver the language of loss, namely the loss of a father to illness, or a mother to gambling, or a lover to addiction—we enter as fully capable as the speaker; even years later, she seems as if she’s just starting to figure this out. In a poem called “People, the ghosts down in North-of-the-South aren’t see-through,” the speaker proclaims as if to an audience
They want to steal
our valuables, mess shit up, drop a match and burn
down the house. I don’t know any other way to say it,
people. They walk right into our kitchens without being invited,
tracking mud, lifting fish by the tail out of the fryer
and stuffing it in a cloth sack the color of a potato
just pulled out of the ground, and if there was a potato
pulled fresh out of the ground they’d take that too (10).
Ghosts, fixtures of the past, exact their wills on the present, levying palpably real consequences for the speaker, affected by Seuss’s use of concrete diction. They steal fish, “their pee sizzles when it hits the floor,” “they want / our whiskey, our gravy, our honey, our combs, our bees”—everything; they can control things that we can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch, manifesting for them a reality that lives out in the speaker’s physical world, in addition to her mind.
In a poem like this one, which comes early in the first section, Seuss provides us with a working definition of sorts, a primer in haunting, so that when we read a poem like “I can’t listen to music, especially ‘Lush Life,’” appearing later in the book, we naturally reflect back to earlier poems when ghosts reappear in the last stanza. This foregrounding of terms and images provides emotional context to which we can refer back as the speaker does between poems. A poem of longing, it pines for “the era of tiger lilies,” of “[frolicking] in the blue snow of an old television,” of a “death bed pomegranate,” a pastoral realm, whose flowering is subdued by her father’s cancer. The poem cannily instructs us how to find pleasure amidst grief. “Go to cemetery hill for silence” the speaker tells us,
and it’s nothing but a landscape
filled with baby grands, keys echoing
sunset, fedora on fire, my nerve endings
lit up like little trees. Hot, whiskey-scented
wind, Strayhorn wind, his woozy breath
on the back of my neck. Such a lush
lush. And the air is lush with ghosts,
standing in line, hats in hands (42).
Still roiling from the loss of her father, the speaker has learned to find pleasure within it, inventing her delight with language. She is able to lift the pall with phrases like “keys echoing sunset, fedora on fire, my nerve endings lit up like little trees,” while staring directly into the face of death itself. The electricity of Seuss’s image-making asserts the possibility of pleasure even in its inextricability from loss, and throughout this collection, the interplay of joy and mourning as sustained through Seuss’s handling of image begs the reader to ask whether or not sheer joy, or even blankness, is really possible.
The speaker’s world, upended of its familial order with her father’s death, seems alien in ways. This is reflected in the ways in which the poems move linearly, forging paths that reach far beyond their points of entry without taking so much as a quick glance back at their entries. They also forgo framing—they do not announce the subjects in their titles, or claim to know their destinations, or how they’re going to get there. The longish poem “Hub” starts out by describing a rainshade from the speaker’s childhood home
The kids on 17th St. called themselves the Dismantlers, stripping
away the canopy from the ribs and stretchers and hollowing out the wooden
shafts, filling them with gumballs and wild onions. My father was cynical
about the whole enterprise. He’d walk in the rain like his tumors were made
of sugar (13).
Though not explicitly stated, the speaker connects the vandals and her father by association, relying on their proximity to one another as a bonding agent. Narratively, they have little to do with one another, but we can’t help but compare this act of comic vandalism to her father’s neglect. The speaker is subsequently left in the hands of her mother, who “rescinded anything shelter-shaped, including the parasol flowers,” leaving the speaker to fend for herself in a reality subverted by both paternal loss and maternal abandonment. As a result, the speaker seeks shelter beneath almost anything:
gave up taxidermy and became a Jehova’s witness, some of us absconded with her
impressive collection of stuffed predatory birds, wings extended in mid-flight.
I impaled mine, a barn owl with glass eyes, on a long copper tube I found
at the shut-down pattern factory. I brandished my owl like a papal umbraculum
Whose purpose had nothing to do with weather, not shade but shadow (13).
She appears helpless here, her survival instincts stunted. Having only briefly known a stable home life, she has little idea how to build one for herself. With the copper tube in hand, she could fashion herself a shelter, or a baton. Instead, she creates the illusion of oversight through shadow, adult supervision cloaked as a morbid curiosity. At times, the strangeness in Seuss’s images verge on overshadowing the reflection at hand, but in and of themselves they demonstrate a willingness to venture into the uncanny, almost a desperation to construct meaning or beauty out of whatever is available to her.
The speaker is a fighter, and the sort of imaginative resourcefulness illustrated in a poem like “Hub” endures as she trawls the New York art scene of the late 1970s into adulthood, dragging with her all varieties of artists, junkies, and punks, who she brings to life through myriad combinations of diction. Seuss’s lines span across the page so that we get a lot of information delivered to us very quickly. Sometimes, it’s overwhelming with so many disparate parts to connect at once. In moments like these, however, we are welcome to sit back and enjoy her language simply as confection (“your skirt the color of crocus stamens and the silhouette of the witch-boot on your sideways twisted foot and your four knees” 73).
We see some familiar faces, too. The speaker acquaints herself with William S. Burroughs and Andy Warhol in the poems “It wasn’t a dream. I knew William Burroughs,” and “Warhol’s Shadows,” respectively. We see Burroughs and Warhol side-by-side, the former a slinger of pornography and dope, the latter “a column of chalk at dead center of the gallery / signing copies of Interview” (30). Seuss commemorates impact with imagery, and whereas we see Burroughs instructing her boyfriend to shoot heroin as he “sat watchfully nearby / hunched over, wearing a face / like a buzzard), she commands our attention toward Warhol’s art:
The image circled us, caped,
canvases skirting the room like the bell of a jellyfish,
iterative, alliterative, a tolling black echo
against the mopped-on yellow and aubergine, chartreuse and indigo (29).
Amidst her search for self, the speaker realizes that she cannot rely on the artists themselves to provide the way to the center. Art, however, can. Seuss shows us Warhol’s celebrity, but pictures him as a man whose existence is predicated on his art, “a column of chalk,” someone who “did his best to pretend the paintings were simply commerce, / more of the same,” but who knew “they were not the same. / There was death in them. Beneath the nacreous wig he felt it coming” (30). This realization is central to the speaker’s experience, and in the end, her devotion to art spares her from the past’s trespass into the present.
A mother may not nurture, a father may not provide, a lover may not tend, but an artist must create. After being misled, bamboozled by concerns for exteriority, the speaker detaches herself from artifice, she “lets herself go.” In the poem, “Beauty is over” she says
I like my weekends now, unengaged from what is called beauty. No luring.
Perfuming. Pondering my purple eyelids. Their fluttering. I let my hair go
rank, my body smell of body. The UPS man eyes the hair under my arms
as I sign for his heavy box of ashes. He shivers, thanks God his little wife
at home waxes herself smooth, doesn’t lumber or reek like a bear or limp
to the door like some peg-leg, some Igor (71).
By this standard, the speaker can trust very little in a world so concerned with appearances, with what seems rather than what is. “Let be be finale of seem,” Wallace Stevens writes in the “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” This is Seuss’s vision, as well, as she opens and closes her collection with homage to the late-poet Lucille Clifton, lesser known than either Burroughs or Warhol, but for Seuss, an emblem of authenticity. She writes
Oh little lamb in my red brick hometown museum, one head
gazing west, the other, east, the precious freak who lives at the heart of me
still. All of the new world leaders shall be those born with too many, too much,
the three-eyed, the four-legged, like twelve-fingered Lucille, with her bad
kidneys, bad teeth and bad breasts, her bad hair, her two-headed poetry, my
titanium leg and screws, my stretch marks and wide caesarian scar, my overt
and covert badness, my bad shoes and bare ankles, my badbadbadbad poetry (71).