‘Josephine Butler: A Collection of Poetry’ by Susan H. Maurer

  • PUBLISHED BY: Phoenix Press International, 2012
  • REVIEW BY: Robert Kramer

maurer coverJosephine Butler, the 19th century English social reformer, appears in only the first poem of Susan Maurer’s new collection, but her spirit permeates the entire book. Poems of personal emotion alternate with those of social and humanitarian concerns. The two predominant forms are the anecdote and the dramatic monologue. The anecdotes generally deal with situations involving the disadvantaged and the oppressed, victims such as suffering children with dysfunctional parents, mistreated women and their brutal lovers, and abused racial minorities. The dramatic monologues are often addressed to present or past lovers, or to dear friends who have died. Maurer generally employs a plain style, colloquial, direct, and unadorned. There is little use of metaphor or simile, rhythmic patterns or rhymes. This is the urban experience filtered through a single alert consciousness with no attempt at spiritual transcendence. A strong feminist awareness is also apparent throughout the work.

Most of the poems are short but contain a powerful punch. The title poem, the first in the collection and one of the longest, begins with two seeming digressions: the initial scene captures a moment after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the “blackened flapping wings” of the shore birds, but also “a middle-aged fat person armed with soapy water,” a single, resolute, un-theatrical woman determined, perhaps hopelessly, to help. The following scene presents an anecdote with dialogue between two social workers concerning sexually abused children and their conflicted response to attempts to rescue them. This episode is followed abruptly by a brief informal biography of Josephine Butler, her struggles and her accomplishments, “covered with flour, excrement, her clothes had been torn / From her body, her face discolored with dried blood and/ She was so bruised that she could hardly move.”

Though at first glance it seems incoherent, the poem actually proceeds organically from a woman saving helpless birds from man-made disaster, to women aiding abused children, to the exemplar of Josephine Butler herself, the fierce champion of social compassion. What links the three sections is that in each case, rather unprepossessing women struggle against oppressive elements in society to rescue innocent victims.

I would like to point out some of the highlights in this volume, first several examples from the group I’ve called anecdotal. “Beak-Eats” is a concise portrait of an octopus, that fascinating and disturbing creature, a bit reminiscent of Montale’s undersea subject. There is no fat here: the first line, however, brings in another dimension beside the precise concrete presence. “The octopus is the truth.” This statement suggests the blatant immediateness of the octopus, in the manner of some truths: “…it slaps all arms down and jets up to a ledge where / it oozes, boneless, slithers. / Color shifts slide across it, motley / paling, darkening. It grabs the jar, screws off the lid and / nails the crab.” The poem is crisp and accurate, though the subject is somewhat an anomaly in this collection, since most of the poems focus on human pain and conflict.

Another anecdotal poem, “Crack,” dramatizes a scene with an abusive mother and her young son:

“Little faggot, be a man”
but he grabbed like a baby, scratched her hand,
so she threw him like Jim
threw the TV set,
cracked his head like an ostrich egg.

The stark understatement in contrast with the dreadful content adds to the emotional impact. But the poem supplies another dimension, almost in passing: “like Jim / threw the TV set.” The implication is that there is a chain of causality, of destructiveness and hurt leading to more destruction and hurt. As Jim, the husband or boyfriend, was violent with the child’s mother, so she was violent with the child, an inevitable succession recalling Greek tragedy, but in a contemporary proletarian setting. The same motif reappears in “2221,” presumably a case number:

“Mama,” he cried
She sat on the foam rubber sofa
Knowing that she’d hit him like she’d been hit.

Maurer creates powerful short memory poems, scenes specific and distinctive, yet somehow archetypal. For instance, in “Dancing Partners,” the old competitiveness returns, as the narrator, now a published author, imagines a high school reunion dance where the “guys” would persist in their male chauvinist attitudes and “take my arm decisively / signaling with your firm hand on my back / when the music began.” Nevertheless, her success enables her to say laconically: “This takes your foot off my neck.”

Another, more distressing memory poem, “Mackie Hill, Miami, Arizona,” recalls a beloved grandmother, who told the narrator: “…to each night / there was a terror.” The lines immediately following present a vivid example, in spare, unostentatious language, of male brutality:

The boys tied a donkey
In the path of the lava / slag
They dumped each night
From the copper mine
Which killed Bill

The longest and most powerful poems come almost at the end. Both first-person narratives blend childhood memories with recent experiences and reflections on love and desire. One painful scene reveals the horror of desire in a nursing home, where the narrator’s aunt lives:

The ga-ga men, tottering like windup dolls
With claw-like hands
And dead fish eyes
Who don’t cease to grab with lusty claw
Trying to impale
What they always tried to impale

Against this background, where “Passion has been an embarrassment,” the poem suddenly switches to the narrator’s present anguish:

When you took your eyes from me
You turned off the sun
You pulled the plug

The penultimate poem, “Mexico,” is a bitter dramatic monologue directed to the former lover, recording the narrator’s attempts at distraction, but ultimately returning to “Michael”:

You Michael, you tried
To reduce us to cunts
By doing one and then another
To lose the fear of looking woman in the face

I would like to conclude with mention of a quite different, but equally powerful work, “After the Volcano of Madness,” a work that captures something of the mystery left in the mind after a mental breakdown:

After one layer left another appeared as a kind of
Puzzle within a puzzle, a sort of Rubik’s cube
That you twisted eternally and another one appears as yet