The God Thing
|Susan Millar DuMars|
Page Count: 86
Publication Date: Friday, February 15, 2013
Cover Artwork: ‘Still’ © Susan Prediger
About this Book
In The God Thing, Susan Millar DuMars writes with compassion and clarity about the terminal illness and death of a family member, and her own resulting struggle to keep faith and love alive within herself. The poems question and rage, and find unexpected moments of humour and buoyancy. DuMars looks for God in the stories of the Bible’s women; in the transcendent paintings of Matisse and the soulful images of Hopper; in the transience of cities, the memory of mountains, the freedom of water and the spilt sugar stars in the sky. An excavation of grief which unearths, if not the Divine, then hope – as necessary and fragile as our next breath.
Her writing manages to be both artful and very true…One gets the sense that here is a writer who has lived, is living, and is sharing depths of experience, generously.
The poetry of DuMars is known for its sensuality, which comes across in the concentration on detail…imagery we can almost taste and feel… writing that lingers in the mind long after the book has been closed.
Adele Ward, Eyewear
The voice is clear, sharp, vulnerable…experienced through a prism of wisdom…an enviable art.
Susan Millar DuMars treads her own tightrope with sureness and poise while avoiding showy gestures – all prayer and no pretension.
John Hudson, Markings
Susan Millar DuMars’ debut poetry collection, Big Pink Umbrella, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2008; Dreams for Breakfast appeared in 2010. Her work features in Landing Places, Dedalus’ 2010 anthology of immigrant poetry written in Ireland; and also in The Best Of Irish Poetry 2010. A fiction writer as well, she published a collection of short stories, Lights In The Distance, with Doire Press in 2010. She has been the recipient of an Arts Council Literature Bursary for her stories. Susan has performed her poetry in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK; in Athens and in Brittany; in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, Washington DC and Huntington, West Virginia; and in Geelong and Canberra, Australia. Several of her readings abroad have been sponsored by Culture Ireland. Susan teaches creative writing to adults at various academic venues; and to individuals with special needs through the Away With Words project. She and her husband, the poet Kevin Higgins, have run the acclaimed Over the Edge readings series since 2003. Susan and her husband were the subject of a documentary, Rhyming Couplet, made by Des Kilbane in 2009. Born in Philadelphia, Susan now makes her home in Galway, Ireland with Kevin and their cat, Ziggy.
Read a sample from this book
We lie together quietly
in our big boat of a bed.
His toenail, kneecap, hipbone,
the warm, wet tang of him.
The familiar soft spell
of his voice. Now that I’ve seen death,
I don’t know how anyone
can think there’s a God.
I see what he is seeing:
the final clench of jaw, the last
mute struggle, the leak of colour
starting at the hairline.
The way the lips fall open,
dumb. The nurse tucks a rolled cloth
beneath the chin to close the mouth.
We’re machines, we break down.
Nothing more. Nothing else.
I remember her body
just after – shrunk,
the skin a new skin,
cold and slack as a white sail
on a windless day.
Something had gone. Though we can’t
see the breeze, we know when
it stops blowing. Something had gone.
I only want to know what it was.
for Edward Hopper, American artist, 1882-1967
Sad, restless creature, this city –
never knows when to stop talking.
Turns the night brittle with cheap
bangles of light, the stink of gasoline,
pink cologne. Cha-cha music
braided with crap radio hiss.
Between hot pavement and hard, starless sky,
windows – rows of bright rectangles.
Framed in these,
the city’s hostages.
Sleek winged things sleeved in blunted flesh.
Each has sore feet, bowed head,
hands that reach for newspapers, keyboards,
We see them when we look up,
glimpse them in ritual,
blessing themselves by brushing their teeth,
boiling the kettle. Haloed
by laptop light, oracled
by weathermen, prayed for
by talk show hosts, tested
by alarm clocks and empty beds.
Each of God’s reflections
turning out the light.
Copyright © Susan Millar DuMars 2013
Review: The God Thing reviewed by Philip Cummin for Poetry Ireland Review (Issue 115, June 2015)
..a poet who ...asks the bigger questions - unapologetically so - in language that is direct and immediate.
DuMars celebrates the fact that she and her muse, that is, her late mother-in-law, are both captured within intimate lyrics across many of the poems collected in The God Thing.
...the exquisite The First Blue Nude...features Lydia Delectorskaya, a muse and model of Matisse's who cared for the then wheelchair-bound artist until his death.
The book finishes...on the excellent This Is How You Say Goodbye, ...; a nuanced end to a multifaceted collection.
There are few times when the idea of God is more present and confrontational than those surrounding death. In her most recent collection, Susan Millar DuMars uses these themes — death, God — as instruments to understand each other, interrogate each other, and even to accuse, comfort, and forgive each other. Written in the wake of her mother-in-law’s passing, the poems are honest interlocutors of grief, whether the narrator is watching the physical process of dying (“Near the End,” “Undiscovered”) or dealing with the difficult aftermath (“Nothing In This Life,” “Wreckage”).
Other themes that surface include the relationship between Henri Matisse and his
companion in later life, Lydia Delectorskaya. These poems in particular give Millar DuMars a chance to look at caretaking outside of her own experience, to imagine what it was like for others: “She indulged / the man who could not stand / inside the frame but only / to one side, looking.” (from “The First Blue Nude”)
The poems are strong, but the ones I find most successful are those that cleave closest to her personal experience — interpreting it, but never allowing metaphysical musings to overwhelm metaphorical expression. In “This is How You Say Goodbye,” she describes the moment when the griever can at last relinquish the grieved: “some ordinary dusk, / nothing on the telly. You leave off the lights / lie on your back, watch out the window / the gulls fly in dizzying circles, / white belly grey wing.”
For those who’ve lost someone, she seems to say, it’s the small details of life that are both the sorrow and the salve. For me, the emotional center of the book is “Learning to Swim,” a poem in three parts. In it, the narrator alternates between sessions swimming laps and an occasion when she helped her mother-in-law dress herself. In the final section, after her mother-in-law’s passing, the narrator asks herself: “What have I learned? / Don’t forget to keep breathing. / Don’t try to move water. Let the water / move you.”
In October 2010, my mother-in-law, Mary Higgins, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Mary died on May 31, 2011, in her own bedroom. It was her wish not to die in a hospital, so my husband and assorted relatives and friends, and myself, banded together to care for Mary at home.
Anyone who has cared for a terminally ill person knows that the nearness of death will reshape your life. It’s not just the rota of medications; the too-fast doctor visits; the nebuliser’s rattle and hiss. It’s also those moments when the condemned person confides that they are frightened, in pain, disgusted at what their body is becoming. It’s the times when you are away from this, trying to attend to the other parts of your life. Trying to remember the route to work, your students’ names, your ATM password. Everything outside the sick room is arbitrary, trivial. The day before Mary died, I wrote in my journal: Nothing in this life is as hard as leaving it. That eventually became the last line of a poem.
Many of the poems in my collection, The God Thing (Salmon Poetry, 2013), grew from such seed-like phrases in my journal of this time. I wrote the book between early 2010 and the end of 2012. Most of the time it felt as if I was remembering something inscribed long ago, rather than writing something new.
I was lucky enough to understand as it was happening that this mindset – the acid grief, the distance between me and the mundane workings of the world, the ability to be moved by very small moments – this wouldn’t last. So I needed to record what it felt like. I needed to record, however imperfectly, what we all went through in those eight months of reverse gestation. That long, wrenching goodbye.
The God Thing is not only about death and grief; it’s also a book about faith. A book full of questions about whether or not there is a God. I was raised to believe, but as an adult my faith in Him has taken some pretty hard knocks. I now call myself an agnostic, which is a more elegant way of saying that I haven’t got a clue. I rather suspect that there is no God; yet there is a shy, soft part of me that wants desperately to believe. I am protective of this part, because I imagine it is precisely this – this sense of humility and wonder, this wish to emphasise that which connects us rather than that which distinguishes us one from another – it is this that makes me as intellectually restless, as personally kind, as aspiring to decency as I am. At least, on a good day. That is of course less a justification of God than a justification of faith.
The God Thing owes much to the confessional poetry movement – poets such as Anne Sexton, who wrote about menstruation and masturbation, abortion and suicide. Poetry of flesh and blood, of visceral (female) experience, such as had not been seen before. For me, as poet and woman, the work of Sexton and Sylvia Plath is still deeply relevant. I’m moved by the sight of these two very troubled women taking power by seizing control of the narrative of their lives – bending and coaxing it into art. This is what I needed to do with The God Thing. I needed, in the face of suffering and death, to regain a sense of control by telling the story; to bend and coax my experience into something comprehensible, relatable.
All the more distressing, then, when (months after my book was published) another individual who was affected by Mary’s death sent me solicitor’s letters, threatening to sue me over The God Thing. The emotional toll of receiving those letters was more awful than I can convey. This individual wanted my book destroyed (that word was used) because it didn’t tell the truth as they saw it. Their own version of things remained untold, and their remedy for this was not to try to tell it – in poetry, in prose, in paint or music or choreography or by carving the damn thing in stone. Their remedy for their own silence was to try to silence me.
As a poet, for whose truth am I responsible? Only my own. That is my very hard-won conclusion. I hope the words I write can ring true, can move other people; can move past self-expression into real communication that sustains, enriches. But I can only start that process from here. From where I am.
(c) Susan Millar DuMars
Susan Millar DuMars is included in Christine Murray's Index of Women's Poets where a sample of her work can be read here>
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