A Review by Grace Wells for Contrary Magazine, July 2008
Merciless Self-Portrait Inspires Mercy and More
Reading 'Big Pink Umbrella', the first collection by American-living-in-Ireland Susan Millar DuMars, is rather like standing before one of those extraordinary self-portraits painted by Picasso or Orpen. There's an accumulation of information that adds up through a mélée of shards. In this one collection, this single painting, we have a sense of Millar DuMars past and present, of the symbols and recurring themes of her life, so that overall we are awed, disquieted, shaken to the roots; and then healed?
Millar DuMars is hard on herself. Her infant mewls were "inconsequential" to the "white world", she grew up "puddled" in "cold, blinking/ submarine light", in the shadow of her parents, "locked in silent combat, seething". By the time she is fourteen,
John Lennon is dead
and I hate everyone.
She's a "pale painted vampire", "kissing the world goodbye/ every night", annoyed, "to find it still there in the morning." Her parents separate and on her mother's street,
The moon sniggers.
The houses spit.
The darkness slaps.
The trees point and laugh.
She mistakes Silvia Plath's "open graves/ for cathedrals", and by twenty-nine,
Shredded by my need
for work that mattered, clothes that fit,
a face glad to see me.
She tries to die.
This process of self-portraiture is brutally honest; Millar DuMars hangs up the faulted flesh of her own self in a way that is quite merciless. We're drawn to feel empathy with her struggle and tenderness toward her being, but our ultimate response is: 'girl, you are so much more than this.' There is also the hovering question: is poetry the place? Have the borders between art and therapy become just a little too blurred? Still, this is a first collection, where it may just be permissible to get all that stuff off the chest. But in Big pink Umbrella this stuff is Picasso's grossly, exaggerated nose, it is the peculiar expression on Orpen's face, and if we're not careful as readers, it not only eclipses everything else in the painting, it also eclipses the poet's own talent as a painter.
Millar DuMars is so much more than her biography. She is a short story writer and her gift for narrative, for the way prose is pushed along by the careful arrangement of words, seeps into her poems, pushing back the boundaries of form.
Neighbours' argument echoes
down the heating duct. A door slams,
a name is called, twice.
First awake, she moves
to the window on shuddering
and parts the curtains silently
She grasps the minimalism that electrifies dialogue, and she describes ancillary characters vividly. Adjectives are her friends, like spiders she keeps them in her house, ornamenting lines, spinning up admirable structures. 'My Husband, the Great Poet' is as dear and genuine a love poem as you will read anywhere, and a fine example of the way Millar DuMars walks the tightrope strung between the House of Mirth and the Temple of Poetry-and gets it right. Her wit isn't performance, it's another aspect of Millar DuMars standing in her own strength. 'Poets are Just like Everyone Else' and 'Hampshire College Halloween' further display her somewhat suppressed, mercurial voice.
Despite these powers, Millar DuMars is still able to describe herself as "glib, useless", she wonders if she's "emitting any rays at all". Her collection ends with the poem 'Supermarket Selves' and the lines,
I can't see the universe
when I'm inside it.
All I can see
is this aisle I'm on.
and it's the wrong note, a mistake because elsewhere there is the "Wellspring Wife" "licking at foundations", biding her time, able to "shape stones/quench thirst". This is a woman who can "rearrange the sky", she just doesn't seem to know it. Someone really ought to tell her..
Reviewer Grace Wells is a British poet living in Ireland. Her poems have appeared in the Autumn 2007, Spring 2007, and Winter 2006 issues of Contrary.