The title of Susan Telfer’s first collection of poetry, House Beneath, is ripe with metaphorical possibilities. It suggests that readers will be privy to a story beneath the official story, that there is – or was – more going on than meets the public eye.
The book begins, uniquely, with a photograph of the poet’s parents circa 1964. An attractive, healthy and happy-looking pair, they “smile with their teeth.” But the book’s darker undertones are expressed in the opening poem’s final lines: “He was already learning to mix rye and soda. She was\reading in Dr. Spock to let me cry.”
In my reading, I’ve noticed that first books almost constitute a sub-genre within poetry. Often poets air childhood demons in these books; or recount adolescence; first loves and early mistakes; and, quite commonly, their relationship with their parents. The latter is the focus of Telfer’s collection. With both now deceased, she peels back the layers of family, showing us that her “famous” father – “your picture still on boardroom walls,\only man in town with a tie,\first to buy a computer,\ first house with a microwave” – became the source of much anguish as he regressed into a man who “became famous\among dealers, users and drunks,\for throwing it all away, yes,\infamous father, even your daughters,\your daughters.”
Being orphaned is a subject Telfer explores in numerous poems, but as she also demonstrates, for all intents and purposes she became “Fatherless,” long before her dad actually died. Already a mother herself, she writes: “I’m weak from chasing toddlers, my hips\still wobbly from childbirth. I can’t carry you.” The poet’s mother suffered with ALS, and we learn, in a poem simply titled “ALS,” that the woman “almost calcified into\the rock [she] wished to be.”
Pieces about the stunning west-coast setting in which she lives, the births of her children, and desire also populate this smartly-dressed collection. Telfer lives in Gibsons and teaches high school in Sechelt, BC. I adore her short poem, “Crows,” which begins: “One dark rain-sopped afternoon,\our lawn is scorched black with crows—\a smoky blanket of shine and flap.\The bare oak trees, too fool-full of hundreds\of crows. I have set my plans on fire.” Highly imagistic and original, and the poet is really paying attention to sound, as well.
Another dandy is “Fecund,” which opens (brilliantly!) with “Let the butter puddle on the blue plate:\my daughter is three days old.”
Finally, a few words about desire. It’s difficult to write about without overdoing it, and often less is more. “We had forgotten how easy joy is,” Telfer writes in “Chapman Creek,” and in “Ovulation Song”: “Follow me to the end of the deep dock,\hand in hand and hot wind, full moon over\Penticton shining its wide watery\path to us, then kiss me deep, no\Presbyterian kiss, a kiss echoing\like a long-held choir note, my cheeks humming.” Ah, good stuff.
House Beneath is published by Hagios Press. The book’s an interesting read for anyone who harbours ghosts in their past, and don’t we one and all?
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