City of Bears — Image courtesy Molly Sutton Kiefer

City of Bears

Poems by Molly Sutton Kiefer

The poems in Molly Sutton Kiefer’s 2013 collection City of Bears (Dancing Girl Press), are the type that make me wish I could live on poetry alone — the type that make me want to still the rush, mute the din, and blot out anything that is not the beauty of words that, once uttered, could never be anything other than what they are. The pacing is hypnotic, the cadences lilting, the tone and imagery both varied and perfectly paired. What’s more, Sutton Kiefer possesses a tremendous ability to meticulously expose the loveliness, the grief, and the magic of the everyday. Each poem reads like a distillation, a sloughing away of the trivial and a cutting through to the essence of what needs to be seen, realized, and said.

Whether detailing the metamorphosis of a moth, the bleating of baby bears (!), the identifying of wildflowers, or the love she has for those who populate her life, the speaker in these poems has clearly gained great wisdom and patience from a world with which she is in continual communion. Indeed it feels as if the subject matter of each poem has been painstakingly studied, scrutinized really, until its beauty, coaxed into existence by a diligent hand, has had no choice but to show itself.

“Pine Barrens,” the first poem in the collection, introduces the type of exploration that we see repeatedly throughout the work. States of mind, interior landscapes are mirrored in the dialogue between the body and the world that surrounds it. The fact that the poet speaks of interiority and exteriority so seamlessly and often in the same line, with little shift in poetic diction or approach, begs the question of how we are meant to distinguish between such dichotomies as animal and human, self and other, living and dead. The answer seems to be, quite simply, that we aren’t. Delineations in these poems are forever shifting, sometimes even dissolving, and the effect is a world where connection is constant, playful, intense, and joyous.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that poems that play free and loose with binaries regularly delve into such topics as conception, pregnancy, and birth. In the lovely poem “Channels,” for instance, the speaker tells us: “I find my belly swinging low / with some creature who patters around at night, / who wakes me to stretch a square of muscle, / the only one left, to prod and remind me / this again and over: it’s not yours, the body, any more.” This abandonment of ownership over one’s body is not posited as a tragic loss of self but rather as the reaffirmation of an idea present in nearly all of Sutton Kiefer’s poems: Our bodies, our lives, our loves, our worlds are never entirely our own, that is, not if we take the time to contemplate the intricate networks that inevitably result from a life carefully examined and deliberately lived.

In “Offal,” one of my personal favorites, this idea of the permeability between ourselves and the world we inhabit is illustrated when the stark and desolate lines “At trail’s head, a dead deer, pitted cave of ribs, emptied,/ blank eye. Even the dogs are no longer interested, its body / crisped and stale” are juxtaposed with the “the great howl of want” and the spotting of “the liver, ancient seat of love and violent emotion — / intact, perfect almost.” Although I want to resist placing a singular interpretation on the poem, since the poems are generous enough to allow for multiple readings, I will go so far as to say that the fact that the deer’s seemingly lifeless body still holds, cradles almost, such a symbol of hope and vitality clearly links to the desires, both thwarted and yet to be realized, of the couple who happens upon its body. What’s more, the connection between the deer and the woodland walkers is rendered deftly enough to feel logical rather than forced.

In “Prenatal Yoga” we are shown the power of alternative ways of knowing, the wisdom of a body when it is heard: “on the ultrasound screen, your knees / knobbing, pumping, breathing in and out / of the folds of uterus, as we search / for something we already know.” “Cecropia” goes a step further and poses a gentle critique of scientifically verified explanations of the natural world — explanations that, while perhaps technically “true,” fly in the face of whimsy: “She tells us the cecropia hatches from its velvet cocoon, / it will only live a week or two perhaps, / mate furiously in the small hours and die / without ever tasting the crabapple tree again. / You and I know they were never / this way, that instead, the cecropia flutter / away on paper wings, become old and weary, / know every lusty apple will bear fruit.” Indeed the poem narrates an alternative version of natural history, one that is not going to let a prosaic reality hinder the exhilarating possibility of the impossible coming to pass.

Accompanying the celebration of unauthorized wisdom that surfaces in these poems is a depth of vision that stems from the conviction that in order to say something profound, one must often dispense with spatial and temporal boundaries. In “The Light” the speaker watches a summer storm with her child and is transported back to a time before the child’s birth. Sutton Kiefer writes: “the light is gone now and all we can hear is the rhythm / of the downpour and all we can see / are flashes of the world, the flowers bearing down / from the weight of water. You were born this way — / not in a deluge, but long after, in the hush.” Love and knowledge that span all times and places, as well as different states of being, are once more depicted in the affecting “Chromosomal Geography,” in which the speaker contemplates what her loved ones will do upon her death: “You could / burn me and tip me into the Inside Passage, among / spawned salmon and the fleet feet of black bears, / flush me into the Pacific, crowd against debris. / You didn’t know me then, that honeymoon, / but you were there, your double X nestled against / other hopefuls. My body has been your map, your ruddy / grubby hands here and here.” Once more we see a mind, a love that stretches forward and backward indiscriminately without compromising its existence in the present, a voice that won’t be hemmed in by time or space or even death.

Sutton Kiefer’s poems address topics that are prominent in most of our lives. These are poems about familial devotion, finding one’s place in a larger world, trust, nurturance, and beauty. While her subject matter is “ordinary,” the poems themselves, with their tremendous heart and a beauty that is almost decimating in its power are extraordinary. Reading this collection left me feeling like a wrung sponge but also satisfied, full and warm, like a baby bear (!) whose mother has had a good day of foraging. Above all else, I felt, as I closed the book, rejuvenated by the love that exists within these poems, love that, connected as it is to every facet of the world the poet inhabits, seems truly boundless.

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.