Kalamazoo poet Diane Seuss was staying in a hotel in Portland, Maine, in April 2016 when she received a text from her editor that she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her book, Four-Legged Girl.
“I thought he was kidding,” she says. “He said, ‘Check social media.’”
She saw that he was serious. “I just flipped out. I called him immediately, and I was crying. … I don’t drink, but I got a cognac I was so flipped out.”
Seuss says she doesn’t fit the typical profile of poets who garner major acclaim. The usual suspects are younger poets from big cities on the coasts. She’s a 62-year-old, largely self-taught poet who grew up in rural southwestern Michigan and lives in a smallish Midwestern city.
But that rural Michigan upbringing provides some rich fodder for her poetry, which is filled with earthy images, inspired metaphors, astute observations and a deep sense of identification with people on the margins.
As in Four-Legged Girl, Michigan images figure prominently in Seuss’ latest collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, released in May by Graywolf Press. In the new book, Seuss mixes her observations and descriptions of paintings by artists such as Rembrandt and Rothko with the kinds of people and scenarios she has encountered in places like Niles and Edwardsburg. She also works in elements of life in places like New York City. In blending these worlds, Seuss explores issues of class and gender, who gets to be the painter and the painted, the observer and the observed, and the desire to step outside the picture frame.
In the book’s opening poem, “I Have Lived My Whole Life in a Painting Called Paradise,” rural images abound: “the milkweeds splitting at their seams emancipating their seeds,” “the gold fields / and stone silos and the fugitive cows known for escaping their borders.” But it is not a simple rural idyll that Seuss paints, for here there are also “fields of needles arranged into flowers / their sharp ends meeting at the center” and “in the air also are little gods and devils trying out their wings.”
Paradise is a complicated place in Seuss’ imagination, and not everyone longs to remain there. Near the end of the poem Seuss writes, “I am told some girls / slide their fingers over the frame and feel the air outside of it / and some even climb over the edge and plummet into whatever / is beyond it.”
The idea for the book came to Seuss after a dream. She could see the words “still life” written on the inside of her eyelids, she says, as she sweeps her hand across her face during an interview at Walnut & Park Cafe. The experience prompted her to begin researching still life paintings and she found the Rembrandt painting Still Life with Peacocks. The painting shows one bird hanging by its feet and another lying in its own blood with its feet in the air. A young girl looks in at them with her arms folded on a windowsill.
“I stumbled upon that painting, and something about it just compelled me,” Seuss says. “And now I see that it’s the perfect representation of everything that was to come: the class issues, the woman/girl outside looking in, coming in out of the dark. (But) if someone asked me to conceptualize the book before I started, I wouldn’t have had a clue. I think our subconscious is more intelligent or knowing than our consciousness.”
Love of art
Seuss’ love of art can be traced to her teenage years growing up in Niles.
She and a friend would take the South Shore train to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. “We knew nothing. We were just these hick kids who got on a train,” she says. But there they fell in love with the paintings by Mark Rothko and others. “The art, we saw, was good,” she writes. “We swallowed it down hungrily, without filter, like drinking water straight from the creek, no matter the risk, because it tasted so sweet.”
A visit to her Niles high school by late poet and longtime Kalamazoo College professor Conrad Hilberry when she was 15 and his subsequent encouragement led Seuss to attend Kalamazoo College, where she took classes with the late sculptor Marcia Wood and became an art history minor. “That’s where I really first started learning stuff about art,” she says.
The way she fell in love with art — experiencing it first and then being educated about it — is the way she says she taught creative writing at Kalamazoo College, where she worked from 1998 until her retirement in 2017. “I would set people up to discover metaphors without even naming them. Then I would tell them what a metaphor was, and then we would learn about it that way,” she says.
In working on Peacocks, Seuss says, she became obsessed with looking at art, with looking in general, with who’s doing the looking and why. She looked not only at still life paintings, whose everyday subjects interacted so well with her rural upbringing, but at portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, and abstract art.
“My eyes were hungry for paint, like I used to imagine / a horse could taste the green in its mouth / before its lips found the grass,” she writes in her poem “Memory Fed Me until It Didn’t.”
This obsession made her wonder, “Why am I so hungry to look?” She eventually realized that her father’s death when she was 7, was a big motivator “because I didn’t look at him dead.”
She explores this subject in her poem “Still Life with Turkey,” which was first published in The New Yorker: “I think I assumed that my seeing him would / make things worse for my mother, and she was all / I had. Now I can’t get enough of seeing, as if I’m paying a sort of penance for not seeing then ,“ she writes.
‘Turning the stone’
When Seuss was born in 1956 in Michigan City, Indiana, her father and mother were living in Three Oaks, Michigan. Her dad was an industrial arts teacher there who also drove a school bus and ran the district’s bus system. “My mom remembers him carrying children, during the really bad winters there, from the bus to the door,” Seuss says.
When Seuss was 3, the family moved to her mother’s hometown of Edwardsburg, where they lived next to a cemetery. Her father accepted a teaching job in Niles when Seuss was 5, and the family moved there and her parents bought their first house, “a little prefab rectangle,” where her mother still lives.
Before her father died, he became a guidance counselor.
“That was his deepest meaning,” Seuss says. “He loved his work. He loved the place. He loved his students. He loved his colleagues.”
”On his gravestone there’s a torch, and it says ‘Guidance.’ It’s like we all carried on for him. My mom became a teacher (in Niles after he died), my sister a hospice nurse that helped people die, and I was a counselor and then a teacher.”
Seuss’ father is buried in the Edwardsburg cemetery that bordered her early childhood home, and that place and her father figure prominently in her poems.
“I used to tell my students we all have about three subjects,” she says. “We keep turning the stone in our hand and discovering new facets.”
Through it all, writing
Seuss’ interest in poetry and other literature was evident early.
When her mother was attending college to become an English teacher, Seuss, then a young child, would sometimes sneak into the back of the college classrooms to listen to the lectures. She also remembers being curious about the books her mother would bring home — books of modern poetry, works by Virginia Woolf.
Seuss wrote her first poem in first grade for an assignment for Mother’s Day and began writing poetry outside of school when she was 14.
“When I started,” she says, “it was all spewing. There’s some real energy in that, in discovering how it felt to tell the truth, to run the line all over the page. But as I read more and interacted with Conrad (Hilberry), I gradually started learning about the thrill of restraint.”
She continued writing through nearly 30 years of teaching, a divorce, single parenthood, and a broken leg and shattered ankle.
“I’m proud of that — while chopping broccoli, diapering, I still managed (to write),” she says. And although college teaching often consisted of 12- to 15-hour days, it “absolutely fed” her writing, she says. “The energy of working with young people every day, having to live up to their expectations, having to read new stuff constantly to stay up to date, it forced me to stay current.”
Coming of age ‘till we croak’
Peacocks is Seuss’ fourth published poetry collection. Her first, It Blows You Hollow, was published by Western Michigan University’s New Issues Press in 1998.
“My first book didn’t come out till I was 40,” she says. “That’s often the story for women. They don’t have someone there facilitating their career, and I wouldn’t want one of those because it’s not fair to (that person).”
Seuss is currently working on a fifth collection, what she calls “a memoir in sonnets.”
Looking back on a lifetime of poetry writing, Seuss sees each of her books as representing a stage of development. “I think we continually come of age until we croak,” she says.
“My first book was more autobiographical in the traditional sense. The ‘I’ was me and less about bringing in other stuff, although there were quite a few God poems.
“By my second book (Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, winner of the Juniper Prize), I was doing more with the fluid speaker. I had learned from (Walt) Whitman that the ‘I’ in a poem isn’t necessarily the you that walks around. The minute you commit it to the page it’s an invention.”
By the time she was writing the poems in Four-Legged Girl, she says, there was “more and more space between me and the speaker. It’s a mythologized me.”
That book’s title refers to a real girl who was born with two sets of legs and two reproductive systems. As a woman, she married a doctor and had kids from both wombs. She died in her early 50s. Seuss saw a picture of her online and was taken by “just the utter uniqueness, the freakishness of her … this idea of being the only one like you.”
“The fact is we’re all like that,” Seuss says. “Hers (her uniqueness) is just more obvious. She became the metaphor for the desire for the most audacious side of yourself and the poetry that comes of that.”
That book was written during “a period of my life when I was thinking about desire and the cost of desire and about rescinding desire,” Seuss says. “The end of the book is about reconfiguring desire in my own image. One night at home I just started feeling like it’s either poetry or die. Poetry is just my everything.”
Now, says Seuss, “I’m kind of post-desire.” In Peacocks, the poem “Memory Fed Me until It Didn’t” speaks of how “the erotic charge turned off like a light switch” and was replaced by this new hunger, this new love for paint, for images.
As for the overall structure and content of Peacocks, Seuss says, “I feel like it’s more like an opera than a concert. It’s a whole thing. It has its movements. That’s why I didn’t number the sections but use pieces of the image” of the Rembrandt painting to separate the sections.
A complete image of the painting comes together before the final poem, “I Climbed out of the Painting Called Paradise.” In this poem the speaker pads “barefoot across the cold marble floor of the museum” and catches a ferry to the mainland with other escapees. A man with gold in his teeth tells her to go home to Mommy, and she realizes he was right:
“I had a mommy. A mother / and a sister. … My mother’s hair, / white like a cloud of apple blossoms. I could picture her arranging / peaches in a bowl, and I remember our house, small and gray, / and beside it a cemetery on a hillside … “
By the end of the poem, the speaker says, “I went running toward it, all of it.”
Perhaps here the “I” of the poem and the woman who wrote it do converge. Being named a Pulitzer finalist has given Seuss more recognition, more opportunities for readings, more teaching engagements elsewhere, but still she climbs out of that world and returns home to visit her mother in Niles, talk with her friends in Kalamazoo, give a reading at a local bookstore, and do what she has always done — write about what matters to her.