Reviewed by Ryan James Wilson
Susan Sibbet’s new collection, No Easy Light, illuminates the often overlooked or undervalued struggles of the quotidian, making the most humble of events radiant and dazzling. With settings in perpetual shift, from Pearl Harbor on the day before the monumental conflict to Monet’s garden at Giverny, Sibbet’s collection displays an uncanny ability to internalize and domesticate the complexities and difficulties of the world. However, what is more significant to the collection, and indeed more powerful, is the poet’s compelling portrayal of life enduring the burden of daily existence.
Divided into four sections of approximately equal length, No Easy Light begins, appropriately, with a section entitled “This Voice.” Indicative of the tension prevalent throughout the collection, the first poem of this section, “Voice,” emphasizes the difficulty of finding peace within autonomy a la Virginia Woolf’s seminal work, A Room of One’s Own. After the title, the poem begins, “my voice / darker / struggling with light.” Certainly, the minimal language reflects the voice’s struggle to come to light, to endure that darkness which inhibits individuality, and ultimately to manifest itself. It is the acceptance of such individuality which is the light that Sibbet’s collection moves toward in Dantean fashion. The speakers in these poems, however, find no Virgil to guide them.
Rather, as in “Voice,” the speakers “make [their] own light” by passing through difficulties with suburban sprawl, feminine identity, and divided family into recognition of the paradoxical and intrinsic link between pleasure and pain, made unique to each individual by his or her experiences. This recognition is evident when Sibbet writes in “At the End, When You Speak,” the final poem of the collection: “Do not wonder at my good fortune or / my suffering; only now do I / begin to see how each contains the other...”
Understanding that the heroic, in its traditional sense, is no longer realistic, these poems offer a beautiful rendering of a life that is ordinary, that is perhaps less than expected. Indeed, despite its rich lyricism, the collection does not conclude with grandiose metaphysical revelation. Instead, its epiphany is one which embraces the tragic mediocrity of contemporary existence, stating:
I learned to live with hidden
chocolate, bread baking
in the oven, children
singing in the back seat
all the way home.
Of course, this type of recognition is uplifting, as it suggests an apex in
personal discovery, but it is also devastating in its utter simplicity. By
abolishing illusions of individual greatness, the speaker views herself clearly, but in a hard and unforgiving light.
This hard light appears throughout the collection, and manifests itself in
multifarious ways. Perhaps most interestingly, Sibbet offers several poems predicated upon “mistranslations” of authors ranging from Peruvian poet and political activist Cesar Vallejo to Italian Nobel Laureate Eugenio Montale. Appropriately, by acknowledging the imperfection in translation, poems such as “What It Will Be Like” and “The Very Thing” simultaneously suggest that mistakes can lead to beauty and that difficulty and flaw need not be eliminated or disguised in order to reach a triumphant ending, but rather that they should be accepted as necessary and inescapable parts of the progression.
Similarly, poems such as “We Dance the Blue Right Out” offer that experiences leading to intellectual insight are beautiful despite their frequent difficulty. Sibbet writes:
We dance forever under the ground
We dance our coffins down
We dance the dirt clod’s bounce, the rain
We dance the blue
right out of the
Though this passage is on one level bleak, in that the first line apparently
alludes to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and in that the final
three lines seem apocalyptic, what is paramount is the act of dancing. As the repetition of the words “We dance” builds a ritualistic quality, the poem suggests that one can find joy in meaningful experiences, such as dancing with a loved one, even in the presence of destruction. Equally bleak is the allusion in "Here": "In this still, warm air, / the heavy days like spoons of jam, / my tongue will never get used to the tickling." Obviously, these lines recall Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the titular character’s “measuring [his] life out in coffee spoons.” Still, the speaker in the poem is not completely crippled as Prufrock is. On the contrary, she finds solace in a Jamesian fashion by willing meaning into the immediate:
what we know, perhaps what matters,
is mock orange and bright acacia in spring,
small folded bloom, the secret flowers
of sweet gum in summer,
the slow winter rains.
Finally, No Easy Light is a collection focused on the internal struggle to
find identity, to find a place in the world. Covering topics such as small talk, laundry, and the process of moving, these poems dive into pools of meaninglessness and return to the surface clutching a small pearl of significance, fought for and won alone beneath oppressive waters. Of course, within these poems there is the political voice of a contemporary American woman; however, the stronger poems in the collection transcend the political realm and speak to the reader on a more personal basis. Through inventive syntax, often experimental form, and undaunted diction, No Easy Light reassigns significance to signifiers worn dull by the hurried contemporary life and reassigns value to ordinary experiences, accepting the difficult and the painful as inexorably linked to both the beautiful and the magical.