Astonished to Wake. Julie Suk. Jacar Press. Durham, North Carolina. 2016.
"Only the dead have the last say", this is a line from Julie Suk's poem "Vacancies" and it jumped right off the page and slapped me across the face. Suk is right.
But then she turns around and pleads a convincing case for the living in her beautifully sad Astonished To Wake. Today's book of poetry was entranced by this collection early on. The poems are good from the start and form a steady, striding beat, Suk never drops a note. Suk is leading with her well worn heart.
There are ghosts in Astonished To Wake and they haunt these pages like a tremor but Suk has found a way to make their sad dirges not only palatable but intriguingly necessary.
I'm Astonished To Wake
in a world the same as yesterday--
irrational dreams led me to believe otherwise.
No more lopping off passionate words,
no more leaving you with empty hands.
Were you hurt?
I warned you
the harmless and venomous alike can deceive,
the hognose snake hiss and inflate its head
into a triangular shape.
when what we need is heart pressed against heart.
Surely the sun will slash us with color
as it climbs to the top of a ravishing day.
The cock will crow and hens lay.
Maybe we'll forget
the hours that pad behind our scent
with unsheathed claws.
Don't be astonished if you wake
splattered with blood.
Be astonished to wake.
There is both eulogy and prayer intertwined between every word Julie Suk puts down in Astonished To Wake. It's a somber exploration of death, loss and mourning that is conducted with restrained class and punctuated heart-stopping truths.
The banshee screams of lost love are in here, tempered and held at bay by an inquisitive mind never completely lost to the guilt of survival or grief.
Little Islets Of The Past
float by, one scene segued into another,
the stories we've lived trying us on again,
the same brutish hour hovering on its limb,
the same never again littering the day.
Maybe next time...
but the scene-stealing dead usurp our lives,
leaving us shivering and bruised,
so we lie to save ourselves,
one act after another disassembled,
we'd be on our knees for years.
Astonished To Wake is a sad journey. We had our regular morning read in the office, but the place is almost empty now. Our new intern Kathryn's last words as she left the building in tears were something like "that is so beautifully fucking sad." I think that is what she said. Milo grabbed his gear and flung himself out the door after her. His last words were "That is some truly, madly, deeply sad shit." I know Milo, "shit" was not derogatory, it was an exclamation. He was saying the poetry was solid.
Neither of them, Kathryn or Milo, swear very often. But I think I understand. Julie Suk has some serious truths about living and dying, about loss and surviving, and that can be disturbing. The better the poetry the further under the skin it goes. These poems go bone deep.
Astonished To Wake is one of those books of poetry your friends will be glad you made them read. They will want to pass it on to their friends, and so on. This is sad wisdom, hard-earned knowledge and Suk shares it with us in poems that are cut like diamonds, little pieces of something harder than our hearts, shining in every facet.
And what if it's true that the life we've lived
flashes by at the moment of death?
Not even for an instant would I want repeated
the boring drone of guilt,
nor the shabby aftermath of desire.
The black tunnel lit with epiphanies
would be my take--
sighs of contentment, laughter, a wild calling out--
and at the end,
a brief flaring of the one we'd hoped to become
escorting us into the light.
This sad glamour does have some hope, it's in there working its way to surface. Today's book of poetry loved Suk's honesty, it takes a lot to make poetry out of loss and then it takes a lot more to make it beautiful. Julie Suk is a stone-cold killer poet - she's welcome at our fire anytime.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julie Suk is the author of five previous volumes of poetry. The Angel of Obsession won the University of Arkansas Poetry Competition, the Roanoke-Chowan Award and was on the short
list for the Poets Prize. The Dark Takes Aim was awarded the Brockman-Campbell, and the Oscar Arnold Young awards. Suk is also a recipient of the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry magazine, and received the Irene Honecutt Lifetime Achievement Award from Central Piedmont Community College. She was formerly a managing editor of Southern Poetry Review, and co-editor of Bear Crossings, an Anthology of North American Poets.
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