A review of Siren Singing by Suzanne Nixon

 Suzanne Nixon’s poems are written in free verse, a description often indicating no more than extreme laxity. But she is scrupulous and has a tense, almost quivering, regard for felicities of sounds. The result is exquisitely crafted work that rides on a continuous stream of a musical language.
by Bob Williams

Suzanne Nixon describes herself now as being “on the brink of cronehood” and “more exuberantly alive now than at any earlier time in my life.”

She spent her early years wandering out of doors in Ohio. At the age of eight, her family moved to Tennessee where she wandered that very different landscape. She then became as well as a wanderer a voraciously passionate reader. Soon after that she began to write and writing was one of her aspirations as a child along with being a nuclear physicist and winning the Nobel Prize. In these early years she began writing poetry and continued to do so until she reached graduate school (Ph. D. in history of science with post-doctoral work in psychology). The pressure of graduate school, falling in love and practicing as a therapist were ample distractions from poetry. She continued to perceive and feel the world as a poet.

Three decades later, in 1996, (after disengaging herself from what she describes as “a Potemkin Village” of a twenty-seven year marriage and
seeing her two sons well-equipped and off into the world, she returned to the writing of poetry. Her professional work is full-time and involves the implementation of a program that she has devised for enriching the lives of chronic schizophrenics. At home she spins fleece on her spinning wheel, lives with three cats and thousands of books. She devotes many hours to her poetry. “I gave up television and reduced
sleep to five hours a night to gain poetry time.” She has no intention of stopping again in this lifetime. She is as joyous and passionate
about life and all it offers up as she is about her writing.

“I have no time to fritter away on sorrow, regret, despair or it’s not fair – all well covered by other poets. My muses are not like that at all. Not at all!”

She also adds that she has become constitutionally incapable of writing from margin to margin.

One of the advantages of living in the Global Village is that one gets to know many people. If I were to draw together the many men and women
that have become working associates, acquaintances and friends, they would come from New York, Canada, Sweden, Japan and Australia. It was in this way I acquired the twenty-five poems that make up Sirens Singing as well as the CD of the poet reading these poems. None of these poems have been published and the CD is not commercially available. I will be generous in my quotations from her poems so that I can share them with you.

And they are worth meeting. She is scrupulous about their sound and she is their best reader. It is more correct to say performer than reader
since she gives to her poems a flexible voice of uninhibited vigor, a sense of drama and a fearless exploration of all the appropriate
nuances. Once heard you will hear all her poems in her voice.

Her poems are written in free verse, a description often indicating no more than extreme laxity. But she is scrupulous and has a tense, almost quivering, regard for felicities of sounds. The result is exquisitely crafted work that rides on a continuous stream of a musical language.

A great part of her poetry is taken up with the goddess. Although many poets need an easily available mythic context – difficult in our
predominantly secular and unclassically trained society – this motif may have a limited life span and one can easily imagine future editions with many explanatory footnotes.

The parts of poems that seem the least successful on paper take on a different life in her reading:

“and the upsy downsy
rollercoastery rodeo ride-eo

from “birthing spring”

In this case many readers would draw back from such verbal extravagance but this is not true for the listener. These acrobatics may not always
be entirely in service of the poem – as they would be in a poem by Hopkins – but they are aurally satisfying for their own sake.

The words are a controlled torrent. Nixon uses punctuation sparingly and in her reading as well as on paper position controls meaning and may
spring backwards and forwards to establish meaningful relationships with what has past as well as with what is to come. Here is an example from “otherwhere.”

a flurry a flaw
a rave of waves

flash and jolt
play upon my interior
in ragged bolts

this is the world primeval
this is the electric dawn
from which all worlds are born

this is the roar of the song
carried along in the swirl in the rush of
my blood

This example shows the use of the semi-line, words separated from previous or sequent words by spacing. In Nixon’s readings she sometimes
reflects these spaces and sometimes does not. This suggests that their use is more visual than aural.

She is comfortable with the long poem but she uses the short form to advantage as in this untitled example.

“sometimes the all of it
is not gentle
does not fall gentle
falls omega gray”

Nixon draws heavily on her experience but few poems contain anything like a narrative. She always describes marginality but her marginality
is often charged with triumph or edged with an undertone of wry exasperation. Her poem, “seasons of a woman: spring” brings together so many characteristic elements – sad, witty and funny – that it needs to be read in its entirety.

“when she was a green maiden
in her prime
when she thought about it at all
she told herself:
well there is time
and he will come my way someday

and in all the years
of springtime:
vibrant in the green of spring,
lush in the blooming body
of warm and lazy days;
in all those years
some of the time she waited
but most of the time she did not think to seek him
because she was leading a life of her own complete

and there were those who came to her
who said they were the one for her;
or said they were the one for now

and “perhaps” they said:
“the future can be ours”
and some of the time
they told what they believed
and some of the time they lied

and three times
she believed it;
or maybe seven;
or, her heart open as it was,
maybe even more

and they said,
some of the time in words,
some of the time in unspoken language
silently to themselves writing their vows
in the mouth water of the hungry
that they would be leaving soon;
that they were not there to tarry;
some of the time they were leaving as they arrived

quickly quickly to the hot bed
and then fly away
quickly quickly to stroke her skin
and enter in to her warm depths
and then to leave

and some of the time
it was good
and some of the time
it was not
and all of the time
from the all of it;
she learned the true nature of her own heart

Some watch nature very closely but never closely enough to catch the natural before it turns trite. Nixon catches it fresh and brings it so
to her paper. She is equally at home with the homeliness of a casual name brand reference. Here – from “otherwhere” and “the sentence is
life” – are examples of both.

“this is the hap hazard path
I dance upon

the space between the leaves
the holes in the lace
the rugged hills that vanish
behind the mona lisa and her smile

illuminated as much by shifting moon
and inky night
punctuated by far traveled
and traveling light

as by the brilliant close and
sizzle fingering sun”

“or maybe I am flying zigzag like
those life powered meal moths
hatching in the Jiffy Mix corn muffin box
in the dark of the pantry”

We live in a brass band culture where the need to thrash about noisily is paramount. Few of us would wish to return to any earlier time if
were able to make fully informed decisions but if we could make a change surely it would be to turn the volume down. Were we to do so, we might hear such singers as Suzanne Nixon or Samuel Menashe. We might even ourselves learn to sing.

A site of voiced poems by Suzanne Nixon is forthcoming soon. In the meantime, if you would like more information about Siren Singing, or would like to fingerspeak with Suzanne Nixon, she can be contacted at: snixon@mybizz.net

You can also see an extraordinary Flash visualisation of otherwhere done in collaboration with artist Larry Daw at:

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: