HomeAboutMastheadJoin POW ListserveDonateArchive
Susanna J. Mishler


Susanna J. Mishler
Weekday in Spring

and puddles profess their love
to my pant legs. The splendor of winter
reduced to so much dirty snow -
blasted water and dirt will arrange themselves slowly
into clouds and grass. They make sense of themselves,
whereas we won't, though perhaps
there's some consolation in knowing
every chromosome has a solution. It's tempting
to log all the wonderful things about having a new map
of ourselves, but the waxwings are here, fat little birds
shitting whole berries. In my favorite sci-fi movie
there's an owl that's supposedly real though we never
see it shit, which is like feeling the flaws in a wine glass
with your fingertips. Snow under the ash trees looks like carnage -
white splattered with hundreds of tiny red, half-digested spheres.
Waxwings will pass what they eat in 15 minutes,
but this is supposed to be about people, how
we've mapped all the little rooms of our bodies yet don't know
what's inside them. How the mysterious inhabitants
communicate as if through hotel walls: one knock
means hungry, two means clogged toilet.
This is like trying to understand how
action is built on email; how can any of this result in
so much as a sigh, or eyes moving left to right? The idea of chaos
came from a highly ordered mind, just as the idea of entropy
irritates tax auditors the most and puppies not at all.
If my den were truly a den it would have a dirt floor and ceiling,
not this messed-up waiting room furniture. The goldfish could care less
if I vacuumed all the dog hair off the couch, but the cat
considers this a victory and turns her attention to the fat waxwings.
Soon there will be a blueprint for everything and to most of us
trying to read one will be like deciphering a coffee stain.
The biggest requests will be for top-heavy bodies - men's and women's -
and those with the right kind of inheritance
will get them. Barbie isn't given enough credit:
imagine you're head-first in a toy box, naked, with no genitals,
and that your head and your ass are facing the same direction.
No wonder math is hard. Everything was fine until I moved to
the suburbs and learned to see menace in dandelion fluff
and carnage in bird guano. Our neighbor
wet-vacs the puddles from his front walk which gives me the sense
of living under a vault, inside one of those snow globes
except it isn't snowing, it's raining red bird shit and I doubt that
even with a blueprint I could find my way out or even find the wall
I should have my ear pressed to.

What Fits Neatly In a Hand

A pebble. An earring. A stack
of dimes. A little water,

and the reflection of something small
or distant in the sky.
A toy fighterplane.

Not a live goldfish, but a dead one.
Not the other hand -
not completely.

A matchbook, a moth. A cupboard hinge.
A tooth. Pieces

of broken things, wristwatch gears,
plate shards, ashes. The curve
of an infant's head.

Crumbled plaster. A chipped button
sewn to a shirt scrap.
An ice cube - briefly.

Not the curled edges of burning paper.
Not an aspen, but a lemon seed.

The opposable thumb. Two aspirin.
Some sand - barely.

Ways of Seeing

Quarters hit an empty violin case. A boy dances on the sidewalk and wears a clown's nose as he plays. He learned this from his father, who sits at home with shoes three sizes too big, in blackface, painting a portrait from a photograph of his son standing outside a train station with his mother. The mother isn't in the portrait and where her hand rested on the boy's shoulder a green parrot sits instead. The parrot has two heads, one in its stomach. The father imagines the top head feeds the bottom face crackers, and the top head is him. He paints the boy's face and outlines his eyes with red diamonds so no one will hurt him. The father grew so close to the boy's mother when she died it seemed that they were in a rowboat together, and that she disappeared through a small hole in the bottom; he thought he could follow but he wouldn't fit. When she finished disappearing, the boat bottom slowly leaked. He scrutinized the hull - smudged his face with burnt cork, plugged the hole with what remained. This was followed by days of bailing water, eating crackers. He believes blackface is the thing keeping him on this side. The boy himself is almost enough. Almost, because the man doesn't have a son; his change hit the boy's case in passing. The man always wanted to learn watercolor. The boy wishes for a violin.

                                                -from Termination Dust


Susanna J. Mishler’s poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her first collection of poems, Termination Dust, was published by Red Hen Press/Boreal Books in 2014. 

Susanna holds an MFA in Poetry from The University of Arizona in Tucson, where she served as a poetry editor for Sonora Review. She’s the recipient of a Peter Taylor Fellowship in Poetry from the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop, and the Bill Waller Writing Award from the University of Arizona. Susanna also co-directs Synergies, a live reading and performance series in her hometown of Anchorage, Alaska.

Among other things, Susanna has worked as a dock hand, science educator, and sled dog handler. She currently lives in Anchorage, teaches workshops, and earns her living as an electrician.


Finding the Strangeness by Susanna J. Mishler, first published at 49 Writers

Tom Waits talks to his songs while he’s composing.  He’ll flirt with one in the studio, he’ll argue with another while driving home.  He’s been known to bully, sweet-talk, talk shop, talk up, whisper, and say whatever it takes to get a song to reveal itself.

 In an 2002 interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (who later became the author of Eat, Pray, Love) Waits says that he discovers each song and composition differently.  They may all be “Tom Waits” songs but, to their composer, each song has an distinct character and he talks to them as individuals.  Some songs need to be snuck up on like a rare bird.  Some songs are sewn together from pieces of a dozen other failed attempts.  Some feel like each part was chiseled out of rock, hard-won and revised, revised.  Some are bullied into completion with the rest of the album finished and one part of one song still loitering outside: “We’re leaving in ten minutes – are you on the bus or not?” he yells in the studio.
There is no one way to make a Tom Waits song, even if you’re Tom Waits.  This is a guy who has collected a big set of tools for discovering his next song.  And a guy who never seems to get bored of music.  And, whatever opinions you may have of Tom Waits songs, his music is never boring.

Much of what poets write these days, myself included, is lumped into the giant category of “free verse”.  But all this means is that much of what we write isn’t “fixed” in form, like a sonnet or a limerick or a sestina.  In free verse here’s no prescribed system of rhyme or meter that comes from outside the poet.  Yet free verse still has form, which is to say it still has rules.  All “free verse” means is that the poet made up the rules herself.  Whether she was aware of it or not, she used her knowledge of poetic devices and rhetoric (her tools) to craft that free-verse poem, to decide what rules it should follow, what rules it should break.
These tools resemble a compass and sextant more than they do a hammer and drill.  They are, foremost, tools of discovery.  Rules and restrictions force us out of known territory and allow us to traverse unknowns where the easiest next word may not be the right word.  For those of us used to writing poems by our own rules, it’s a real adventure to write using formal restrictions.  If we’re fenced out of the pastures we know, what can we find in the high grass nearby?

Workshops are a great opportunity to acquire more tools of discovery.  Aside from time spent in workshop, a lot goes home with the poet to feed his writing – drafts to work on, tools to play with, new poets to read, and connections with other local poets.  Workshops help poets check how well their discoveries are being served by the forms and strategies they’ve chosen.  Moreover, workshops give poets the opportunity to respond constructively to the work of other poets.  The better we become at responding to other people’s poems, at naming the tools they’ve used and the discoveries they’ve made, the better we will be at discovering our own poems.

I’m not in the habit of talking to my poems, but I think Tom Waits would agree when I say that a big part of composition is about is finding the strangeness of a piece.  There’s a quirk, a darkness, a discord, an obsession to each work of art.  Every day I use tools I’ve acquired in workshops in order to discover a poem and navigate its unique geography.  The way into one poem may not be the way into the next.   All we have on these trips are our toolboxes and our fascinations.


A Review of Susanna J. Mishler's Termination Dust by Sarah Marcus, first published by Poets@Work

Susanna J Mishler’s Termination Dust (Boreal Books, 2014) opens with the aggressive image of “[barred] teeth in recognition.” This book, comprised of five parts, is a testament to the difficult journey of self-discovery through exposure, ferocity, and survival.

With skin, skulls, and literal and metaphorical sutures, Mishler uncovers and reveals harsh realities with an air of candor and clarity. Her use of natural imagery and her layered lyrical storytelling creates a poetic landscape that invites the reader to reassess identity, “having a new map/ of ourselves.” This work is concerned not only with loss and revelation, but also romanticizes the notion that there are somehow blueprints for us in this world.

In these poems, Mishler’s speaker contemplates the careful act of mapping and our need for guidance as she recounts being lost children and navigates having a parallel self in a parallel universe. A tribute to memory and fragment, forgiveness, and the body, this work pushes readers to grasp there are multiple perspectives, and that both light and dark, masculine and feminine, are not only conflicting and “cross-wired” but are also working together as integral parts of our perception. In the poem “Northern July,” she writes: “We’re pretty because we forgot how light / leaves us—rather, we almost forgive/ the darkness that come loping after.” This raw emotional appeal, calls out a survival strategy that when highlighted, exposes an uncomfortable human downfall.

Mishler’s speaker continues to attempt to decipher boundaries between worlds and beings, even asking the Geckos on the ceiling to “Teach me to be indistinguishable/ from what I touch.” With a lovey variety of form that resists feeling repetitive, the poems within each section bearing the title that begins with “Afterlife” are not only topically relevant, but work as a vital narrative thread tethering powerful natural imagery within each section to the next.

Boldness allows for further disclosure of self in Mishler’s distinct move away from the poems that exist in natural, wilder backgrounds, poems like “Assurance” and “Ways of Seeing” in section II, take place in more domestic settings and seem much less about survival in a macro sense, but retain the theme of identity formation through memory and experience.

We witness revival through these sonically smart and lyrically tight verses. The greatest success of this work is making progress visible, even though “Disguise/ is the best defense against trespass.” There is comfort in Mishler’s revelations, in their honesty, and in their ability to cross into what feels like deeply personal terrain. Despite all of our masks, struggles, and best defenses, and despite the arresting tone of the opening poem, Mishler ultimately reminds us that as humans, “we are insufferably soft.”


Click here to read an interview with Susanna Mishler at Being Poetry

Click here to read an interview with Susanna Mishler and Karin Cecile Davidson

Click here to buy Mishler's books

Susanna J. Mishler

Enter supporting content here