Marilyn Taylor reviews Survivors' Picnic in Think: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, and Reviews, Spring 2015.
Survivor’s Picnic: Poems by Debra Bruce
A review by Marilyn L. Taylor
Survivors Picnic is a splendid new collection from the accomplished poet and scholar Debra Bruce. More feast than picnic, its presents to the reader three groups of graceful, courageous poems that confront some of the most daunting challenges that can befall a contemporary woman.
Case in point: over an extended and volatile period of time, Bruce has survived not one but three potentially devastating life crises, any one of which might have completely daunted a more fragile artist—and they certainly qualify her for first-class “survivor” status. They include (1) a breast cancer diagnosis and a subsequent mastectomy; (2) the abrupt departure of her husband after many years of marriage; and (3) the difficult challenge of guiding her sensitive teenage son through these shattering upheavals. But rather than caving in, Bruce writes of these adversities in a voice that reflects confidence, optimism, and amazing invincibility. Concerning the cancer, for example, she advises (in a poem titled “Living With Your Diagnosis: a Few Tips”):
Pretend it isn’t even on your radar.
Don’t encourage it with direct attention
any more than you’d chat with an oncoming storm,
especially one with tendencies toward rotation.
The dissolution of Bruce’s marriage is also confronted unflinchingly. At one point she resurrects wives from the past who, famously, also suffered the fallout of spousal estrangement, including Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves. Her own personal pain is most evident, however, in a devastating short poem called “The Magician”, which begins as follows:
You wouldn’t believe it! One minute
he’s just my husband, soaping a dish, [STANZA BREAK]
but when he turns to me, lifting a towel,
I have something to tell you—presto!
My chest is a cavity filling with crushed ice,
the air a shattered windshield I haven’t even hit. . .
Perhaps most moving of all are Bruce’s gallant poems about the emotional anguish that her young son underwent at the time of her divorce and after. One searing example, excerpted from a heartbreaking series called “Custody Haiku”:
Mouthful of gravel,
rock dropped in a hole, his Mom
squeezing his hand hard
as if to get tears
out ofhim. He wouldn’t play
any of their games.
For all of these dark moments, though, Survivor’s Picnic is not necessarily a somber book. Working against the gloom is Bruce’s precision of language, her large and polished but always accessible vocabulary, and the occasional jolt of unexpected wit. She is among that small cadre of poets who are able to render highly personal events and experiences—many of them painful—without a trace of the melodrama we often associate with “confessional” poetry. Rather, her poems arrive on the page entirely unencumbered by the overworked language of lament and self-absorption. They certainly move the reader in many ways, but the effect is due in large part to her penchant for admirable restraint.
One can’t close a discussion of Debra Bruce’s work without mentioning her outstanding grasp of traditional poetic forms. This volume alone features several rhymed quatrains, sonnets, haiku, a ballade, a triolet, a villanelle, pantoums, a ghazal, dipodic meter, plus an impressive assortment of rhythmic free verse. Her prosodic skills are virtually impeccable, and she uses them wisely and almost imperceptibly, which is as it should be.
Survivor’s Picnic is highly recommended reading for anyone who might doubt that intense personal emotion can be communicated in poetry with control as well as insight. It will prove them wrong.
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Read a Kathleen Kirk's review of Survivors' Picnic at Escape Into life.
In one way, Survivors’ Picnic, by Debra Bruce, is no picnic. Its tough topics include divorce, breast cancer, and an emotionally ravaged son. In the poem “Someone’s Attention,” she’s straightforward about an awkward truth: “A woman can’t elasticize her years.” In “Plunder” it’s difficult even to say “surgery’s / savagery’s smoothed over,” let alone experience it, or even imagine it, but there it is, laid flat, so that “in the interstices / between catastrophes”—also hard to say, form still matching content—“you find yourself / enjoying joy” and a “most delectable…midsummer noon.”
In another “most delectable” way, this book is a gourmet picnic, with such international delicacies as the French ballade, the Malayan pantoum, and the Persian ghazal. With couplets, tercets, quatrains, the sestina, villanelle, and even a chained haiku, Survivors’ Picnic spreads a banquet of free and formal verse on a checkered cloth of history and mythology.
For instance, the poet survives her own divorce but also celebrates Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, ex-wives of Henry VIII. And her own suffering and joy exist in the continuum of humans understanding life through myth. In “Necessary Magic,” she’s speaking to her 13-year-old son through a closed door, echoing an earlier poem, “So What,” in which there’s “music in
his pounding room, / …everything / in there smashed.” In the careful ordering of poems here, “Necessary Magic” leads into “What It Leads To,” where the poet is herself 13, with her own mother vacuuming on the other side of a closed bedroom door; the young pre-poet is solitary, reading, finding her own necessary magic in books. In the poem that explores her younger self, she’s in love with Odysseus, and mythology both overwhelms and saves her: “A girl who fell in love with a stream / got bedded under a wave.” In the other, now grown up, she identifies with Achilles’ mother, who
shot from the sea and promised
to plunge the surf and rise
to the highest, most dangerous gods
to save her child.
If reality's too hard, mythology (or magic) can get the job done.
One of my favorite poems in this book is clever, short, and poignant, and gains great power in its placement in the last third of the book while echoing a situation and actual phrase from a poem in the first third, "Between Them." In the earlier poem, the son, still very young, sits between the parents on the couch, sensing their conflict. The later poem brings it all back, so we, the readers, re-experience what she, the mother, felt and is currently feeling.
Her Ex Sits Next to Her
It’s far too soon for her to make a joke of it,
scuttle him away with a swish of wit,
This is a love seat, isn’t it?
but too late to reach across the child-size space
between them, or look directly at his face.
To read more of Debra Bruce's poems, see her solo feature at Escape Into Life, which contains three poems from Survivors’ Picnic.