“The Surreal Rendering of Trauma in Black Wool Cape by Alison Carb Sussman”: A Review by Jessica Purdy

Readers of Black Wool Cape will not be able to look away from Alison Carb Sussman’s surreal, deeply sensitive vision of the world and the part she plays in its histories. If the title Black Wool Cape conjures mysterious images of women on the verge of madness, let it also remind us of the horrors of war. The second poem in the book “Dance with a Black Wool Cape,” sees the garment coming to life, a specter with a smothering, deadly life of its own.

In the opening poem “Zion Unblooming,” “Live bodies in uniform lie neatly stacked / eyeballs up, brains gone black.” War and its uniforms inhabit this first section unflinchingly even as they use the surreal logic of dreams to emphasize the horror. In “The Night Rescue” a victim is pulled from a bombed out building: “… she lies on her back, her eyes / stars that burn like fires from the bomb ….”

This traumatic perception makes even something as mundane as doing the laundry a nightmarish experience of violent birth. In “Laundry Day”: “The clothes packed in, arms and legs askew. / … turn, sloshing, banging up against each other in the / primordial warmth, another kind of fiercely sucking womb.”

Each section builds upon the imagery of the one previous. In a section that recollects childhood memories, we still have war crimes stamped on our conscience. In “Girl, 1966 A.D.,” war becomes a metaphor for family dynamics: “To be a little girl on a rainy day. / … Water, / the brutality of it, / the interrogator dunks his victim’s head in a bucket. / There’s a pecking order in families.”

Poems like these are not pity parties. Instead, facts are recorded by a narrator who is told she is unreliable. In “False Sister,” the speaker tells a tale of being blamed by her own mother for being bullied. The story is told like a journalist looking for justice. The ending creates a defiant image of revenge: the speaker draws a picture of the bully stealing her mother’s pearls.

“Interrogation” recounts a childhood visit to an eye doctor who is “Irritated, just like my father” and depicts his astonishing cruelty: “Do you know you’re one of the ugliest children / I’ve ever seen?” Again the mother doesn’t believe her. The speaker becomes a monster “Under his hand” and subsequently turns herself into the interrogator and makes the eye doctor sit in the chair.

Searching for reconnection in “With Mother at the Zoo,” what should have been a scene of reunion in front of the snowy owl’s cage leads to the speaker feeling more of a connection to the loss of the owl than the mother moving away.

A recurring motif shows the speaker’s head against the sky. “My Father’s Whistle,” in which the father/daughter relationship described by the speaker is romanticized—“I am a princess, / he is my prince”—we can only speculate at this implication. By the end of the poem: “my head brushes the ceiling and stars.” Later in the book, this image is revisited in a poem of adolescent romantic love with an oxymoron for a title, “Alone Together.” In this one, a sexual act ends with “Brushing my fingertips across the jawbone of the sky.” The dissociative qualities of this image build on mental illness as one of the binding themes in the book.

The speaker is on the outside looking in, wanting to belong. These poems show that the world is a tough space to feel welcome in. “Gramercy Park” leaves us with a wish for acceptance: “I rest my head against the barrier, inhaling / the fragrant noon blossoms and the peace, entreating / the lady inside wearing whites to be merciful / and let me in.”

The penultimate poem “At the Roman Colosseum” ends: “I want the bones of those gone / to tell mine / how to live in this world.” Indeed, this is a poet looking to the past to provide a guide, perhaps aiming to show us that it’s not too late to heal embedded traumas.

Black Wool Cape, by Alison Carb Sussman. Portland, Oregon: Unsolicited Press, August 2022. 100 pages. $16.00, paper.

Jessica Purdy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. Her poems have appeared in many journals including Radar, The Night Heron Barks, One Art, Museum of Americana, and Gargoyle. She has published book reviews in Hole in the Head Review, isacoustic, gravel, Bourgeon, and Sacred Chickens. Some anthologies her poems have appeared in include: Dead of Winter II, Covid Spring I and II, Except for Love: New England Poets Inspired by Donald Hall, Nancy Drew Anthology, and Lunation. Murder in the House, a pamphlet of her poems on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, was released by Buttonhook Press in 2022. Her books STARLAND and Sleep in a Strange House were both released by Nixes Mate in 2017 and 2018. Sleep in a Strange House was a finalist for the NH Literary Award for poetry. She is poetry editor for the anthology, Ten Piscataqua Writers. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaPurdy123 and her website: jessicapurdy.com.

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