The Map of What Happened, by Susan Elbe | wisconsinacademy.org
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The Map of What Happened, by Susan Elbe

Reviewed by John Lehman

I grew up in Chicago. And whenever I meet someone else from there, I feel like we have an immediate connection. We may never explore the reason for this connection, explore the experiences we share. All we know is that we did share them, and that makes us different from everyone else. 

I felt this kind of connection with Susan Elbe after reading her new collection of poems, The Map of What Happened (Backwaters Press, 2013). In her own way, Elbe exploits this sense of familiarity, allowing the reader, especially one from Chicago, to (re)visit the city, taking us from the shores of Lake Michigan—“Out there in the dark, my skirt / of water sings back and forth / to music from open windows”—into the lives of and sounds of the city, the “Stuck window sashes, / running toilets, / singing faucets. / The beat, beat, beat of the pipes.”

The effect of these lines brings me back to things I didn’t know I knew, a slow rewinding of relationships with parents, brothers, sisters, childhood friends. Remember sitting cross-legged on the floor in a drafty school hallway for air-raid drills during the Cold War of the 1950s? Fasting on Good Friday? Tube-lit radios? Back porches?

We spent hours on the front stoop.
waiting for our lives to find us,
not knowing we would have to steal them too,
not knowing every life is kidnapped,
From “Stealing Popsicles”

But this isn’t simple nostalgia. There is something of the universal at work in Elbe’s poetry, as in “Colleen Moore’s Dollhouse”: 

Inside us sits the perfect house.   Lights burn.   Milk flows.
A mother and a father love us and each other,
                 tuck us into warm beds.

Full of yearning, these poems seem to ask, How can we find the equivalent of these things in our lives today? Of course, the answer to this question isn’t in the book. A poet, and Elbe is an excellent one, knows better. Instead, Elbe provides touchstones. The real poem is what the reader makes of these for themselves.

Looking back on this excellent collection, we exit the city with a selection from the title poem, “The Map of What Happened”:

Look, it wasn’t only death that pushed me down,
scraped my shins, and tore my sleeve.

It was the bridge from there to here,
the hum of its metal, how the girl who needed
to cross couldn’t trust it would hold
the weight of her grief or her love,
until one day I recklessly took up my own life
and hopped a bus North, laden
with proof I belonged to myself.

That leaves us with just the city, Chicago, whose “name begins with a whisper/and ends with ‘go’.” And we feel like we do, thanks to Susan Elbe’s new collection of poems.

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John Lehman is the founder and original publisher of Rosebud, a national magazine of short stories, poetry and illustration for people who enjoy good writing.

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