Suzanne Roberts’s third book of poems is a guidebook of sorts, a catalog of poems derived from the author’s past travel, but this is no simple litany of sights seen, no handbook to comfortable resort travel. These poems draw the reader in to situations of discomfort, or confrontation, situations that ask basic questions like, What does a traveler’s eye prioritize? What does travel mean? What do we see? What’s the difference between a tourist and a traveler? And what do we miss whether intentionally or inadvertantly when traveling?
This is a collection of narrative free verse and prose poems that juggle the social sphere with the solitude of a writer but on a global stage. A moment in Cusco, Peru, before a night of strolling alone in the dark: “No one knowing where I am— / the certain freedom that comes only / with loneliness.” The pleasure of being anonymous is familiar, but many of these poems would not exist without a social aspect that many travelers never see.
For there are other people here as well. Whether Roberts is drinking rum at a haircutting ceremony or meeting a grandmother in England, her eye directs us to the sharp social details of what many travelers avoid seeing. In Ecuador, an injured woman begs while NFL highlights play for tourists eating waffles. A girl missing an eye looks toward an oil field and the stack belching flames, black rain descending to the river. In India, a man pulls a rickshaw filled with a family of six, while another family gathers around a small fire in front of their tent.
Roberts’s details make the collection what it is. She uses a journalist’s care in paring her verse down to specific and vivid pictures that build a landscape. We see, in Varanasi, India, “Two cows climb the stairs, / lazy as the afternoon. The train arrives.” The juxtaposition of the mechanical and animal in this setting is what makes this work, and the crispness of the unadorned details keeps the lens clean. This poem, “In the Train Station,” contrasts the poverty of a region with the entitlement of a tourist, a clash that’s familiar but here specific with careful details.
Other locations include Nicaragua, the Kuna Yala Islands, Colombia, Mexico, Italy, California, China, Mongolia, and England. Regardless of the locations, we’re implicated in these poems. Roberts doesn’t cajole or threaten. Nor does she offer the pretentiousness that so much travel writing tries to sell, whether in verse or prose. It’s simply that Roberts won’t let you admire the crown molding in your Four Seasons suite. Not while people are suffering feet away. Instead, Roberts walks us among the errands and rituals and lives of others. In that way, the reader has to be involved, has to embrace the suffering of the world, has to ask some important questions.
There is death here, too, as we might expect from any serious verse. In India, we witness the Untouchables caring for the dead, eldest sons tending fires, treating the bodies of their fathers. The sons are washed, robed, shaved—the rituals required of those who can touch the bodies. “Another son throwing river water over / his shoulder, saying, Father, go on your way, / I’ll go mine.”
There might be redemption here, though it’s not apparent, and more often one feels an open-endedness that’s simply honest. There’s no happy ending for many of the people we meet. Even when Roberts crosses boundaries and interacts, it’s a temporary action that in reality can’t heal or change. Again in India, at the Ganges, small girls sell shells—filled with a candle and marigolds—to float on the river. The poem explores an aspect of the Untouchables: one of the girls can’t have her photo taken due to her status. There is photo negotiation, and admiration for a digital camera, but when Roberts floats her shell, it flips and the candle flame goes out.
Roberts learns that the “world holds together / by the superstition of safety”, presents a “boundlessness of human song” and, in the end, asks us all, “What is your country?”
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Reviews Editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook Halflives (New Michigan Press.) Find him at www.andrewcgottlieb.com.