Reviews and Media

Book Review: Flying Yellow, by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes
Review by Linda Parsons
Paraclete Press, 2021

Like the best marriages, the term pietas metrica, employed by the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, joins the highest expressions of nature and religion. Suzanne Underwood Rhodes' Flying Yellow: New and Selected Poems further deepens and humanizes this notion, moving from the "pitch-black storms" of girlhood to a "ladder of arms" raising her to an ecstatic Sufi-like whir capturing in word and heart the fruited world around and within her.

The "new and selected" aspect of this collection allows us to follow Rhodes' journey with the queenly mother she worshiped and the stepfather's "dread / isolating presence" (12), "the rage smoldering within those walls" (4)-and she, the child walking on eggshells, playing games of escape and hide with her sisters. As with all childhood fear and wounding, the speaker of these poems, as was her mother, expertly gauges "the weather of the house," which "wears like grief" (16).

Through marriage and children and marriage again, "past years when I never knew / how to picture my life" (27), the other side of loss is rinsed bright and shelter takes hold, her life becoming its own union of inward and outward joy, its own prayerful pietas metrica. She opens to these opposites, seeing whatever life befalls us as holy in how burdensome or lightly we carry it, not turning away from a world and our place in it ever "ripe with death" (47).

Death as companion takes a fascinating turn in the book's second section, with historical persona portraits: Sister Sophia's ironic confessions, Mary Rowlandson's deep child loss, Dorothy Bradford's "pukestocking" sea voyage, the contradictions visited upon the Black poet and former slave Phillis Wheatley, and the most chilling-"Strangled Roses," an obsessed and distraught Edgar Allen Poe's commissioned corpse painting of his wife, Virginia, spoken in her words: "He means to keep me safe in the gilt frame, / to encrypt the undersound of heaving lungs: / ...the smothering candle-smoke wavering / like his own vaporous small shadow" (45). These vividly imagined pieces lead to the very real haunts of wartime, the illness and suicide of friends, and the poet's own experience in the chemo treatment room-griefs assuaged with remembrance, the light left on, a priest scootering in to bless "the bags of poison" (59).

The last two sections shift to buoy in imagery and heightened language, embrace of the natural world at ocean's edge, and the living presence of Spirit. All of these elements work in concert and in reverence for each other, each a messenger of what life is but yet can be. These sections, in particular, "father-forth" in beauty that is past change, as Hopkins wrote, charged and flaming out, "like shining from shook foil" ("God's Grandeur"). Rhodes never proselytizes, but is a vessel of breathtaking light, a "flying yellow day" amid the dark currents of the past that swirl in some form in all of us. Still, she and her work ascend, as we all hope and strive to, as is our purpose, to evolve here on Earth, despite "the violent, the black unbroken" (80), despite her "own heart / clanging in chains" (81). Each of us lives with the same dichotomy and ambiguity, finding "the glory in the hidden," our souls "fat with secrets, ripe as a pupa" (91). Each of our moves, town to town or street to street, leaves us more emptied out, leading us to "the final emptying where nothing arrives / but the trembling, homeless soul / asking for preservation, asking / to be loved..." (95). By her attentive example, Rhodes reminds us to be both student and teacher in this brief-burning life, to notice the plain robin, the wasting deer, an aunt's "vine-veined hands," the "ruby notes" of summer peaches, the patient wait to view the great crested flycatcher. She even offers the revelation of forgiveness, a bridge too far for some, but possible when you dig into the winter ground to plant onions when your stepfather is dying. When you dig "past every bitter loss, / and maybe you'll find / it's really God under the sheets and your father, his heart crushed, / sleeps forgiven" (15). Because in the end, in your whole earthly life, this is all you have to do.

Poet, playwright, and editor, LINDA PARSONS is the poetry editor for Madville Publishing and reviews editor for Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. She is also copy editor for Chapter 16, the literary website of Humanities Tennessee. Linda is published in such journals as The Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Baltimore Review, and Shenandoah. Her fifth poetry collection is Candescent (Iris Press, 2019). 

Reviewed by Laura Reece Hogan

Flying Yellow: New and Selected Poems. By Suzanne Underwood Rhodes. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021. 

There comes a viscerally arresting moment in the pages of Suzanne Underwood Rhodes' Flying Yellow when we know that we are in the hands of a poet who deeply understands the conflict inherent in a life lived with hope in the face of the human condition. In the title poem, the speaker has "no way to know if [the trail] up will lead us out. / We see only downward and down is deep." The speaker is caught in an argument between her weakened yet wise body which wants ". . . to bless the mind slipping on scree, to say, 'Trust the light,' but the mind shuts its ears, knows better than that foolish, stricken body and couldn't catch the flying yellow day if it tried." (33)

This theme, so central to daily human experience, especially for those of us trying to live "subjected in hope," threads deftly through this gorgeous collection. These poems explore the gamut of loss and disappointment, all while continuing to turn and open outward into faith in surprising ways. Here is a voice we can trust, a speaker who knows the reality of pain, and yet who also knows radical moments of grace and light.

The early pages of the collection ruminate on a childhood that grounds the book in a thorny, tangled topography. In "Onions" the speaker considers "the cold riddle / begun in violence when you were small, that you papered over / hoping to hide from the others" (15); in "Needle in Curtain," the mother's needle is "still all-knowing/ with its eye/ on the wound / and the tear" (8). Although in "Weather of the House," the speaker has learned to "[hush] the children/ so I can hear the house and what it knows/ the way my mother learned air before a storm, / its exact weight, the better to fear," she also has moved beyond fear: "In this room in this house, / the weather wears like grief" (16). In fact, grief and loss, early or late, and how the aware speaker responds to it in moments of both darkness and light, form a central motif in the collection. 

Rhodes adroitly depicts encountering the human condition, with a careful eye to detail in both her images and diction. In "Blink Pink," the speaker discovers a "rubbery fetus two girls from biology / had sneaked under my pillow." That image evolves into a "thick mute presence" which the speaker realizes has always been present:  ". . . I suppose the blind pink has always slept with me, never moving at all, never for all those nights being more than unfulfillment, like colors dreamed and spilled on the hard ground of morning." (17)

We witness a cruel indifference of the natural world to death in "Dark Current," in which a juvenile humpback whale is "slashed by a propeller" and killed. "I took in the fog planet of its eye, the impossible girth of silence that once was song. The waves kept thrashing in a world where I stood as if rage could ever thwart the force aborting and aborting. (70)

"Keeping the Bowl" masterfully illustrates the stark poverty of coming face-to-face with the end of life. In this poem, the speaker sees an old, faded bowl which had belonged to her mother as the begging bowl we each hold before God, "the trembling, homeless soul / asking for preservation, asking / to be loved, the shamefully / marred hands cupped for a token, / even a small remembrance of the hollow / You of all beings might wish to fill" (95).

An acute awareness of both divine presence and absence in this landscape of humanity laces these poems. Sometimes the speaker experiences the presence of God in the quotidian, "in a broken loaf, a sliding tear. / You in the plum-sweet gaze, the offered chair" ("Something She Heard About You," 94). Or the speaker finds God in "the glory of the hidden, / hand not telling hand" (94). Sometimes the divine is glimpsed through a beloved...

Praise for Flying Yellow

from Jill Peláez Baumgaertner

This is one of the richest poetry collections I have read in a long time. Here are the intense images of a 1960's childhood, vivid narratives of family stresses and joys, and a panoply of voices--from colonial American women to a very pregnant Mary. These poems excite the spirit with revelations of the holy that one encounters in the most unlikely places, which of course is where the holy often appears. It is impossible to read these poems passively. Instead, one luxuriates in their explorations of the beauty and the ambiguities and the mysteries of life fully lived.

-Jill Peláez Baumgaertner

Poetry Editor, Christian Century

from James Owens

I have been reading and returning to Suzanne Underwood Rhodes's poems for twenty-five years-as bulwark, as shelter, for their attentiveness to the beauties of language, for their persistent opening into grace-and now comes Flying Yellow, like a gift from a wise friend that arrives when most needed. Rhodes is at the height of her strength here, life-affirming, generous, and precise, a voice with work to do in the world and in the spirit. These poems are not fooled about the reality of pain in the intimate history of families and in the public history of nations, but they are also clear-eyed in their persuasion to hope, reminding us "how, at the drained hour, / light may visit the crushed / or condemned, light so sure // it stops the heart / and brings the world / to its new morning" ("Light, Hard-Earned").

-James Owens author of Mortalia and Family Portrait with Scythe

from Sofia Starnes

The word that emerges-unspoken but ever-present-from the pages of Suzanne Underwood Rhodes's extraordinary collection Flying Yellow--is compassion, a suffering-with, a living-with. No other word could describe more deeply this author's brave immersion and experience of life. From a childhood world "torn / from things you'd think / shouldn't touch a child" to an adulthood carved into wisdom, "after the sun drops / and the crickets have drawn their bows," she gathers up things alongside the absence of things, in a defiant affirmation of blessedness. Throughout the book, her unfailing attention to detail and her exquisite language compel us to see in "sunbursts or gray solemnity..." always / a heaven in view". By the time we arrive at the closing poem, we know we have been offered something akin to "the gold / of afterlife", a God-infused reality--at times sorrowful, yet forever redeemed. Flying Yellow is salvific poetry at its most reverent, a crucial blessed antidote for our irreverent world. -Sofia Starnes

-Sofia Starnes is Virginia Poet Laureate, Emerita and author of The Consequence of Moonight and other works.

from Paul Mariani

"Once in a very long while, if you're lucky enough, a voice reaches out to haunt you in what the poet names a "syntax that gives shape to every scream." Here, in an American idiom we can follow and trust, Suzanne Rhodes manages to reveal a Presence that lives within and beyond us. In poem after poem after poem, she shows us with the spiritual insight and wit of a George Herbert, a broken world which, resurrected, can flame out in a music which, even as it burns, lifts us into a liminal space beyond anything we might ever have expected."

-Paul Mariani, University Professor Emeritus at Boston College has published over 250 essays, introductions, and reviews and is the author of twenty books, including biographies of William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Hart Crane, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Wallace Stevens. He has published eight volumes of poetry, most recently Ordinary Time and Epitaphs for the Journey, as well as critical studies and a spiritual memoir, Thirty Days: on Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius and The Mystery of It All: The Vocation of Poetry in the Twilight of Modernism.

-Bruce Guernsey

Reader, beware, for Flying Yellow is not an easy path to follow. That's because these poems are, thankfully, nothing like the flat, prosaic landscape disguised as poetry today. Instead, Suzanne's is a deeply spiritual terrain, a book of many journeys with a voice who leads us like Dante's, meeting us in the deep woods "with no way to know [what] will lead us out." In these dark times, Suzanne Rhodes' poems of journey and survival are the "flying yellow" day we need.

--Bruce Guernsey, author of From Rain (Poems 1970-2010)

-William Jolliff

In Flying Yellow, Suzanne Underwood Rhodes offers readers a collection that ranges from the homely holiness of everyday details to a figurative richness that edges quietly toward transcendence. Her diction is plain but precise, her attention to sound unfailing, her syntax consistently rhythmic and controlled. Despite their span of subject and form, these poems are bound together by a tacit pattern as mysterious as it is sure.

-Professor of English, George Fox University

Contributing Editor, The Windhover, Author of Twisted Shapes of Light