“The poet makes sense of the world of experience through his ability to discover the ways various sense impressions may form a cohesive reality,” writes David Withun, a professor of literature at Savannah Classical Academy, in The Imaginative Conservative. “For the poet, all phenomena of experience are of equal and of the utmost importance.” So it is with Susan Tepper’s book of poetry, Confess, a timely expression for the current state of the world.
The world looks grim if observed through the lens of the nightly news. Many people are quarantined at home. Unemployment is on the rise. At the point of exhaustion and tempted to quit, first responders, medical personnel, and customer service workers, are on the frontlines every day keeping us healthy and our groceries fully stocked. The death toll rises daily. Protestors refuse to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), thus exposing their bare faces with no concern for their safety or for the safety of others. They demand their freedoms and jobs back and, oftentimes, in a threatening manner. Needless to say, times are tough. Because our emotions sometimes get the better of us, we tend to see the world, thanks to mainstream and social media, in a negative light, and a lot of what we see encourages judgement of others, stimulates fear, and incites anger. It takes the wisdom of a good poet to help us put things into a better perspective, to help us recognize what it means to be truly human, someone who stimulates empathy and understanding, not hatred or cruelty.
Tepper does this brilliantly. Always focused and to the point, she looks at the world with compassionate eyes. In the poem, “Broken,” she admits, “I come to you broken,” acknowledging that she, too, is one of us, caught in this storm of uncertainty and grief. But she is calm. She says, “a lake I carry on my back/one of stillness.” And again, in “Desirous,” Tepper listens to the cries of the brokenhearted. She says, “to hold intact what is left/your cries for help go rigid/in a black-tinged scarlet night.” And again, in “Each Sky,” Tepper, “breathing the stories in—” sympathizes with the hardships, like “Another storm moving across,” we all face.
I can relate. In the midst of the pandemic, my wife, 5 weeks pregnant, complained of severe stomach pain. While I was making arrangements to drive her to the hospital, she fainted in the bathroom. I arrived just in time to catch her and guide her to the floor. Trying to revive her, I smacked her in the face and yelled her name. I felt as though I was inside the poem, “Deep Snow,” my “knees wet and frozen/Buckle as the water/Starts to puddle and melt.” After what seems like days, she finally regained consciousness. I called an ambulance and shortly thereafter we were at the hospital. We learned she had an ectopic pregnancy. She needed surgery which would save her life but, consequently, she would lose the baby. It would be impossible for doctors to push the developing child out of the fallopian tube and into the uterus.
Reading Confess helped me realize how grateful I am to be healthy and strong, to still have my job, a roof over my head, and plenty to eat. I am grateful for the doctors, in the midst of a global pandemic, for focusing their undivided attention in saving my wife’s life. Watching the news and seeing the world falling apart before me as the poem, “Tangled,” exhibits, with “countries/cut in sections/viable yet invisible,” helped me appreciate the fact that I lead a more comfortable life than most people. There are millions of people living in poverty, as the poem, “Beggar’s Soup,” reveals “Blood and a bit of celery,” dying in senseless wars, or being violently discriminated against within, as the poem, “Dark Country,” describes as “softened borders.” Stated matter-of-factly, the poem goes on to say that “the kitchen is a dark country.”
I find my kitchen to be a refuge. As I write this, a storm is brewing up outside, and it seems ruthless. As I sip my highball, the storm begs the “Question on whisky lips/always pondering/the why, as in the poem, “Channel.” Why do we suffer? Why are people cruel? Why do people die needlessly and violently? Why has the world become unhinged and, as Tepper says, “gone solitary in its confinement.”?
We should all follow the example of the doctors that saved my wife’s life. In fact, we should follow the example of all medical personnel on the front lines fighting this virus. This is a time we should be helping each other, not debating foolishly on Facebook, or locking ourselves away, like cowards, inside our homes. As humans, we quickly become anxious when lonely. We are, by nature, social creatures. We do not like isolation. So let’s use our talents for good. Let’s love at the point of exhaustion, like “Grey over the coming winter into spring,” as the poem, “August, Paris,” suggests. Let’s do our part and help out. Sew masks for healthcare workers. Volunteer for a crisis outline. Write letters to lift the spirits of our senior citizens confined to nursing homes or hospitals. Help deliver meals. And, most of all, stop whining and complaining and know that many people are suffering far worse than you.
Tepper’s collection is a timely work in a trying time. It is biblical. It is full of lament and worry, but there is also a sense of resiliency. Although we are living as if it is still winter, the courageous warmth of the coming months will, in time, melt our worries away. We will overcome our pain and hardships. I admire Tepper as a writer. I think you will, too. Get a copy of this book. Rest assured, you will find hope through the beauty of spring within its prophetic pages.
Matthew A. Hamilton holds an MFA from Fairfield University and a MSLIS from St. John’s University. He is a 6-time Pushcart Prize nominee. His stories and poems have appeared in a variety of national and international journals, including Atticus Review, Coe Magazine, Noctua Review, Burnt Bridge, Boston Literary Magazine, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Muddy River Poetry Review, and Tuck Magazine. His chapbook, The Land of the Four Rivers, published by Cervena Barva Press, won the 2013 Best Poetry Book from Peace Corps Writers. His second poetry collection, Lips Open and Divine, was published in 2016 by Winter Goose. He and his wife live in Richmond, Virginia. Visit him here.