Emma Lee Reviews ‘Cloak’ by Susan Castillo Street

‘Cloak’ by Susan Castillo Street
Kelsay Books
ISBN 978-1950462841, $16

 

In ‘Cloak’ Susan Castillo Street follows family strands in the UK and USA and the reality of living through difficult times. Interspersed throughout are poems that look at wider issues such as the ‘Balkans’, more specifically the war where ‘bodies starked like cords of firewood’ were revealed. The title poem opens the collection, You’re made of different strands:/ green threads of Sussex fields/ swirling Mississippi currents/ blue drifts of foreign skies’ and concludes,

‘Other times you weigh me down:
            black knots unravelling
grey absence comes in waves
dark swells of sea and whitecap sighs.

I’ve grown used to you, old cloak,
yet find it reassuring that
one day I’ll smile and cast you off
watch you floating into sky.’

 It shows how family inheritance shapes us and how we see the world. ‘Blended Family’ looks at a family photograph when the poet was still a baby held by her father who stands next to her mother. There’s also a stepbrother and stepsister,

Making people stand together smiling
for a moment just to make a pretty picture,
is artistic licence, I suppose.   Bringing us close,
smoothing awkward angles, erasing the dark shadows.

for one golden moment
we are woven close together
standing in the sunlight,
blended, whole.’

There are strong hints that the smiles are just for the photograph and the apparent happiness is not a daily occurrence. But no hint that the abrasions of bringing disparate families together by marriage were deep or long lasting. Its imagery is much softer than in ‘Claim’ which also starts with a photograph of a couple,

Her fingers clasp his shoulder. 
Her eyes are Texas flint.
Her look would drill cold metal, says
                   This is my man.

Jacob made it through the War,
came home in in 1865, then
fell from a horse and died.
Mary Matilda did not break.

Grim, dour, she prayed for his soul
through thick dark Southern nights.
Years later, she joined him there
staked her claim to Texas soil.’

The husband died in 1898, some years after coming home from the war. The marriage was a long one and Mary Matilda embodies the strong Texan woman who won’t be broken. The image of the cloak returns in ‘Voices’, which starts ‘Ghosts have their uses’,

We can hide beneath them,
wrap ourselves in phantom sheets
as camouflage to ward off predators,

cloak ourselves in spectral duvets
made of memories no one can take away.
Still, we mustn’t let the voices of our ghosts

smother what is happening in the now’

Family traditions and outlooks shouldn’t be allowed to deter individuals from living in their moment and stop their achievements. In contrast, ‘Bird of God’, first prize-winner in the Pre-Raphaelite Society Poetry Competition, looks at Joanna Boyce whose work was praised by John Ruskin, but she died in childbirth. I presume the speaker is her husband, Henry,

‘if she accepted me, she could have motherhood
and art, not be forced to choose.

For a while, she had them both.  I remember her
laughing, paint-stained, amid the smell of turps. 
until the day she died in childbirth.’

The speaker later,

‘I asked Rossetti to make another sketch. 
His words hit me like stones:

A great artist sacrificed to bring
another child into the world,
as if there were not more women
just fit for that task.

It’s a strong reminder of how woman’s talents were hampered by male attitudes. Joanna’s husband is right: women shouldn’t have to choose since men never are.

Towards the end of the collection, the poems look to the enduring love. In ‘Pact’, two gardeners pause while raking leaves,

‘Our eyes meet. No need for words.
I hold this closeness fast,
know that winter’s on its way.
I’d sell my soul to make this moment last’

In ‘Approaching Winter’ the narrator on a train speculates,

Beside me, a man reads his paper. 
Another fiddles with his phone. A baby yowls.
I find it weirdly comforting

to think that all of us are heading
relentlessly down the tracks
toward a shared darkness.’

‘Cloak’ chronicles shared experience and familial inheritance that Susan Castillo Street sees as something that may be worn lightly or become heavy. The poems have a celebratory feel, focusing on the cheerful moments of a blended family posing under an apple tree or enduring love. Her conversational tone and natural speech rhythms makes reading ‘Cloak’ feel like gathering in a favoured bar or café to flick through family photos on a phone and discover our commonalities.

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