Reprinted from Calyx, January 2007
ANTHROPOLOGIST IN OHIO, Susan H. Case,Main Street Rag Publishing Co., 4416 Shea Lane, Charlotte, NC 28227, 2005, 38 pages, $7 paper.
The atmosphere is thick in Susan H. Case’s new chapbook, Anthropologist in Ohio—literally thick with pollution (suggested beautifully in the lovely sepia-toned cover photo by the author) and figuratively thick with personal and cultural memories. Anthropology as a profession is as much given to self-scrutiny as to the study of exotic tribes, so the objective connotation of the title is only half the story. Revisiting the years she lived with her then husband in Youngstown, Case mixes rueful reflections on the marriage that unraveled there with close-ups from the Rust Belt: A steel town in Ohio of all places. / Yellowing marriage, yellowing sky (“When Light Diminishes”). In this depressed city with its residue / in yellow-orange air (“The Story’s Always the Same”), where slag and crank / are sequenced city industry (“Brier Hill”), Case finds objective correlatives for her sense of self-estrangement. Thus in “Workingman’s Pizza” the shut steel mill, now Just metal scraps, / weeds, provides similes for the poet’s understanding of her husband and their failing relationship:
|…your elongated frame
like a ladle crane in the daily grind.
With a Class 16 high danger rating
in romance, you are like a nasty steel plant job,
the venomous presence of bosses that come in all forms.
|No wonder at the end of the poem the speaker raises a silent toast to what is gone and what will go. / To the god of rust and breakdown. / This moment here, the best I can do. “Brier Hill” similarly begins with a setting, the couple’s “charming” slum of an apartment, but moves inward, modulating with skilled control of tone from self-irony to genuine sorrow:|
|I might as well be a squatter,
for the erratic stove and sinks. But the tub
still has lion’s feet and they’re oh so charming,
. . .
So cool—if I had a few thousand dollars
in my pocket, I could live like this forever.
No matter that it’s all shutting down
here, turned scared and sad like even you.
|Though the inhabitants of the poems come in a variety of ages, races, and genders, many of the most memorable are women. A nameless murder victim appears obliquely twice, once with chilling casualness in the noir-ishly imagined “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” (…this guy, / who happens to have just thrust his knife / into my girlfriend’s sister…) and again, during a conversation in a Chinese restaurant (“It Hardly Seems to Belong to You or Me”), as the victim of a crime / terrible in its ordinariness,so ordinary, the individual horror of the event threatens to dissolve into A whole history of the world, just as the specifically Chinese quality of the restaurant has been diluted by the white waitress… / white bread on the table, / an iffy special with white sauce. The victim is reprised and revised by the poet herself, struggling free from the pillow her husband holds over her face during an argument, in a scene both awful and comic:
I find the ball of one wrist, press
|And there are other women in these poems whose lives, revealed in a few deft lines, clamp down early: the butcher’s girl the young couple plays to for pork chops: …she cheats her boss, / we look cute, in love, for less fat and bone (“Illusions with Recipe”); the next-door neighbor about to lose half a jaw of rotten teeth: No / bother—Bev didn’t expect her twenty-third year / to be as fine as anything that went before (“Gun”).
Case avoids the pitfalls of easy moralism or sentimentality, tempering her plain style with wit, as in the striking conceit of “If Love Were a Bunion.” “In Lieu of Flowers,” which extends the collection’s concern with geographical and emotional dislocation to the metaphysical, puts Case at a funeral, where she wonders what provokes the survivors of the unloving and unloved deceased to bawl as if there will be no tomorrow / even for them. The answer comes in the unexpected imagery of the poem’s stinging conclusion:
no one finds it easy
|Though Case’s retrospective on herself and her husband is often wry—wannabe hipsters, she calls them (“Skunk”)—she is also capable of an unfussy tenderness. In “The Lasting of It” a minor car crash stands in for the smashed marriage; both the punning title and the poem’s final lines painfully acknowledge that endings are not simple:|
—that hard smack,
|At the conclusion of “Barn Rolling Downhill” the couple’s fracturing relationship takes its image from the landscape of a last road trip to Kansas:|
|a round barn
rolling downhill, the pebbled world
knocking against the same old staves.
|That’s a metaphor Wordsworthian in its feeling and language. More than two hundred years later Anthropologist in Ohio, with its clear-eyed apprehension of the hard truths of poverty, mortality, and vanishing love, lets us know that “the still, sad music of humanity” Wordsworth heard in “Tintern Abbey” is playing yet.|