Staging history: A review of Susan Steudel’s poetry collection, New Theatre

Reviewed in this essay: New Theatre by Susan Steudel, Coach House Press, 2012.

A high school teacher once passed an antique book of fairy tales around our creative writing class, asking us to make new poems by blacking out and decorating the printed words. Susan Steudel’s debut book of poetry, New Theatre, reminds me of turning the pages of that illuminated book, from which new voices arose out of an obscured source. Steudel’s found poems, word games, lists, and short, glowing stanzas at first seem fragmented, but in fact are distillations of personal history and places in time. Her images remind us that we only ever have a partial view of the facts, and that official history, mandated as ideology, is even more indistinct.

Describing brief scenes and snatches of dialogue, Steudel does not attempt to present the essence of a moment, but instead suggests that they have value and beauty in themselves. Her poems rearrange memories and eavesdrop on real life, underscoring the theatre of history and its stagedness. “The city is a folk tune”, she writes, a line the expresses the book’s sense of multiple voices. The past is a game of broken telephone, each line of dialogue meaning something different. “I can navigate this./ I don’t know you but it doesn’t matter”– the speaker’s inability to know does not hinder her ability to listen.

There are two long sequences at the centre of the book. The first, “Birch,” responds to the tumultuous events of Vladimir Lenin’s life that seeped into Russia’s national consciousness and official communist rhetoric. In “Lenin’s Telephones,” we’re told that  in 1918 telephones became “instruments of power”, were “living presences.” This image of lines of communication and conversations offstage, bears on the book as a whole. In other poems, the letters of Lenin’s name are bolded, highlighting how his revolutionary ideals still pervade politics and culture today. The poems incorporate allusions to Tolstoy, Kandinsky, Akhmatova, Darwin, Marx, Socrates, Creeley, conveying how we’re an audience to a cast of theorists and thinkers.

The book’s other long poem, “Scenes,” looks inward yet contains more direct questions for the reader. We are witnesses to this “mainly autobiographical” story, full of vivid colour and fabric. Interspersing gentle verbs as bracketed stage directions makes the reader more aware of how, once recorded, these scenes of family life have more weight:  “I notice while visiting my parents,/ their words/ perform/ in a curious new light.” Unlike Lenin’s many biographies, these scenes are free of political ideology, of official history, and yet here the speaker also holds out a “hope for magic to make/ ordinary/ what ordinary/ really is under its plain layers.”

Bookending both long poems are shorter poems, gathered into “New Theatre,” which could be approached as a prequel, and “Notes Forward,” with poems that attempt to improvise and predict what’s to come. Yet it is perhaps unjust, or one-sided, to insist on summing up New Theatre as a whole. It is a book that strives to be more than a sum of its parts.