Laura Madeline Wiseman
"Women, you have got to want to live": A Review of Susan Yount's Catastrophe Theory By Susan Yount (Hyacinth Girl Press 2012)
Ed. note: some selected excerpts from Catastrophe Theory are here.
"Why Ophelia" Susan Yount asks in the poem with the same name, answering, "because she is every female suicide," an emblem, a metaphor, "a fucking rock/ in a sack of puppies" (5). Why not wonder why Ophelia? Yount seems to suggest she's tired of these female icons, these women writers with rocks in their pockets and a blown pilot light aiming for catastrophe. Yount is curious about female catastrophe in Catastrophe Theory, her debut collection of poetry from Hyacinth Girl Press because, as she notes, "I'll admit to wanting to commit suicide/ as recently as last night" (19), but even so she admits "I never do" (19) and "I couldn't stick my head in an oven" (5). If Ophelia is the rock, seeking to drown puppies, Yount is willing to tell her goodbye, much as she says goodbye to yet another female icon: Scarlet. In "Goodbye Scarlet" the opening poem of the chapbook, Yount writes "good luck have fun…keep in touch" but "I'm staying here" (1). Where is here? Here is Chicago, home of male poets like Li-Young Lee and female poets like Kristy Bowen, Lauren Goldstein, and Susan Yount, the Madam of the Chicago Poetry Bordello.
Though Ophelia, Scarlet, and cows are minor players in this windy city bordello, the major player is Yount facing the catastrophe of parents, jobs, men, motherhood, and drink. There's Joe who "was shot// the bullet hit bone exited back his calf" (3), her first fiancé who "was the first person to ever love me" (2) and one who she said yes to "on condition he keep the same job for a least a year" (2). Alas, Joe can't follow such strict conditions. When not aggravating his hernia in factory work, "passing a blunt" (2), smoking cigarettes, or getting shot, he was "selling pot" (2). Readers meet bachelor number two in "Outrages – Cats – Jobs – Finances" who "was a loser drug dealer convicted felon on parole," a man Yount knew she wouldn't marry "but said yes anyway" (15). He too was shot (15). She had a feeling she'd marry bachelor number three, and so she said "no" to the next guy who asked (16). Bachelor number four, the winner, Yount takes and though she dreams of taking "the virginity of a younger girl" in "I Am the Farmer's Daughter" she feels "confident having finally taken something// for myself" (25).
For Yount, love is a catastrophe until you get it right. Another catastrophe is jobs. In "I worked for a Boss who Wanted Sex" Yount chronicles a series of jobs, a series of bosses, and a series of tools one needs for such work, stating, "I had a box knife in my pocket" (11). Two poems later she writes:
When I was 20 I lost my mind. I was still living
with my parents working full-time nights in a factory,
part-time afternoons waitressing and part-time college (15)
and though she failed to go in "for weeks" and didn't "call in sick" both jobs called "wanting her back" (15). In "October 2009" Yount offers notes on what she does on the job and at home including "10:45 Sex. Finish poem. Shower. Bed" (22). Here too Yount address the iconic women to which she and women often find themselves pitted against. In "Picking Scabs" a poem that reads like a marital spat, she writes, "I'll give you the mythology// of being a woman—butchers in the shape of dresses" (24) and though Yount's other half imagines "princess housewife mother untouched/ who bears all" she retorts, "Get used to the knife alcohol breath grey hair slaughter" (24).
The symbolic female is the catastrophe Yount tracks poem to poem. Take for example the v, a mathematical symbol for which we're taught to solve. In "Hyperbolic Umbilic Catastrophe" v equals "Mute mute mute mute" (6). In the following poem across the fold in "Fold Catastrophe" v equals "house" (7). In the chapbook's fold, v "was like restless vagina syndrome" and "mommy where/ are you" (17). In "Elliptic Umbilic Catastrophe" v equals "No wonder Eve ate the apple. Had a cigarette" (26). Finally in "Affine Transformation" v equals "the most perfect lunch you could get" (28). Yet what is so transformative about Catastrophe Theory is the love of family, the love of her man. In "Humoring Me" Yount documents the ways her husband teachers her lessons as she lunches with poets, dead and alive, cooks dinner, is harassed by corporations, and can hardly wait to the coming of her poems, "the great wayward wave" (30).