Susan Terris









abstract photo open to interpretationabstract photo open to interpretation



Assaulted by brick and steel, my sister and I cross
the glass bridge between then and now, touch
Szumsk, the Polish town
our grandparents came from, walk into
Ejszyszki Tower eyeing photo doppelgängers
of relatives we call the monkey aunts,
of an uncle who couldn’t skate the ’36 Olympics,
of our parents, ourselves.

My younger sister has married a Baptist, raised
children who don’t believe they are Jews;
yet she — riveted — is moving snail’s-pace.
So when I come upon it, I am alone.
It’s an old red cattle car like those from
our Missouri childhood, counted as they
clacked by full of livestock
due for slaughter. But this one is different.
To avoid passing through, I pretend
to examine oxidized razors, forks,
tea strainers, then metal instruments
of torture which up-close
become umbrella frames. I check my watch,
consider flight…

yet as I turn, I see my sister
by the boxcar unwilling to enter. Why are
we here? Hurrying toward her, I move past cart, suitcases, hat boxes. What will it tell us?
For a moment, we are side by side, aware of
primal, physical comfort. Then together
we step in. It is dark. We do not speak.
After 50 years, stench still saturates
the boards. As I inhale it, I feel fingers
tug at edges of my skirt,
my sweater, my hands. Small, sweaty heads
I can’t see butt me, begging for refuge,
those who would not have been spared:
my children, my sister’s Mischling children,
my own Mischling grandchildren.

Suddenly, a soprano voice echoes around us.
Choo-choo. Turning, we see a boy-child
havened between his parents.
He smiles, nods sweetly, beckoning to us and to
the invisible hordes pressed close. Choo-choo,
he repeats.
Choo-choo. All aboard…




In 1914, steeped in Brownian motion,
the marked irregularity
of Mercury’s orbit around the sun,

Einstein wrote his wife Mileva,
mother of his sons, asking her to:
(1) keep his linen in order,
(2) serve him 3 meals a day in his room,
(3) address him only when required.

When he met Mileva, an ethnic Serb,
she was a physics student, too,
and he called her his dollie
who made his pillow catch fire.

Their love-child Lieserl —
given away the year
before they married — vanished.
But what was she like?

Did she hear music of spheres?
Or did she tend meals and linen,
board a Dachau train with
her children knowing only that
relativity is what happens to you?



EYE OF THE HOLOCAUST, Susan Terris (Arctos Press, 1999)

Photo: © Diane Rosemblum Althoff

Photo (Susan Terris): ©  Susan Grossman







All dreams lead back to the nightmare garden.
Janet Frame

In the airport, she sees women and men,
laminated identities swinging across their chests;
and the shop offers fcuk, a fragrance
with the line: Scent to Bed. The inversion
of letters is where it began or how, with one replaced,
saint became slant. Mother no longer tucked beside
Father into the dollhouse bed in the room with
a missing wall. No more clues. This murder was not
done with a candlestick in the dining room but
slowly, room by three-walled room, in a cheerful
round of miniature days lit by a triple A battery.

Is her biography fiction, people ask,
or her fiction biography? Not too different from
that sassy confessional poet who reportedly
writes ten minutes behind her life.

Once the doorbell rang. Once the window boxes
held flowers, and a porcelain cat crouched
in the front yard shrubs. But Goodwill has taken
much away, including Father in his quilted bed.
Today, a parade of seething nights,
dusty paths lead to a shrine of feathers, snake
and grass and silent claws. Now rooms here
have no light, and another wall has gone missing.
Time for the market cart,
green plastic bags, and a shit-stained blanket?
Do not attempt to reconstruct the truth.

If you think this is about drink or sex, you will be
both wrong and right. To orient yourself, trail
fingers of your left hand along the surface of
your two remaining walls. If you lose them,
the garden will grow, or you, like Alice, will shrink
until you can’t reach high enough to smell
the reckless peonies or take the key waiting
atop the table. So what does it mean then to love
and be loved? Is it worth the risk?

The dollhouse was such a safe haven. Miniatures
may give the illusion of control, yet control has
vanished with the walls. She’s left now with
feathered trails, highways, skylanes
lines of
uncertainty arrowing off in all directions.
She’s lost because of sex. She’s won because
of sex. She will drink to that, to an unsafe
snake-scented garden where she might wander
naked and unashamed. The slant is not quite
right, but she continues to plane it down.
The game, she insists, willing to discard batteries
yet not the candlestick, is riotous and disordered,
scent of bed in the air. But nightmare or not, it is
after all, worth each and every candle.


"Sometimes safety is unbearable," declares one of these sharp, and sharpened, poems—it’s a theme that informs the whole collection, as its many voices, all equally sure, equally exacting and precise, take stock of the real situation of the women Terris sees around her. In her intimate social examination, Terris also does something entirely new with the confessional poem, opening it to previously unexplored territory with her vivid, idiosyncratic language and hauntingly honest imagery. The whole is eye-opening and refreshingly frank. Cole Swensen










Shirley Kaufman:

There seems to be no limit to the range of experience and empathy in the far-reaching poems of Susan Terris. Out of a life passionately lived and remembered, she has constructed a bold map for survival and self-understanding. Her wisdom, dazzle of language, imaginative exploration of time and nature, and amazing appetite for risk and "dark surprise."


David St. John:

Susan Terris’s poetry is exquisite and extraordinary. Her poems exhibit an intellectual verve and a linguistic brilliance that are remarkable. There are fewpoets who can so deftly orchestrate the dramatic dilemmas of the daily with the profound wisdoms of the larger world.


Ronald Wallace:

Susan Terris teases out the terror of the everyday, the elegies for all our lost selves. She is a true original, a remarkable, remarkable poet.


Eleanor Wilner:

As the whorls of a fingerprint mark a singular identity, so with the poems of Susan Terris, whose twisting, whirling lines trace the dissolving trail of a restless self, obsessed, unmoored, “lines of uncertainty arrowing off in all directions.” Hers is a stinging insight, a high energy, diamond-hard compression; a mind unsatisfied, meteoric, myth-seeking, voicing our contemporary “age of un-innocence,” unable to believe in what it needs.


Li-Young Lee:

These poems are our fondest human wishes and hopes given voice. They report the world’s abundance and richness even amid loss and pain.


















Susan Terris was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. She has a B.A. degree in English literature from Wellesley College and an M.A. from San Francisco State University.

Ms.Terris has written poetry since she was an undergraduate in classes being taught by Richard Wilbur, David Ferry, and Philip Booth. Her writing career, however, began in the field of children’s fiction. She had 21 books published by New York houses such as Doubleday, Macmillan, Scholastic, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. During the same period, she also wrote poetry and had poems published from time to time. About 25 years ago, Ms.Terris began to find herself consumed by the writing of poetry. Since then she’s written and published only poetry.

Her poetry books include THE HOMELESSNESS OF SELF, CONTRARIWISE, NATURAL DEFENSES, FIRE IS FAVORABLE TO THE DREAMER, Poetic License, and EYE OF THE HOLOCAUST. Her work has appeared in many publications including:  The Iowa Review, Field, The Journal, Colorado Review, Prairie Schooner, Spillway, The Southern Review,Volt, Denver Quarterly, and Ploughshares. She  had a poem from Field publishedin PUSHCART PRIZE XXXI.

For seven years,  with CB Follett, she edited RUNES, A Review Of Poetry.  She is now editor of Spillway and a poetry editor for Pedestal Magazine and In Posse Review. In addition to writing & journal editing, she does freelance editing of book-length poetry manuscripts and teaches workshops on “The Making of a Chapbook”.  With CB Follett, she hosts a series of weekend workshops taught by David St. John.

She is married and lives in San Francisco with her husband David.  In her spare time, she enjoys baking, kayaking, reading, and pursuing surprising activities with her 12 grandchildren.

Articles similaires