rev. of Bardo by Suzanne Paola

Issue #78
Spring 1999


Poems by Suzanne Paola. Univ. of Wisconsin Press, $10.95 paper. Reviewed by Susan Conley.

In Tibetan, the bardo is defined as a transitory state after death, a murky time where, Suzanne Paola writes in her latest book of poems, “the soul wanders through the heavens and hells . . . trying to achieve nirvana or Buddhahood.” Selected for the 1998 Brittingham Prize in Poetry by Donald Hall,
Bardo chronicles Paola’s own complex journey from drug addiction to university tenure and motherhood. The speaker of these intriguing poems has chosen life over death, and there is a kind of awed, disbelieving celebration going on in
Bardo, a book where “spirits hang all around” and traditional narrative forms undergo many face lifts.

The speaker of these disjointed, non-linear riffs has lived a life as “someone [she’d] be afraid of” and someone “she can’t really remember.” Paola’s bardo is about a return from that drug-induced purgatory, where the trick is to “become basic, rendered / like a carcass in a farmwife’s hands: into the pot / this huge thing, life, & out of it / a small substance: mostly fat & bone, / fat & bone” (“In the Realm of Neither Notions Nor Not Notions”).

Many of these poems indeed paint stark pictures of heroin use, of boys with “a needle just into a vein,” long after pop songs and poems about heroin have come to feel passé. However, what saves this collection, and what makes it such an important book, is its reinvention of the narrative confession its unwillingness to render the somewhat familiar territory of drug addiction and dysfunction in any predictable fashion.

Paola subverts the conventional structure with odd crystallizations and wild thematic leaps. Life to this poet is an “elegant flow of one thing to the next,” and Paola arranges
Bardo with similar fluidity. Drugs or not, these poems trace how the mind works, how unpredictable its associations are, how creative its remaking of the past. This storytelling a postmodern hybrid of lyric and narrative, with all kinds of religious deviations makes for a haunting read. What could come off as heavy-handed and overtly self-conscious is largely effective because of Paola’s spare language and evocative imagery. She details car crashes while high on mescaline, parties with “children staring at colors scarving from their hands . . . Frail-veined girls / who shot up in the webs of their fingers, / in the skull behind the ear,” the idea being to “live anonymous to yourself.”

Interspersing the vivid pastiche of drug use with teachings from Tibetan Buddhism, Paola parallels the spiritual journey with that of addiction: “How much heroin did it take to become selfless? / . . . How much Orange Crush & methadone? . . . Forgetting / how to strike a match, what my hands do.” The Buddhist teachings rarely feel preachy, instead adding to the complexity and depth of the poet’s search to reinterpret her life. In “Mistaking Opiates for the Clear Light,” she writes: “I trust in the bardo wisdom: how the gods, / with their soft white light, draw us in, convince us / their stuporous world is all there is. / / I’ve seen them, slumping / forward, burning themselves with cigarettes.” Paola often wisely juxtaposes herself and her dark world of death and drugs with the bright, sober world of the living. Quaaludes, in their “eucharistic form” and “clear bags of heroin,” are compared to a bowl of fruit: “A pear & a pomegranate wizen / into color. Almost / alive, skins racking.” Paola ”
was their opposite, pale girl, not living or dying . . .”

In the aptly titled poem “Tenure at Forty,” a welcome respite from the needle tracks and drug amnesia, the collection makes the thematic leap to a day job in academia, where the speaker “pulls on nude pantyhose to stand before the dean. / Tenure meaning held.”

Experimental California poet Carla Harryman wrote, “Narrative exists, and arguments either for or against it are false.” Likewise, in
Bardo Suzanne Paola seems to have come to terms with her own compulsion to weave tales. As innovative as the poems in this collection get, they do have a story to tell, and wisely they don’t abandon that assignment.

In the end, this is a courageous book, portraying addiction and survival without being elegiac without the self-importance that can contain and close off so much of American narrative poetry. This is a book that embraces limbo and the shock of having picked life over death, of having made it to the other side: “to have walked through the six realms / & somehow without knowing it / have chosen . . .”