Friday, November 17, 2023

Woman at the Crossing: Heart, Home, Healing


Susan Okie’s Woman at the Crossing, winner of the 2023 Off the Grid Poetry Prize, shows the complexity of everyday living and the choices we make…or don’t. The Dresser sees this in the book’s title poem where a doctor (yes, Susan Okie is a medical doctor) examines a woman in pain, prescribes an x-ray, then departs in her car. Stopped at a traffic light, the doctor notices a woman on the street with a sign professing her pain—hungry, lost my job, three kids:


The light changes and I


drive on behind safety glass.

This woman at the crossing:

desperate soul, racketeer, both?

One day I’ll park, walk back

to speak with her.


In this face-paced 21st century life, we are often haunted by things we do not do as well as decisions we make sometimes too impulsively. In “Willy of Kisumu, Kenya, 1992,” Okie lets Willy, a young street boy into her home to play video games with her similarly aged sons. Willy makes her sons “uneasy” and her boys ask her not to let Willy in again. Before he leaves, he says he will go back to school if only Okie gives him money for books. She knows he sniffs glue and most likely won’t go back to school but gives him money anyhow.


I hand it over and he disappears. Next time,

 perhaps, a new story, but the same questions

and the eyes that freeze me, old as stars.


Other instances that haunt permeate the collection. In “The Life of Secrets,” Okie finds relatives that her family hoped to hide:


This year, I found my tia-abuelas,

two old ladies, Mexican half-sisters

of my grandmother from a marriage


that my gringo family tried to erase.

Their house in Cuernavaca is filled

with sunlight, saints, dark paintings.


In “My Father in Mexico City, 1921,” the poet writes from the perspective of her father as a six-year-old who,  while waiting for his lunch in the beautiful bird-filled courtyard of his home,  witnesses his grandfather sneaking a woman into the house:


Rapping at the door. A shout: grandfather.

The birds dart off. You keep still,

listen to the rapid Spanish, catch a whiff

of perfume. He crosses by the fountain

with someone whose skirts rustle

as her hurries her upstairs.


Occasionally, what haunts also mystifies. The Dresser wonders whether “In Hades” is a nightmare or something that actually happened. Here are excerpts:


I’ve gone under.

My thoughts dart

like small blue fish.

It isn’t safe

to speak. I’ll be

sliced open…



I see a man—vast,

dark. He pins

my arms, wrestles me

to the ground. I watch

myself fall.


My eyes are bandaged.

One is torn inside…


Someone unwraps them—

a detective shows me

photos. Men’s faces

swim past.



“In Hades” is preceded by “interior with Young Woman” which concerns a young woman who is taken to a borrowed house by a man she doesn’t know well. When he comes on to her, she “recoils” and becomes an abstract painting in the style of Picasso. “In Hades” is followed by “A Doctor’s Eye: Thy Bed of Crimson Joy.” While the poem concerns a recalcitrant patient who has been told that alcohol will speed his death and it does in the most horrific way, what catches the Dresser’s attention is the sub-title of this poem. Thy Bed of Crimson Joy comes from this short poem by William Blake:


The Sick Rose


O Rose, thou art sick:

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm,


Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy;

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.


Of course, the sick rose can stand in for that patient who gets his mother to sneak in beer and then has an incident where blood gushes from this throat and the doctor attending him who must be an inexperienced medic cannot get any other doctor to help because the man has flagrantly brought on his own death and cannot be healed. It could also be a suggestive touchstone for the women in the two poems coming before “A Doctor’s Eye”—these women who may have suffered some degree of molestation.


In Woman at the Crossing, finding a comfortable and safe place known as home is a recurring theme in this collection. It manifests largely in section 4 which most often concerns love and care for the environment and our place in the cosmos. The dramatic cover art, “Cathedral Rock” by Walter Weiss (Okie’s husband), confirms the importance of finding home on our planet. On this topic, the poem that resonated the deepest for the Dresser—“Love’s Austere and Lonely Offices”—narrows down to the love the poet had for her father who was plagued by some kind of stomach ailment but who was working on “a musical about Odysseus, the man who loved/ home but couldn’t seem to get there.” Section 4 is the only section of the book prefaced by a quote. Section 4’s quote is “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” by Henry James. The heart weighs heavily and earnestly in this carefully written and presented first full-length collection by Susan Okie.


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