CURES INCLUDE TRAVEL makes for a provocative title for Susan Rich’s new collection of poems, her second. As traveler, Rich compares favorably with Ibn Battuta, who, in the 14th century, having set his heart on Mecca, took off at the age of 21 from Tangier, Morocco, where he had been born. As it turned out, Mecca morphed into another starting point, as did the next destination and the next, and, amazingly, Battuta eventually found himself on the road for 29 years and 75,000 miles. Similarly, in following her heart to Niger as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Rich unwittingly set off on an epic journey which has led her to South Africa as a Fulbright professor, Bosnia as an electoral supervisor, Gaza as a human rights worker, etc.
It is evident, too, that Rich’s years on the road have taught her something about negative capability. In poems such as “Sand Women,” “The Women of Kismayo,” “In Transit,” “Special Reports,” “Day 7: In the Beginning” and “Iska’s Story” all inspired by outside reports the speaker demonstrates her respectful attentiveness to strangers from around the world. The best international poems in the book, though, to pick up on my Keatsian reference point, do no irritable reaching after fact and reason via the New York Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer or the South African Broadcasting System. In them, the poetical character truly “enjoys lights and shade” and “lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.” For example, in “Everyone in Bosnia Loves Begonias,” Rich risks the potential silliness of nursery-rhyme-intensive alliteration (“budding begonias bursting”) and a co-opted advertising jingle (“like a strong neighbor, Rex begonia is there”) to resurrect the life force amid bullet-worn apartments. In “Fissure,” the speaker, who has herself just been summarily unhoused by a fiancé, blasts through the usual empathetic space (there but for the grace of God go I) to a haunted oneness with a beggar child collapsed on a cement roundabout in Capetown. In “Ghazal for Everyone,” set in the fifth day of the War in Iraq, the word world gets lit like a candle at the end of every other line, thanks to an ancient Arabic poetic form.
If cures include travel, they also include staying home. Ironically, given the world-ranging nature of the book, many of its strongest poems manifest something close to a reverence for domestic detail. In some poems, as in “To My Mother, Dead Eight Years,” domesticity becomes a trope for the poet’s mother, whose death is very much at the heart of the book: “And if there was little love to spare/ we had crisp sheets, clean underwear.”
In others, domestic details give testimony on the single life: its vicissitudes (“After You’re Gone, the House”) and its gifts (“Scriptorium”). Rich’s allegiance to Elizabeth Bishop as mentor is especially clear in these poems. I also very much liked “What She Leaves Unspoken,” an oblique self-portrait, which, in its use of surreal blue in collage reminded me of the Joseph Cornell boxes Bishop so admired.
The story is that at one point in his peregrinations, Ibn Battuta offended the sultan in Delhi, who took out a contract on him. Battuta, aware the royal assassins would not kill him while at prayer, launched the equivalent of a prayer filibuster. After nine days, the cut-throats finally threw in the towel. Indeed “prayer” and “blessing” are words that appear often in Cures Include Travel. Unusually frequent stanza breaks in the substantial number of poems with one- and two-line stanzas give readers a further sense of silence and sacred space. Despite or perhaps because of Rich’s assiduousness in focusing her lens on those in the crossfire on television news, her poetry serves as a sanctuary from terrorism, exactly what all of us could use.