Book Reviews, Features

Katy Ellis: “Fires of the Past Meet the Blue Balm of Now”

51IBVfiHBjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Cloud Pharmacy
Susan Rich
White Pine Press, 2014

In Susan Rich’s Cloud Pharmacy, we are at a mid-point, a reflective moment in a sincere and eventful life. We drift and we hover, but not passively. Cloud Pharmacy determinedly asks: Why chose to live this one life reluctantly?

Though it is not the opening poem, “Clouds, Begin Here”, launches us into the undulating theme of burning away the past in order to heal in the present:

It’s so hard to say what the dead really want.
In the lost fires of the notebook, words stumble
down the columns of green and white paper.
In the notebook of the unknown index, blank
descriptions, we lose our blue hours.

Rich reaches into her childhood school days where she read books made of paper, … drank milk from small cartons (“American History”) but never with cloying nostalgia. To move forward necessitates a look into the past and whatever memories reside there. “Childhood Study: First Late August” shows us the fleeting bonds of young friendships:

Like monkeys we screech as the trees go pop—
What lit-up between us that summer—
three sisters clustered like barn cats—I can’t say
except for a time camaraderie
warmed the soles of our feet, our robes
remaining intact just one season—
before it burned away.

Wildfire acts as a metaphor for cleansing and transformation throughout the collection, surfacing in poems such as “There Is No Substance That Does Not Carry One Inside Of It”, “Burning Bush” and “The World No Longer Resembles Itself”—the last of which is based on a very real wildfire that Rich experienced in Mojacar, Spain, in August 2009.

The searing fires within the poems are often cooled by the recurring color blue. The color splashes around in nearly every poem and acts as a touch of balm when the reader needs it most. Blue seems to signal reflection, a chance to process what the fires have incited in the speaker. In “Blue Grapes”, the opening poem, Rich asks: “How to write your one blue life?” The question foreshadows the need for healing when one begins the fiery task of examining life through writing.

Smack dab in the middle of the book, Rich’s “Weathervane” states,

We are smack in the middle of the story:
in the middle of Mojacar
at midday


I am in the middle of a life,
midpoint of the year: July
when the radio plays halfway through the tango—
a middle pancake gone wild.

We see a crisis more clearly as the speaker turns even more earnestly to the question of how to advance/or retreat in the second half of one’s life. True to theme, the very next poem, “In This Galaxy of Seeing How Much Remains Unseen”, offers the reader a blue balm for the questions that burn within the speaker’s mind:

Is this what you wanted?
An arm slipped under your waist while you slept?
And still, how this galaxy of scars—
signals above us in blue transparent space.

Cloud Pharmacy steadfastly questions and examines relationships, youth and death, but in “Dark Room”, the third section of Cloud Pharmacy, Rich takes the reader to a dark place. These ekphrastic poems are based on Rich’s encounter with the multiple exposure self-portraits by Canadian photographer Hannah Maynard (1834-1918) who lived in Victoria, B.C. and lost two young daughters. In “Tricks a Girl Can Do”, the first poem of this section, Rich writes in the first person:

I will hang myself in picture frames
in drawing rooms where grief
is not allowed a wicker chair


Look! I’ve learned to slice myself in three
[…] I develop myself
in the pharmacist’s chemicals
three women I’m loathe to understand—
presences I sometimes cajole
into porcelain light and shadow.

As if this place is too dark, as if residing in Hannah Maynard’s voice too morbid to entertain, Rich immediately shifts to the third person in the following poem and continues in third person through the rest of this section. These poems are both haunting and loving. Rich seems to hold Hannah Maynard’s grief by holding the art Ms. Maynard made from her grief and presenting it to the reader. We feel Rich identifying with Maynard in “Endless Forms, Most Beautiful”:

From house left and then house right, solitary Hannahs float like smoke
rings into me. I should have known—the artful dodge, her concentric days,
unwavering dark-sky stare—recognized my own pathology.

As we move into the final section of Cloud Pharmacy, it’s as if Rich’s brush with Hannah Maynard’s photographs burned away the dread of the speaker’s own life and sets her on a new course. The poems demonstrate, as this section is called, “Another Way of Telling.” On this new path of examination, poems often begin or end with questions that show the speaker negotiating possibilities and beginning to accept the life of a writer. In “Sugar, You Know Who You Are”, we read:

Maybe we were beginning our lives
Together. Maybe.

In “Conundrum”:

I spend my days wondering if I am married
or single, puzzling out the simplest things
(I should really know).


or remaining lonely as brooms.
How do I knot my tie?
To live in coupledom we must wrestle
Our omissions imprecisions.

In “Perhaps You Are—”:

What can you do
but accept this fragment
unfolding out of the sky:
You will live
This life alone—
And you will write—

The speaker’s revelation—that she will dedicate her life to writing—unfolds out of the sky like a prescription for the future, giving Cloud Pharmacy its final push toward what turns out to be a hopeful ending. In “The World to Come”, the final poem, there are no questions, only declarations:

Let’s say we make our own happiness, roll over
in the fields, stain our arms and legs with blue
grass; let’s say there’s simply one year left
to draw lists of clouds, slip guilt free through bars

Cloud Pharmacy pulls the reader through a satisfying storm of honest self-reflection. In the end, as fires wane and blue returns, we feel the speaker’s bravery as she faces life after the mid-point. Rich includes the reader in the hard-won declaration: Who says we can’t have it all: the house of sky and soft catcalls

Katy E. Ellis grew up under fir trees and high-voltage power lines in Renton, Washington. She teaches creative writing through Seattle Arts & Lecture’s Writers in the Schools (WITS) program and at The Family Learning Program, a home school education organization. Aside from her chapbooks Urban Animal Expeditions (Dancing Girl Press) and Gravity (Yellow Flag Press), her poetry has appeared in a number of literary journals and anthologies including PRISM International,Literary Mama, Floating Bridge Review, MAYDAY Magazine, Redheaded Stepchild, Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and the Canadian journals Grain and Fiddlehead. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and daughter.