by Susan Scutti
Paper Kite Press, 2011
Perfect Binding, 60 pages
To Purchase: The Commute
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Dawn Leas
I am a Jersey girl, born in a port city that lives in the shadows of New York skyscrapers. I grew up being a city-dweller wannabe. Now, every time I drive through the Lincoln Tunnel or across the GW Bridge to deliver my sons to their respective schools, I pledge that someday it will be for me to return home. But, for the near future, I am just an earnest, maybe slightly idealistic, observer and visitor who is drawn to anything related to New York city. A few months ago, a friend gave The Commute by Susan Scutti a thumbs up on Facebook. When I found out that Scutti was also a New Jersey native who now lives in NYC, and that The Commute was a Paper Kite Press title (I love PKP books), I quickly put it on my to-read list.
This debut full-length poetry collection is brimming with life experiences and snapshots of city living; angst and strength. It isn’t dark necessarily; but it isn’t bright like the lights of Times Square either. Some of its poems are gritty, sad and resigned. Others are detached, observant; calm and matter-of-fact. It lays out a story, welcomes you to take it all in, but makes no apologies for its characters, its city, or its subjects, such as birth, abortion, sex, disillusionment with work, and family dynamics. I appreciate that Scutti tells the stories in her poems with thoughtfulness, honesty, heart and soul.
For many who haven’t lived in New York city, there is a certain mystique surrounding it. We forget the realities – garbage strikes, torrential rain with no empty cab in sight, pet owners that don’t carry bags, hot subway platforms crowded with cranky commuters. We forget that city dwellers often yearn for something else, something more, just like everyone does at some point in life. And Scutti captures this need in several poems in the collection.
The opening poem “Job” moves through the mundaneness of an ordinary day from commute to work to home to the next morning, but in “The Blackout of 2003” the daily routine of mundaneness is interrupted by the loss of power. Scutti begins stanza two with “on the spiritless train headed/towards an unembellished office building” and ends it with “penned like veal calves/waiting to be slaughtered/the corporate class/generates hostile hormones/and emits them/into exhaust-filled air.” A beautiful, yet sadly empty image. In stanza four, the narrator is standing in a pay-phone line when a man pulls up in a car billowing with smoke. The stanza ends with the simple grace of humanity in the face of a crisis:
“although all i do is offer
to bring him water –
although he refuses –
I still feel like the
he calls me.”
In “The Dental Assistant” Francisco describes his loneliness as “a fanged beast,” “an icy blue vapor,” and “suddenly fluid.” This vivid imagery is the foundation of a poem that is the epitome of a person lonely in the midst of millions of people. The first lines of “Night Club” reek of despair and while the reader may initially think he is meeting someone, this will have a happy ending, the poem dives deeper into loneliness and ends with this haunting image:
“With a blanks wall behind her and eyes
that don’t seem to blink she looks like a character trapped in a
comic strip, and after, after, he feels nothing as he watches her sleep.”
Scutti navigates life events and feelings like a seasoned New Yorker wends through a throng of tourists snapping pictures of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Several family poems exemplify this as well as bringing a sense of the personal into the collection which also often exudes a subtle sense of disconnect. These poems, like “Education” and “Safe,” are poignant and ones that readers can instantly connect with. In “Safe” Scutti recounts how her father wrote three books in his 70s by hand that she wasn’t allowed to read until he was 84 and suffering from Alzheimer’s. Even then she could only read the only copies in his home where they were “safe” from being lost. The reader feels the mother’s frustration when she yells at the dad:
“She likes your book.” When she turns to me
my mother’s blue eyes appear glacial. “I told him
years ago that you would be the only one
to appreciate his novels. And now it’s too late –
he doesn’t remember enough to discuss them with you!”
While I enjoyed every poem, by far my favorite one is the title poem nestled in the center of the collection and spanning just over six pages. It’s sub-titled stanzas are vignettes that fit together like puzzle pieces, yet also flow and move as individual entities. These are small gems that once mined deserve to be turned over again and again for images and phrases such as “the clothes worn by each passenger/give off an odor of exhausted concern,” “where sunlight /is leaking from a cloud,” and
“As the train races through the dark
from the city to my home town,
hurtling from my adult life
backwards into my childhood, I begin
Scutti expertly brings her poems alive with every day, crisp descriptive images that engage the senses. Readers can hear the city breath; see the weight of struggle, feel the pain of difficult decisions, smell a hint of desperation of last call at one bar of thousands in the maze of intersecting city streets; taste the angst of people unsure they are on the right path or that happiness is within reach. Her words are layered with meaning like a richly tiered chocolate cake. The kind of cake you slowly slide your fork into – icing, cake, icing, cake – enjoying the texture, savoring the effort that went into making it. Have a fork ready when you sit down with Susan Scutti’s The Commute.