Book Review: Flying Yellow, by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes

Book Review: Flying Yellow, by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes
Review by Linda Parsons
Paraclete Press, 2021

Like the best marriages, the term pietas metrica, employed by the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, joins the highest expressions of nature and religion. Suzanne Underwood Rhodes’ Flying Yellow: New and Selected Poems further deepens and humanizes this notion, moving from the “pitch-black storms” of girlhood to a “ladder of arms” raising her to an ecstatic Sufi-like whir capturing in word and heart the fruited world around and within her.

The “new and selected” aspect of this collection allows us to follow Rhodes’ journey with the queenly mother she worshiped and the stepfather’s “dread / isolating presence” (12), “the rage smoldering within those walls” (4)—and she, the child walking on eggshells, playing games of escape and hide with her sisters. As with all childhood fear and wounding, the speaker of these poems, as was her mother, expertly gauges “the weather of the house,” which “wears like grief” (16).

Through marriage and children and marriage again, “past years when I never knew / how to picture my life” (27), the other side of loss is rinsed bright and shelter takes hold, her life becoming its own union of inward and outward joy, its own prayerful pietas metrica. She opens to these opposites, seeing whatever life befalls us as holy in how burdensome or lightly we carry it, not turning away from a world and our place in it ever “ripe with death” (47).  

Death as companion takes a fascinating turn in the book’s second section, with historical persona portraits: Sister Sophia’s ironic confessions, Mary Rowlandson’s deep child loss, Dorothy Bradford’s “pukestocking” sea voyage, the contradictions visited upon the Black poet and former slave Phillis Wheatley, and the most chilling—“Strangled Roses,” an obsessed and distraught Edgar Allen Poe’s commissioned corpse painting of his wife, Virginia, spoken in her words: “He means to keep me safe in the gilt frame, / to encrypt the undersound of heaving lungs: / …the smothering candle-smoke wavering / like his own vaporous small shadow” (45). These vividly imagined pieces lead to the very real haunts of wartime, the illness and suicide of friends, and the poet’s own experience in the chemo treatment room—griefs assuaged with remembrance, the light left on, a priest scootering in to bless “the bags of poison” (59).

The last two sections shift to buoy in imagery and heightened language, embrace of the natural world at ocean’s edge, and the living presence of Spirit. All of these elements work in concert and in reverence for each other, each a messenger of what life is but yet can be. These sections, in particular, “father-forth” in beauty that is past change, as Hopkins wrote, charged and flaming out, “like shining from shook foil” (“God’s Grandeur”). Rhodes never proselytizes, but is a vessel of breathtaking light, a “flying yellow day” amid the dark currents of the past that swirl in some form in all of us. Still, she and her work ascend, as we all hope and strive to, as is our purpose, to evolve here on Earth, despite “the violent, the black unbroken” (80), despite her “own heart / clanging in chains” (81). Each of us lives with the same dichotomy and ambiguity, finding “the glory in the hidden,” our souls “fat with secrets, ripe as a pupa” (91). Each of our moves, town to town or street to street, leaves us more emptied out, leading us to “the final emptying where nothing arrives / but the trembling, homeless soul / asking for preservation, asking / to be loved…” (95). By her attentive example, Rhodes reminds us to be both student and teacher in this brief-burning life, to notice the plain robin, the wasting deer, an aunt’s “vine-veined hands,” the “ruby notes” of summer peaches, the patient wait to view the great crested flycatcher. She even offers the revelation of forgiveness, a bridge too far for some, but possible when you dig into the winter ground to plant onions when your stepfather is dying. When you dig “past every bitter loss, / and maybe you’ll find / it’s really God under the sheets and your father, his heart crushed, / sleeps forgiven” (15). Because in the end, in your whole earthly life, this is all you have to do.  

Poet, playwright, and editor, LINDA PARSONS is the poetry editor for Madville Publishing and reviews editor for Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. She is also copy editor for Chapter 16, the literary website of Humanities Tennessee. Linda is published in such journals as The Georgia ReviewIowa ReviewPrairie SchoonerSouthern Poetry Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Baltimore Review, and Shenandoah. Her fifth poetry collection is Candescent (Iris Press, 2019).