by Suzanne Burns
Reviewed by Sheila Ashdown
I have a giant brain-crush on Suzanne Burns, which I first revealed in my gushing review of her short-story collection Misfits and Other Heroes (Dzanc Books). I'm happy to report that my one-sided love affair continues after having read The Widow, a rich and affecting collection of prose poetry published by Portland's Night Bomb Press.
In The Widow, Burns uses interconnected poems to tell the story of an unnamed woman whose husband, a soldier, is missing in action in the Middle East. The collection opens with "Lost: The Call: Part One," which places her directly in the aftermath of the phone call informing her that "The desert has misplaced a soldier with your last name." From there, we follow her journey as she struggles with grief, with the unknown, and with the role she's expected to play as a war widow.
It's this last motif -- the role of the widow -- that I find most compelling. Burns's character is a study in contradictions. There's the sentimental way that others see her, as a tragic symbol with her "distinction like a badge," or as an idealized "fairytale of a Lady-in-Waiting, each day her lover's absence pinking her cheeks." Then there's the surprising, fragmented persona that the widow herself reveals. She vacillates between tender grief, wondering, "What if my best side was you, my better half?" and hard-edged realism: "Your empty urn on the mantle? I stopped dusting it weeks ago." Her husband, on the other hand, has achieved a glow of sainthood among the neighbors, but what they don't know is that he is also a "Failed husband, so-so lover." The widow admits, "In an honest moment I honestly think I can honestly carry on."
The Widow is an absorbing read that hooked me as a lover of short stories. I know, I know -- this is a poetry collection, but it will appeal to those of us who don't necessarily self-identify as avid poetry readers. But when read straight through from beginning to end, The Widow is a coherent narrative, the individual poems coalescing into a plot, with a beautifully-paced emotional arc reminiscent of a short story. There's even a good twist -- though I won't spoil the surprise -- in "The Call: Part Two." Overall, Burns has done an exceptional job of drawing upon the best qualities of both poetry and the short-story form with this deep and surprising book. I expect to revisit The Widow often.