Three Kinds of Lonely: An Obit for Susan Elbe

January 29, 2024
By Kate Wylie

An undeniable magnetism exists in this world which brings all destined things back together—across lifetimes and planes, through asteroid-dappled space and the gray matter of days.

Susan Elbe’s poetry has long haunted my own. Her work depicts young midwestern women amidst division. She writes often and with passion about daughterhood and the pitfalls of prejudgment, pulling images from the natural world without restriction.

When I was an undergraduate student at Webster University, the trick to avoiding textbook fees was simple: take Clewell classes. Rather than expecting you to shell out for books you may or may not read a second time, Clewell gleefully spent his afternoons making photocopied packets of poems to distribute in class—copyright laws be damned.

Being a no-good knowledge hoarder, I’ve kept every shred of paper Clewell ever put in my hands. Boxes and boxes of seemingly useless papers have moved with me through decades of houses. You just never know.

Right after purchasing my first home, I felt a sudden, undeniable draw back to the packets. Unclear whether the feeling was one of spring cleaning or simply nostalgia, I started to go through them. And though I tried to stop a few times, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of papers, a quiet and sincere voice deep within me kept insisting: Dig. You need what’s in here.

Where the Good Swimmers Drown1

  • In small towns with one undertaker,
  • a grocer, six taverns,
  • and bottomless backwoods lakes, where your five-and-dime locket sinks down and down,
  • disappearing like a silver minnow, and your red sandals too,
  • small as doll shoes,
  • small as you float farther out.
  • You don’t know what’s underneath
  • but you know how
  • fast, fast cars can fly, the souls
  • of farm boys getting trapped in bottles, and god knows it feels good,
  • the wind picking up,
  • soft weeds braceleting your wrists, the shoreline curved
  • into a smile you can remember, just.

Sometimes a memory will cling to us, elongating steadily from our heels until we’ve grown a second shadow. Sometimes we’re running so fast and free through our lives that we don’t realize we’ve adopted this shadow for years and years—not until we slow down, turn, and are finally confronted with it.

I remember when Susan Elbe became my shadow. The day is frozen within some deep cavern of my heart:

I’m sitting directly across the undersized, ink-smudged oak table from David Clewell. He’s giving me a look of such skepticism, such honest curiosity, that class has otherwise stalled out.

We’re trying to pin something down, the two of us, about Susan Elbe’s poem With a Leaf in Her Fist.

“But what is it?” Clewell asks, gesturing at me with an open palm, begging me to be specific, to use my words.

“I…I don’t know!” I shake my head in frustration. “I don’t know.”

“But you must!” he says, leaning forward in his chair, waving a stack of papers at me. “You just said…!”

“I know, I know what I said,” I repeat for the third time. “I just…”

“Is it the white space? The syntax?”

“No, it’s…it’s just right. It’s just so right. Everything she’s included…everything she’s left out. It’s just right.” I keep shaking my head, flipping the pages over, trying to simply say what I mean. But I can’t. I’m starting to tear up, both with deep feeling and frustration. There’s something lodged between my head and heart, something in the back of my throat, something that keeps me from articulating what about this poem makes me believe that for the first time in my life, I’ve been truly and wholly understood.

Seemingly satisfied, Clewell sits back in his chair and turns to someone else, asking them to weigh in.

I appreciated, in that moment, what was happening to me, even with the obvious growing pains on display—the limits of what I could convey were being pushed, and therein evolving. The sheer frustration I felt that day stayed with me, developing into a dogged habit: don’t walk away from the poem until you understand why it’s doing what it’s doing.

Now, with the clarity of hindsight and a bit more knowledge under my belt, I can revisit that moment and say: what I believe I meant then—about Elbe’s poem being right—is that in it, I recognize the singular loneliness of an eldest daughter.

With a Leaf in Her Fist

  • 1
  • Yellow wick
  • already burning with the world
  • pneumonia wheezing in my chest and myopic,
  • delighted they said in everything
  • September’s buttermilk sky,

  • summer’s breakdown

  • swinging manic through

  • the Trees of Heaven,

  • the light,

  • everything about light.
  • 2
  • Call me the sunflower kid
  • the honey-bee baby
  • grandpa’s blond muszhee.
  • I was the first.
  • And my mother’s last.
  • 3
  • I came into a house of things that needed fixing.
  • Stuck window sashes,
  • running toilets

  • singing faucets.

  • The beat, beat, beat of the pipes.
  • I came into a house of things that couldn’t be fixed.
  • A whiskey-warm kitchen corner,
  • cancer growing in the alcove bedroom,

  • the fridge’s lonely hum.

  • The ungraceful way we understood.
  • 4
  • This coming into.
  • It was like.
  • It was not like.
  • My arrival yoo-hooed over fences,
  • tongue-flap,
  • and wing-flap on lines
  • against a wash of bruised clouds.
  • My fist opened and closed,
  • sunlit then shadowed,
  • a hinge.
  • What a morning.
  • 5
  • All of it, a fuzzy puzzle.
  • All of it, a paradise.
  • 6
  • Then.
  • I entered the drift of years,
  • spiraling up wind tunnels
  • and snowing,
  • snowing.
  • I ate the gristle
  • and I ate the fat.
  • I sucked the sweet glass dry.
  • 7
  • Until.
  • The days got colder,
  • memory as blurred and claustrophobic
  • as the oil stove’s flame
  • leaping behind isinglass.
  • The crumbled leaf.

  • The black butterflies.

  • The burning.

  • 8
  • And the burning, still.
  • 9
  • Do they bury the dead without shoes?
  • Do they stitch their mouths shut?
  • Don’t dig a hole for me.
  • I’m flying by the seat of my pants.
  • I’m citing chapter and verse.
  • I’m barking at the moon.
  • I’m going up
  • in smoke.

Almost ten years have passed since the day I fell in love with Susan Elbe. When I sat down for class, I was myself—when I got up from the table, I had gained the entirety of one poet’s shadow.

If a writer is lucky, this happens more than once or twice in a lifetime. We slowly grow into the shape of artists whose work has deeply transformed our own.

How to Fall in Love2

  • Start by leaving home. It’s not where the heart is,
  • but where the hard edge is. When ice begins
  • to ebb from shoreline
  • freeing mangy marsh grass,
  • leave.
  • And as you pick up speed, let your life arc out,
  • away from you.
  • Realize you don’t know where you’re going
  • and the weather changes often.
  • Steer between the stars
  • like songbirds coming back at night.
  • Listen to the whirring
  • of a thousand, thousand miles of dark.
  • Remember you are ancient,
  • that once you walked out of the sea
  • and in the trees became another thing.
  • Know you can again.
  • Become three kinds of lonely.
  • Light a torch.
  • Leave a trail of handprints on the walls.
  • Or start by staying put.
  • Be a whisper looking for a mouth: luna, luna, luna.
  • Sit underneath the porch light.
  • Eat walnuts and persimmons.
  • Spread your red-edged wings.
  • “Calling time” begins near midnight.
  • Be hungry. Want.
  • Women are locks. Men open them for doors.

But the strangest thing of all, I realize, is that Susan Elbe was alive when I was reading her poems. In the amount of time it took for me to reinvestigate the boxes of photocopied poems from college, she had died.

There were no major postings about her death, no news or social media articles, nothing that could point me to what had happened. It was hard, at first, to even pin down which Susan Elbe these poems belonged to. But when I finally found her, the fierceness in her eyes and the tilted angles of her face gave her away. There was no doubt that this was the fiery tree-fallen daughter whose poetry had struck the younger me like lightning.

A heart attack at seventy-one. Perhaps the most natural of deaths. But my unnatural subconscious allegiance to her left me with a renewed and profound sense of melancholy, this strange feeling of having lost a secret older sister.

Eden in the Rearview3

  • Evening, and the river.
  • The longitudes inside you.
  • You reach in, pocketing a green furred stone.
  • Change the river,
  • you change too.
  • At first the world was yours but you owned nothing.
  • Sweet tarnished pears.
  • Dusty plums.
  • Now, only ache.
  • The apple’s broken skin.
  • Small bitter bite.
  • You’re sick from this fruit.
  • What you might need now.
  • The horizon in you starts to climb.
  • Up. Away.
  • Everything left behind
  • in dust—
  • tiger lilies by the back fence,

  • empty lawn chair on the porch,

  • stuttering whirr of an old Singer.

  • The sheer silk of the river wrinkling
  • salmon-pink in last-ditch sunlight.
  • You’re already gone.
  • The way a mountain’s deckled edges disappear in rain.

Kate Wylie (she/they) is a poet from St. Louis, Missouri and 2023 Pacific University M.F.A. graduate. Wylie reads fiction for The New Southern Fugitives and serves the community as Assistant Professor at Webster University and Literary Obituaries Editor at Northwest Review.