Tobias Wray reviews Susan Firer’s Milwaukee Does Strange Things to People

firer-susan.jpgFor many poets, place is more than physical or lyrical proximity. Place can be an impetus, the inspiration for how and why their verse goes where it does. But, where it begins and where it ends is something of a protean contract between poet and process, between reader and time. We humans are ever locating ourselves. The recent discovery of a potentially habitable world orbiting, as Susan Firer calls it in a new poem, our “next nearest star,” reminds us how much imagination is at play in place: despite the facts, that this planet has no seasons, an 11-day year, that the sky is likely the general color of orangutans, etc., the news exploded with headlines translating those findings into hope, the Most Earth-like Planet Has Been Found! It seems we care most about places we can imagine being in, inhabiting.

That very relationship to place, and its power to transform us, is at the heart of Susan Firer’s selected poems, Milwaukee Does Strange Things To People. In Milwaukee, and in Firer’s book, our bearings begin in association with Lake Michigan. West of the lake, familiar streets and storefronts pull through Firer’s past and present. Ancient poets and Modernist painters are brought into conversation with everyday Milwaukeean life, a city caught in the shadow of Jeffrey Dahmer and Father Groppi. Filled with meditations on astral bodies, flora and folksy philosophy (and our place among those constellations), this selected offers almost three decades of Firer’s work, casting wide to gather up the closest and most central concerns of her poetry.

Firer, who served as Milwaukee’s Poet Laureate from 2008-2010, has long been a facet of the local literati. She has taught at UWM for a number of years, sports an impressive list of publications and awards, and is a terrific pleasure to hear read. Her relationship to the city she calls home is a studied one, invested with exquisite time and attention.

For Firer, time itself is a “landscape, refluent and ghosted,” and so the span of twenty-eight years these poems cover is a physical aspect of their quality as well. These poems are of their time, as much as they grope into the past or reel at the inevitabilities of the future. It is a rich experience to explore a writer across such breadth. Firer writes of everything from girlhood trips with her mother to purchase girdles (what she calls her “foundation” the poem notes), to the loss of her parents and sister and finally to the contemplations of a poet standing at the shore, surveying her work and asking us “What / small world have you thrown / your allegiance to?” Her earliest poems hold many pleasures. Among my favorites, “him (Picasso)” traces our complicated relationships with the past as viewed through art:

when Jacob woke in the morning
(to let Picasso have a turn at sleep)
his feet tracked across the drawings of night,
leaving footprints,
problems for

art experts years later

Firer’s work is elbow-deep in the lushness of diction and the surprise of juxtaposition. Her later poems, especially committed to such observations, hold the silky textures of rumor and local wisdom; and here, those musings are thrown into contrast with reverence to literary greats and Catholic hagiographies. Many of Firer’s poems serve as snapshots, the kind only poems can provide, of her own place in time. In “Milwaukee,” from the bevy of new work she includes here, we find perhaps the most postcard-like:

Robert Burns Square     is a triangle.
Liberace     left.
Lake Michigan     is shrinking.
2 AM dumpsters fill with crutches and snow.
There’s a thief stealing all
the St. Francis statues in the city.
Plenty of tubas though, accordions too.

These poems read the way it feels to get to know a place, offering the kind of quotidian revelations one must live by. For Firer, Lake Michigan has its own pharmacology, its own math. Rather than name the strangeness of her version of Milwaukee, she spins it in a centrifuge of poems to see what filters out. As it gathers up Firer’s latest and greatest, there also seems a certain ambiguity to the title—what is the quality of the strange things Milwaukee does? Is it a good strange? Or, simply, a strange strange? Something else? For Firer, “the sky’s the color of far” and Milwaukee, a “city where in night lake winds you hear old nuns crying for their stolen wimples.” The pleasure in reading Firer’s poems lies in their adoration of startlingly familiar images, the commonplace of surprise: from wing-nut stars to Chopin-colored skies.

Of course in 2016, Milwaukee is a particularly strange place both politically and socially, and we as readers are certainly changed by being here in this moment. It is strange in and of itself to review such a laudatory book only weeks after historic riots on the north side of the city. Among the things Milwaukee is capable of, shooting young black men is clearly one of them. Though the subject of race is mostly absent from Firer’s work, immigrant identity and womanhood are both significant ways her speakers come to understand themselves and their spaces. Perhaps now more than ever, these poems remind us of the rich and complicated make-up of our city and the many lives it touches.

The book begins by talking to the dead, by listening to them, a theme that threads nearly every poem here. As Firer puts it, these poems connect “the seen with the unseen.” In “Phantom Love,” a poem in conversation with Neruda, she writes:

Pablo, do you, like me, believe
everywhere is beautiful,
and we should try to visit all places
or maybe stay in one place long
enough to know everywhere and one
through it until one is transparent
with butterflies waiting to start
their holy migration to everywhere? (112)

As my mother would put it, we can only grow where we are planted. “I have grown old in this city, on this lake, / on the banks of words,” Firer writes. These poems attest to her accomplishments—a fine harvest in the midst, I hope, of a fine career.


Susan Firer’s most recent book is The Transit of Venus. Her previous books have been awarded the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Prize, the Posner Award, and the Backwaters Prize. She is a recipient of a Milwaukee County Artist Fellowship, a Wisconsin Board Fellowship, the Lorine Niedecker Award, and in 2009 she was given the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Distinguished Alumnus Award. In 2015, Firer was awarded a NEA Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry. From 2008–2010 she was Poet Laureate of the City of Milwaukee. From 2008–2014, she edited the Shepherd Express online poetry column. She is Adjunct Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Tobias Wray is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he is a reader for the Cream City Review. His work has appeared in Phoebe, Wayfarer, and elsewhere. He was a finalist for the 2010 Black Warrior Review Poetry Contest. He holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas in poetry and translation.